Silver lining

Update (10/31): While I continue to engage in surreal arguments in the comments section—Scott, I’m profoundly disappointed that a scientist like you, who surely knows better, would be so sloppy as to assert without any real proof that just because it has tusks and a trunk, and looks and sounds like an elephant, and is the size of the elephant, that it therefore is an elephant, completely ignoring the blah blah blah blah blah—while I do that, there are a few glimmerings that the rest of the world is finally starting to get it.  A new story from The Onion, which I regard as almost the only real newspaper left:

Nation Suddenly Realizes This Just Going To Be A Thing That Happens From Now On

Update (11/1): OK, and this morning from Nicholas Kristof, who’s long been one of the rare non-Onion practitioners of journalism: Will Climate Get Some Respect Now?


I’m writing from the abstract, hypothetical future that climate-change alarmists talk about—the one where huge tropical storms batter the northeastern US, coastal cities are flooded, hundreds of thousands are evacuated from their homes, etc.  I always imagined that, when this future finally showed up, at least I’d have the satisfaction of seeing the deniers admit they were grievously wrong, and that I and those who think similarly were right.  Which, for an academic, is a satisfaction that has to be balanced carefully against the possible destruction of the world.  I don’t think I had the imagination to foresee that the prophesied future would actually arrive, and that climate change would simultaneously disappear as a political issue—with the forces of know-nothingism bolder than ever, pressing their advantage into questions like whether or not raped women can get pregnant, as the President weakly pleads that he too favors more oil drilling.  I should have known from years of blogging that, if you hope for the consolation of seeing those who are wrong admit to being wrong, you hope for a form of happiness all but unattainable in this world.

Yet, if the transformation of the eastern seaboard into something out of the Jurassic hasn’t brought me that satisfaction, it has brought a different, completely unanticipated benefit.  Trapped in my apartment, with the campus closed and all meetings cancelled, I’ve found, for the first time in months, that I actually have some time to write papers.  (And, well, blog posts.)  Because of this, part of me wishes that the hurricane would continue all week, even a month or two (minus, of course, the power outages, evacuations, and other nasty side effects).  I could learn to like this future.

At this point in the post, I was going to transition cleverly into an almost (but not completely) unrelated question about the nature of causality.  But I now realize that the mention of hurricanes and (especially) climate change will overshadow anything I have to say about more abstract matters.  So I’ll save the causality stuff for tomorrow or Wednesday.  Hopefully the hurricane will still be here, and I’ll have time to write.

110 Responses to “Silver lining”

  1. Skeptic Says:

    Alas, this post falls on the wrong side of rationality. Your anecdotal hurricane does little to support your point, and I’ve seen you lambaste others for less egregious lapses in logic. It’s truly a sad day when you fall into the same camp as those who would argue that the hurricane is God expressing his disapproval over the erosion of traditional marriage.

  2. Steven Says:

    Powerful hurricanes are not attributable to global warming; they only remind us that Nature is vastly beyond our ability to manipulate.

  3. Scott Says:

    Skeptic: On the contrary, implicitly demanding that a specific hurricane be tied to climate change, before anyone is allowed to talk about the one in the context of the other, sets a standard that’s neither reasonable, nor possible to meet, not demanded in just about any other area of life.

    Look, scientists had long known, based partly on computer models but mostly just on 19th-century physics, that hurricanes would probably get more frequent and severe (sorry: as discussed in comments below, I meant to say, “severe hurricanes would probably get more frequent”) as the planet warmed. Now severe hurricanes are getting more frequent, and are hitting parts of the world (like the Northeast US) with a severity that’s far out of the norm for the past century. But, aha, can you prove that today‘s weather event was the result of human-caused climate change? No, you can’t? Well then, you’ve obviously confused correlation with causation!

    The famous statistician Ronald Fisher vociferously denied, till the end of his life, that there was any evidence that smoking caused lung cancer, and kept repeating the adage that correlation doesn’t imply causation as the bodies piled up. In a similar way, what now looks to be our future is one where the planet is increasingly ravaged by severe weather, as the skeptics continue to explain: “but you see, there’s no proof that this monster hurricane had anything to do with the huge global climate shift that scientists say is making monster hurricanes more frequent! or that hurricane! or that one! You might not have heard this, but the plural of anecdote isn’t data!”

    And in a very narrow sense, the skeptics will be right—just like Sir Fisher was right that for any particular smoker who dies of lung cancer, one can’t say for sure that smoking was the cause; and even for the statistical link between smoking and lung cancer, one can endlessly make up possible confounding variables if one is determined to deny a causal relation.

    Even so, it’s interesting that we don’t reason this way elsewhere in life—or rather, that people who do reason this way are considered insane. If we had excellent, a priori scientific reasons to think that doing X would make the otherwise-unlikely event Y much more likely, and we do X anyway, and Y indeed happens, then most people would see the occurrence of Y as a perfectly valid occasion to regret doing X and to talk about not doing X. Even if, it’s true, this particular Y might have had nothing to do with X, and we probably should’ve regretted doing X even if Y hadn’t happened. Try instantiating, for example, with X = drunk driving and Y = killing a pedestrian.

    Have I made my position sufficiently clear?

    (Incidentally, this is why today’s post does have something to do with the nature of causation—which, however, I knew that the red cape of climate change would prevent anyone from discussing in the abstract.)

  4. Miquel Says:

    This is the fourth year in a row that a major tropical hurricane hits New England, causing notable disruption in transportation, power grids and the general life of people. If anything, is quite unusual, when one compares it with 20th century records.

  5. Nex Says:

    Are you serious? A hurricane landing in New York is nothing unusual and certainly not a proof of “destruction of the world.”

    Also it’s hypocritical to whine about oil drilling when you are jet-setting around the world.

  6. Mitchell Porter Says:

    Skeptic, Scott is being smart here, not stupid, by being one of the few people willing to state the obvious, at a time when economic crisis has returned climate politics to the too-hard basket.

  7. Nex Says:

    Scott: “Now hurricanes are getting more frequent and severe, and are hitting parts of the world (like the Northeast US) with a severity that’s far out of the norm for the past century.”

    citation needed

    Even according to climate alarmists we have to wait till the end of this century for detectable changes (2-11% increase in intensity) in hurricanes due to hypothetical effects of global warming.
    http://www.gfdl.noaa.gov/global-warming-and-hurricanes

  8. Roy G. Biv Says:

    We’re feeling it a bit over here in the Toronto area, too.

    I think God is angry at us though, because on Tuesday there will be a public lecture at UofT on “Quantum Hamiltonian Complexity” by some Umesh Vazirani guy. Ever heard of him? Anyhow, he will specifically be shedding light on the following ‘secrets’ of God’s Universe:

    1. Do `typical’ quantum states that occur in Nature have succinct (polynomial) description?

    2. Can quantum systems at room temperature exhibit exponential complexity?

    3. Is the scientific method sufficiently powerful to comprehend general quantum systems?

    Link: http://web.cs.toronto.edu/news/events/DLS_Oct30.htm

    Also, a Theory Seminar on his latest paper, “Certifiable Quantum Dice”.

    Link: http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/370/1971/3432.full.pdf+html

    Just a “heads-up” if one is in the area…

  9. Roy G. Biv Says:

    On “Climate Change”: If Al Gore hasn’t yet made the case, then I guess nobody will. But as the title of his talk suggests, it’s an inconvenient truth that nobody wants to deal with, especially “economy-driven” politicians.

    To make matters worse, just like the climate, I also believe that we have almost NO control over economic matters: I see the economy as a natural growth pattern, obeying laws beyond our control, where we get spurts of growth, and then necessary plateaus. Any measures to thwart this natural process will, in my opinion, be in vain.

    For some proof, look at the DJIA since the early 1900′s. It DOES seem to follow a recursive Fibonacci sequence, of which we are now in a “plateau-phase”. I predict by 2016 we will see the start of a new huge “bull-run” in the markets, fueled by new technologies (hopefully by a new “universal quantum computer” or a P=NP constructive proof, but not likely. But something or the other!).

  10. djm Says:

    I can see the headlines on the sceptic sites now: ‘Warmist blogger wants hurricane to continue “a month or two”‘ :)

  11. Roy G. Biv Says:

    @Steven, Comment #2:

    “Powerful hurricanes are not attributable to global warming…”
    Please, do tell more about what is/isn’t attributable to global warming. Weather patterns are most likely computationally irreducible, but adding energy to a closed system seems to, welp, add more energy to the system…

    “…they only remind us that Nature is vastly beyond our ability to manipulate.”
    Perhaps you meant ‘predict’ instead of ‘manipulate’, but even in the case of a hurricane, what if we decided to drop every atomic-bomb on Earth in it’s path, just for fun. Humans: 1, Hurricanes: 0.

  12. Vijay Krishnan Says:

    Scott,

    What do you think of Bjorn Lomborg and his books? In this debate, it seemed like Bjorn had at least thought harder regarding the pros and cons and had attempted some kind of economic analysis of the tradeoffs.

    It’s possible that the “against” team was just incredibly dumb here. But to date, I’ve seen little honesty on this topic from either side, with the aim of each side to be to advance their side regardless of where the truth lies. And I’ve barely seen any economic analysis of the tradeoffs. Do you know of anyone other than Bjorn who even attempts that? Better still do you know of anyone who thinks the economic costs are worth it, and has actually attempted economic analysis?

    http://intelligencesquaredus.org/iq2-tv/item/693-major-reductions-in-carbon-emissions-are-not-worth-the-money

  13. El-Coco Says:

    Scott, I hate to say this but you promised and failed to hold your yearly 24 hour Ask-Scott-Anything event a few months ago. How about honoring your promise now? And to make up for the broken promise how about making it 36 hours long? I’ve got about a million questions that only you can answer.

  14. Thomas Says:

    Now that Scott has taken the time to bash deniers, maybe we could adress 2 questions:

    1. when a hurricane hits, can we really do nothing more in the year 2012 than piling up sand bags? what does science say?

    2. What can we do in the long run to have more rational and scientifically trained people taking decisions at the head of the state?

    (Re. 2, it seems clear to me that scientists ought to assume public positions in the administration and government, much much more than they do. In America perhaps they ought to have a party and get seats at the congress, or short of that, colonize both sides of what passes for a political system in this country. Part of the problem here is probably that in general we are too busy writing papers and not motivated enough by power…)

  15. Timothy Gowers Says:

    “as the President weakly pleads that he too favors more oil drilling.”

    Is it too much to hope that the President will be reelected and that we will then see the real Barack Obama?

  16. Scott Says:

    Nex #5 and #7:

      A hurricane landing in New York is … certainly not a proof of “destruction of the world.”

    That’s correct. What it is, is just a small head-bonk about the ongoing destruction of the world that we knew about for independent reasons.

      Also it’s hypocritical to whine about oil drilling when you are jet-setting around the world.

    This is actually an area where I dissent from most environmentalists. I think that the idea of reducing one’s personal carbon footprint, as a matter of individual morality (sort of like keeping kosher), ought to be rejected entirely. My reasons are that

    (a) the combined efforts of everyone who does that won’t make a shadow of a dent in the actual problem, and

    (b) “unilateral disjetment” by the people who understand what’s happening, while the people who don’t understand continue guzzling gas with their consciences clear as a newborn babe’s, is patently economically unworkable (not to mention unfair).

    The right solution, I think, is simply to tax CO2 emissions, and more generally, to tax all economic activity at a rate commensurate with the activity’s harm to the environment. When and if that happens, I’ll be in a good situation in some areas of life: for example, I barely use a car, walking to work most days. But, just like everyone else, I’ll have to re-evaluate my “jet-setting,” and possibly reduce my conference travel even more than I already have as a consequence of getting married.

      Even according to climate alarmists we have to wait till the end of this century for detectable changes (2-11% increase in intensity) in hurricanes due to hypothetical effects of global warming.

    If there’s been any consistent pattern so far, it’s that the “climate alarmists” have been way too conservative in their forecasts. Sea ice, for example, has been melting faster than “worst-case” predictions, forcing the IPCC continually to revise its estimates upward as (in Bill McKibben’s phrase) “nature conducts its own peer review.” This is one of the many ironies of this issue: the denialists are probably right about the standard forecasts being off, but not in the direction they think.

  17. Scott Says:

    El-Coco #13:

      Scott, I hate to say this but you promised and failed to hold your yearly 24 hour Ask-Scott-Anything event a few months ago.

    Trouble is, that broken promise has to take its place alongside about 10 broken promises to deliver manuscripts by such-and-such a date, and I can’t make everything right simultaneously. I swear it’s a-comin!

    I’ll tell you what: since you feel so strongly about it, you and you alone get to ask up to 3 questions right here on any topic and have me answer them.

  18. Scott Says:

    Steven #2:

      Powerful hurricanes are not attributable to global warming; they only remind us that Nature is vastly beyond our ability to manipulate.

    “Nature,” in the sense most people mean by the term, barely even exists anymore. It exists in the laws of physics, in space, in volcanic and tectonic activity, and in various isolated pockets of the earth. But for better or worse, humans are now the overwhelmingly-dominant force shaping the biosphere and increasingly the climate.

    Your comment reminded me of an old Onion story: Best-Laid Plans Of Mice And Men Faulted In 747 Crash

      A Chicago Tribune reporter asked Carty to respond to rumors that the plane’s inspection record reveals a history of left-engine problems, and that service documents may have been falsified to allow scheduled flights to continue. Carty shook his head and gazed upward.

      “How ridiculous to think we humans can control our own life and death as if setting a clock,” Carty said. “One’s days are numbered, one’s hour is come, one’s race is run, one’s doom is sealed.”

  19. Peter Morgan Says:

    “tax all economic activity at a rate commensurate with the activity’s harm to the environment”: legislation that imposes taxation is only one part of the scope of legislation, and restricting policy creativity to taxation only is dangerously limiting (BTW, it’s a limitation that makes not much sense to cultures outside the US). Legislation, which by its rule-based nature introduces gaming responses, is in any case a blunt tool for attempting to change behavior and culture.

    Can you –you!– think of a subtler gaming structure that would induce you and others to decide to travel much less, faster than legislation might? Is increased taxation really the only way to get you to stop? You might have noticed that the legislative process in the USA is dysfunctional enough that increasing taxation is currently unlikely, and perhaps we can’t afford to wait 20 years (or less or more) until the $ exchange rate increases the cost of travel out of reach for most people.

    I regret to say that at the national level liberals are on the face of it less good at real-world gaming than are global warming deniers and their ilk. If you start asking gaming questions at the level of international relations, however, what do you think is the strategic intention of countries that are willing to grant the US economy extraordinary credit, which is part of what underwrites the possibility of, amongst other luxuries, extensive travel? It’s a hard question to ask to what extent failures of national credit are caused by aspects of national culture. It’s well and good restricting your discussion to causality in the abstract, but can we get our heads around the complexity of the world enough to make a cultural difference?

    I will add that I won’t think less of you if you can’t, but I will think the world of you if you can. Same for anyone else reading this; needless to say, I have no idea. John Baez gets kudos for trying.

  20. Scott Says:

    Vijay Krishnan #12:

      What do you think of Bjorn Lomborg and his books?

    Firstly, it’s crucial to note the chasm between Lomborg and the usual climate denialists. While Lomborg initially called global warming a “myth,” he now accepts that overwhelming scientific consensus that the climate is changing, that human fossil fuel emissions are a primary cause, that the effects on civilization will be bad, and that there are actions we could take now to decrease the damage. He simply thinks that most of those actions are not worth the cost, that it would be cheaper to learn how to live with climate change, and that other issues (like HIV/AIDS and malaria) should be higher-priority.

    Thus, the fact that many run-of-the-mill denialists seem to have adopted Lomborg as a poster child, to me shows how desperate how they are to find anyone who seems respectable and will say something bad about the greens. They don’t even mind if that person, unlike them, now agrees with the greens on pretty much everything except the final, value-judgment part.

    So then, let’s examine that final value-judgment part. Why does Lomborg believe that climate change, while real, is not such a big deal? The key to the analyses of his ironically-named “Copenhagen Consensus” (which had many dissenters within its ranks) is the economic concept of discounting. If you apply a coefficient of 0.985T to everything that happens T years from now—which is exactly what they did—then you can easily arrive at the conclusion that the collapse of civilization and permanent degradation of life on earth T=100 or T=200 years from now is not a major concern. Of course, applying such a discount rate is standard practice in economics and finance. So, is 1.5% annual discounting also sensible where the fate of the planet is concerned? Well, it is if and only if you agree that the destruction of the world is not a big deal if it happens a few generations from now! Because that’s what we’re talking about here.

    In other words: if people think that increasing our standard of living today is worth rendering the planet uninhabitable 100 years from now—well, that’s fine, but then at least let them have the balls to come out and say it that way, rather than cloaking their naked value-judgment in the language of economic analysis and discount rates, and thereby giving it an undeserved veneer of objectivity.

    Not surprisingly, many others have made the same point; a bit of googling turned up this nice essay, from a whole website called lomborg-errors.dk.

    More generally, there’s an enormous field today studying the economics of climate change (google it). So I don’t buy the notion that Lomborg is some sort of lone voice in the wilderness, or that it wouldn’t occur to anyone to think about costs and benefits if not for him.

  21. Scott Says:

    Peter Morgan #18: I actually think a tax is a good solution, and certainly better than an outright ban or travel quota (which would be the obvious alternatives). While it sometimes surprises me, people absolutely do respond to economic incentives. For example, while I don’t even notice the prices at the gas station, the evidence is overwhelming that people actually start buying smaller cars when gas prices skyrocket, then switch back to buying SUVs when gas prices fall again. For whatever it’s worth, lots of serious economists who’ve looked at it seem to agree that a carbon tax is the right way to go.

    And yes, believe me, I’m well aware that a carbon tax has a ~0.0% chance of becoming reality in the current US political climate. But that’s sort of a moot point, since any other solutions also have a ~0.0% chance of becoming reality right now! If it were discovered that tax cuts and prayer could remove CO2 from the atmosphere, I imagine that the Republicans would switch to opposing those things.

    On the other hand, just like earth’s climate, the US political climate isn’t fixed for all eternity. And it’s possible that eventually, the dramatic, obvious changes in the former climate will overwhelm even the famously reality-resistant latter one.

  22. ramsey Says:

    Seven years ago I was an AGW skeptic. I use that word advisedly — I was not certain it was not happening, but I thought the case had not been made.

    Today I am convinced, and support strong action against AGW — for instance, I would support a carbon tax sufficient to lower carbon emissions well below their current level.

    Some of this change of mind was due to new information, and some to new awareness of information. Some was changes in how I analyzed data and arguments in general. In any case, I was wrong and you were right.

  23. Nex Says:

    Scott you left out the most important part, where is the evidence backing your statement that “hurricanes are getting more frequent and severe, and are hitting parts of the world (like the Northeast US) with a severity that’s far out of the norm for the past century.”

    As I said, countless hurricanes hit New York area in the past, some much stronger than Sandy:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_New_York_hurricanes

    Or is your statement about “climate alarmists being too conservative” an admission that unlike them who at least try to base their conclusions on some climate models you just made up your own facts on the spot?

    As for hypocrisy, it’s easy to advocate policies leading to increases in energy prices when you can easily afford them and are unlikely to lose your job as a result. It’s the poor who’s life you want to make even more miserable just to avert a hypothetical “catastrophe” prophesied by simplistic climate models which have yet to prove they can predict anything properly.

    Unfortunately for your agenda for millions of people a small increase in average global temperature is much more preferable to a large increase in energy prices.

    And one more thing about climate “science,” real science is only reliable because of scientific method which is based on repeated EMPIRICAL verification of proposed models. As I’m sure you are aware we can’t do controlled experiments on Earth’s climate so all the models and theories dealing with it are unverified and unreliable and cannot be trusted.

    (The fact that climate models are based on verified physics is nowhere near enough to prove their validity, if this point seems controversial just take a look at biology to see how good physics alone is at predicting complex phenomena. Despite it being a consequence of physical laws (or so we think) even folding of a small protein is mostly intractable)

  24. Scott Says:

    ramsey #21: Thank you. You just made my day.

    Nex #22: Are you reading the news? The storm surge in Manhattan last night broke all records, with the damage to the subway system the worst in its 108-year history. (One factor exacerbating the damage is simply that sea levels are 8 inches higher than they were a century ago.) Also, regarding the following absurdity:

      we can’t do controlled experiments on Earth’s climate so all the models and theories dealing with it are unverified and unreliable and cannot be trusted.

    So, uh, would you say the same about the Big Bang or supernovae, which we also can’t do controlled experiments on?

    I hope someone else will have the energy to respond to your other points—I’d like to get some work done today!

  25. Ethan Heilman Says:

    Nex #22 Your argument seems to be based on the social costs of environmental regulation, if these were alleviated would you support increased regulation of carbon emissions? For instance if you make under 30,000 a year you pay greatly reduced gas/oil taxes, with gas tax prices increasing with your income (similar to the progressive income tax)?

    Additionally I’m not sure I buy your argument that environmental policies, in general, hurt jobs. Certainly I could imagine many ways in which higher energy prices localize production and thereby create jobs that would not have already existed (depending on other factors of the economy). I think you need to provide more evidence for the claim that such policies will hurt the poor. For instance here is a study by the Economic Policy Institute showing that environmental regulation need not cause job loss. http://epi.3cdn.net/83dfae8d6d0c6151e1_55m6id8x6.pdf

    Furthermore, your argument rests on the assumption that energy prices will not raise dramatically on their own (which they appear to be doing). In fact increasing prices slowly in the short term to reduce consumption may deaden shocks to the economy since a pricing strategies could be used to make energy prices semi-predictable. For instance the US government could say by 2016 gas will retail for 5 dollars a galleon (they tax whatever the difference is between that price and the actual price, including subsidizing the retail price if it goes over that amount). This allows people/businesses to make long term plans about where they should live, what car they should buy, should they invest in better windows, etc, but this also allows the government to control/predict carbon emissions.

  26. Foster Boondoggle Says:

    @Nex – “it’s easy to advocate policies leading to increases in energy prices when you can easily afford them and are unlikely to lose your job as a result” —

    Can I translate this for the home burglary industry? “It’s easy to advocate policies leading to stricter enforcement of anti-theft laws when you can easily afford them and are unlikely to lose your ability to burgle as a result”.

    A job that causes net harm to society is a job that should not be done. Pricing CO2 emission would cause economic activity to shift to less harmful activities. Yes, there would be fewer jobs mining coal. Just as there are now fewer jobs to be had in highway robbery than there once were, as a result of better law enforcement. Can you explain to me why this is a bad thing?

  27. Nex Says:

    Scott: “Are you reading the news? The storm surge in Manhattan last night broke all records, with the damage to the subway system the worst in its 108-year history. (One factor exacerbating the damage is simply that sea levels are 8 inches higher than they were a century ago.)”

    Don’t you realize it does nothing to prove your assertion that “hurricanes are getting more frequent and severe, and are hitting parts of the world (like the Northeast US) with a severity that’s far out of the norm for the past century?”

    So this storm had record surge, well others had record winds or record rainfall or record snowfall or set some other record. It’s easy to find some metric which will give you some “record” especially if you only have 200 years of data.

    As I said before, NOAA state pretty clearly on their website that “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 activity. ” Basically your claims amount to climate crackpottery.
    http://www.gfdl.noaa.gov/global-warming-and-hurricanes

    Scott: “So, uh, would you say the same about the Big Bang or supernovae, which we also can’t do controlled experiments on?”

    Of course it matters for their reliability, luckily in the case of supernovae there are plenty of independent observations of various stages of their lifetime so the inability to perform experiments is not as limiting. But Big Bang faces the same problem and yes it is way more speculative than things like Newton laws or relativity precisely because it is not accessible to experiments. It does however offer independent predictions like abundances of various elements which are confirmed by observations. Global climate models OTOH have yet to prove they can correctly predict anything. Once they have century long records of correct temperature predictions things will be different but at the moment they are completely unproven and therefore probably wrong (as most models invented by humans turn out to be when confronted with experiments). But if someone was advocating costly interventions into global economy based on some doomsday scenario predicted by the Big Bang model I would be quite skeptical also.

    And one more thing whats with your absurd claims (in reply to Vijay Krishnan) about “the collapse of civilization”, “the destruction of the world” or “rendering the planet uninhabitable?”
    Are you so naive as to believe a few degree increase in global average temperature can render Earth uninhabitable?! Currently human settlements span areas with average annual temperatures from -10 C (Yakutsk) to +30 C (Kuwait), while warming will render hot areas less habitable it will also make cold one more habitable both for humans as well as animals and plants. Most climatical zones will simply shift to the poles.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geographical_zone

  28. Nex Says:

    @Ethan Heilman: Yes if there were no social costs I would support such legislation. But I don’t believe those costs can be avoided. Even if you go with some variation of your tax scheme rising energy costs will still lead to increases in prices of all commodities.

    And of course higher energy costs do hurt economy, higher costs mean higher prices which mean lower sales which mean less jobs.

    Plus no argument of mine in any way depends “on the assumption that energy prices will not raise dramatically on their own.”

    @Foster Boondoggle: the point of your translation is lost to me and I don’t see how mining coal is comparable to highway robbery.

  29. Mike Says:

    @Nex: While many tropical storms have hit the mid-Altantic and New England, Sandy is much later in the season than almost all of them–and therefore, much more unusual. The last one to strike in late October was in 1991 (which was also unusual for various reasons), and before that, you have to go to the 1800s.

    What never ceases to amaze me is how most climate-change deniers are so vehemently, absolutely, incontrovertibly sure there is no climate change. To be certain of anything in the natural world is an extremely unscientific position. Now, it’s true that those who believe in climate change 100% infallibly may also be viewed as holding an unscientific position. I think those are relatively few, compared to those who hold the diametrically opposed viewpoint. But at least we can be open to the possibility that human activity has an impact on our environment or weather–that would be scientific, rational, and prudent… which, unfortunately, climate-change deniers are almost uniformly not, being certain of their own interpretation.

  30. El-Coco Says:

    Hi Scott. It’s me, El-Coco. You’ve given me (and me alone!) a pretty staggering opportunity–three answers to three questions. I feel like I’ve found Aladin’s lamp…how can I possibly choose just three wishes??? Well, here goes.

    1. Although there is no smoking gun evidence, I believe it more likely that the 9/11 attacks were the work of the govt (that is, the govt either planned and executed the attack or else facilitated the’ terrorists’ once the govt learned of the terrorists’ plans) than that they were the work of one guy sitting in a cave in afghanistan. What the 9/11 truther movement needs is someone of your brilliance and academic pedigree to lead an investigation; you could also get a bunch of MIT engineering professors to help. There are enough outrageous coincidences and unexplained details to warrant this kind of thing. Here’s a chance for an individual to rock the government to its core…assuming you can show there was a conspiracy, of course, which doesn’t seem that unlikely. So, what I’m asking is, are you open to the truther movement and will you conduct a preliminary investigation into the attack? Then, perhaps a more conclusive, long form report? Please, Scott, the world needs you. And remember, as Herman Kahn of the RAND corp used to say re nuclear war: “we have to think the unthinkable.”

    2. Marvin Minsky is the second best computer scientist in the world (the first, obviously is Donald Knuth). Given that he’s at MIT do you work or talk much with him? What do you think of his main ideas? How about a collaboration, before its too late?

    3. Are you working on any secret projects? Like, you have a new idea to show that P=NP, you’re making progress, and are going to reveal it any moment…in short, what are your deepest ambitions, your secret dream?

  31. Skeptic Says:

    Skeptic here again.

    Unfortunately, your arguments here only serve to undermine science by basing your conclusion on an emotional plea. Look at THIS disaster that’s ravaging the east coast. This is the evidence that the climate denialists are wrong and their ineptitude is killing people!

    All the supporting statements are telltale habits of the cherry-picker and the post-justifier, one who sees an event and then makes up a story after the fact. “Record damage to subways” and “unusually late in the season” and “okay, our models don’t support this conclusion; that just means they were too conservative!” Let it be clear that this is a political post (playing a political game) and not a scientific one.

    Climate change and rising temperatures are real and caused by a vast increase in greenhouse gas emissions. There are enormous amounts of data backing this up, and sound, tested, scientific theories explaining the causal connection. Hurricane Sandy or the lack of said hurricane should only change our belief (or disbelief) in these theories by a marginal amount.

  32. aram Says:

    I am a huge carbon-tax fan. (I also want to ban motorcycles inside cities.) So I was recently surprised to find myself convinced that what we instead need are more Solyndras.

    http://noahpinionblog.blogspot.com/2012/09/new-atlantic-piece-how-to-beat-global.html

  33. Raoul Ohio Says:

    My take is that there are actually two “inconvenient truths” in collision:

    1. It is perhaps 99% likely that climate change is being caused by greenhouse gasses.

    2. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do about it.

    Obviously there are hundreds of things that could potentially be done to limit greenhouse gasses, but these will never do any good. To those who think “As soon as everyone in the world cuts there energy usage in half, things will improve” — dream on. There are billions of people who will jump at the chance to use any fuel saved by U.S. policies.

    The only thing that will do any good is to reduce world population, or at least population growth. Good luck with that: Every major religion has the same basic strategy — outbreed the competition.

    The reason behind widespread climate change denial is that people realize that any regulations will hurt them, without doing any good for anyone.

  34. Foster Boondoggle Says:

    @Nex – they both have negative externalities – costs not borne by the person who profits. Does that help?

  35. Scott Says:

    Raoul #32: I think your analysis of “two inconvenient truths in collision” is right on target. Under your analysis, it’s possible to explain not only widespread climate change denial, but also my own ineffectual screaming every now and again. If—as I consider not yet certain, but more and more likely—we’re indeed all going down and there’s nothing anyone can do about it, then I at least find some solace in expressing an occasional protest. That way future alien archeologists, picking through the wreckage of Earth to recover old hard drives, might someday be able to see that I was right and that the readers of Shtetl-Optimized were duly forewarned.

  36. MItch Says:

    There was an interesting story on NPR today about how insurance companies are getting more and more concerned about global warming and it’s impact on frequency and severity of flooding etc. I guess it’s alot harder to ignore if you are potentially on the hook for X hundred million dollars :)

  37. Vijay Krishnan Says:

    Thanks for the links, Scott. Will check them out. At least in the debate and other talks, it didn’t appear that discounting the fate of the planet (as opposed to raw economic discounting) was a factor that his broad conclusions heavily hinged upon. Bjorn makes the following assertions and I am curious what you think about them.

    1. Suppose we did nothing noteworthy about our carbon footprint, we would have somewhat worse climate in 75 years from now (as opposed to come close to the destruction of the planet, which happens to be adequately discounted).

    2. In the above scenario, a lot of the presently developing world will have a standard of living comparable to currently developed countries like the US.

    3. The sheer economic state of a country is a huge factor in quality of life and has a lot of bearing on the percentage of untimely deaths, devastating diseases etc. The US enjoys a substantial advantage compared to developing countries, which will likely become available to the latter as well in 75 years.

    4. Pretty much anything that is proposed to reduce carbon emissions is like shooting at an elephant with a Pea shooter and will likely have less than 1% real effect on carbon emissions. If we are serious, we should probably look at ways and means to cut the world per capita carbon emission, to say 1/3 of what they presently are.

    5. Even assuming we had a world government to impose the carbon tax uniformly on all countries, cutting down emissions to 1/3 of the present number will need a mammoth carbon tax, which would basically make plenty of economic activities impossible and impose very tight constraints on what is doable in a profitable manner. This will almost certainly ensure that developed countries don’t get very far in the next 75 years and ensure that developing countries don’t get very far either.

    6. (5) of course has an unrealistic assumption of a world government. In reality, the US is heavily in debt to China and in no position to arm twist them. Moreover China’s GDP is all set to surpass the US by 2020. There is absolutely no indication that China will cooperate with the US and we have a tragedy of the commons situation.

    I am guessing you heavily disagree with point (1) and think there is a good chance that our planet will be uninhabitable in 100 years. If not, what is your best guess probability distribution over possible outcomes?

    Also, do you also disagree with points 2-6?

  38. Scott Says:

    Skeptic #30: I’m glad you agree about the following.

      Climate change and rising temperatures are real and caused by a vast increase in greenhouse gas emissions. There are enormous amounts of data backing this up, and sound, tested, scientific theories explaining the causal connection.

    Because you agree with that much, let me take the opportunity, once again, to explain that I don’t think for a nanosecond that any individual hurricane is statistical “proof” of anthropogenic climate change, any more than few dead kids are statistical proof that drunk driving is a terrible idea. And I never claimed anything so absurd.

    But having (hopefully) agreed so far, let me ask this: do you think it’s a bad idea to try to discourage people from drunk driving by running ads with the faces of kids who died—ads that might make the already-known causal connection more emotionally salient? No? Then why is it a bad idea to try to make the already-known, perfectly-true causal connection between ghg emissions and severe weather more salient via concrete examples?

    Let me remind you that today, the other side has “won” the climate debate with its “arguments” that we don’t need to worry about climate change because Al Gore is a stuck-up prick and it’s all a socialist Hollywood conspiracy that was unmasked by the East Anglia emails. Faced with an enemy with zero intellectual integrity, we shouldn’t descend to their level, but we also shouldn’t fight their emotionally-charged lies with our hands tied.

    Look, I realize there are people who would rather see science die bloodied on the street with its careful, equivocal, peer-reviewed chastity intact, than to see it get up and fight back. I’m not one of those people, and never will be.

  39. Scott Says:

    El-Coco #29:

      So, what I’m asking is, are you open to the truther movement and will you conduct a preliminary investigation into the attack?

    I’m as “open” to the 9/11-truther movement as I’m open to the equally-credible ideas that the moon landing was faked, that there are dead aliens in Roswell, and that the Holocaust was made up by conniving Jews in order to extract reparations from Germany. Or for that matter, to a more original possibility, like … uh … that the Twin Towers never actually existed in the first place, but were just an optical illusion created by a cabal of conniving Belgians. What would cause me to take any one of these ideas more seriously than the others? They all involve massive conspiracies of similarly unbelievable, philosophical-thought-experiment-level competence in concealing every trace of their own existence.

      Marvin Minsky is the second best computer scientist in the world (the first, obviously is Donald Knuth). Given that he’s at MIT do you work or talk much with him? What do you think of his main ideas? How about a collaboration, before its too late?

    I have to admit that I’ve never spoken to Minsky, who happens to be my academic great-grandfather (through Manuel Blum and Umesh Vazirani). For that matter, I’ve never even seen Minsky except at one faculty dinner, although I’d certainly be happy to talk with him if the opportunity arose. As a general rule, though, I don’t seek out super-famous people just for the sake of saying that I met them, if I don’t have anything to say.

    FWIW, I did have a short email exchange with Minsky a decade ago, about my review of Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science. And I’ve shared many enjoyable lunches with one of Minsky’s great proteges, Gerry Sussman.

    Look, Minsky is one of the towering historical giants of our field. In my own career in quantum computing, I’ve made extremely extensive use of one particular result of his and Seymour Papert’s from their book Perceptrons, called the Symmetrization Lemma.

    On the other hand, I don’t follow AI well enough to say what impact his “Society of Mind” theories are having on current AI research. And I really don’t know what I’d collaborate with him on.

      Are you working on any secret projects? Like, you have a new idea to show that P=NP, you’re making progress, and are going to reveal it any moment…in short, what are your deepest ambitions, your secret dream?

    Well, if they were really secret, I wouldn’t be sharing them here, would I? :-) I do have occasional ambitions to unravel the possibly-interrelated mysteries of mind, free will, brain-uploading, the anthropic principle, indexical uncertainty, Newcomb’s Paradox, and quantum measurement. (Though I feel strongly that, like a drug habit, these puzzles are best indulged in moderation.) I’ll also reveal for the record here that I have no secret plan to resolve the P vs. NP problem in either direction. If I did have such a plan, though, then it would certainly be to prove P≠NP rather than the reverse.

  40. asdf Says:

    I’ve met Minsky and he is way cool. I guess he’s getting up there in years, but if he’s still giving talks and you have a chance to go to one, do try to go.

  41. Jay Says:

    Scott #19, of course AGW has been on firm grounds for about 20 years. Topsy-dopsy it’s still debated as if the evidences were controversial! But when it comes to evaluate the relative merits of some physically possible path of action, I feel harder to share some of your thoughts:

    1) Why do you think global warming would render the planet uninhabitable? Increase in extreme weather events, higher sea level, increased difficulties to feed ourselves, yep that’s very strong concerns. But the end of the world? The point is, as soon we’re not talking about infinite dammages, yes we need to take discount rate into account, and from that I don’t see how to reject that no action may well be the best path.

    2) Second question is about carbon tax. Sure it’s both simple (in theory!) and likely the most efficient way to reduce carbon footprint. But the net action is not to suppress CO2 emission: it will just delay it! Do you think it’s worse the trouble to shift GW so that the negative effects of GW 100 years from now become the likely effects of GW 110 years from now? In other words, don’t you think the only way to suppress AGW is simply to forbids extraction of fossil energies above some threshold?

    3) suppose you can choose energy policy at will (and world-wide). What would you choose? Nuclear and its risks? Solar and its costs? Severe limits on economical growth? Fossils mitigated by geoengineering? None of these answers maybe…

  42. pierre Says:

    Scott writes:

    “Look, scientists had long known, based partly on computer models but mostly just on 19th-century physics, that hurricanes would probably get more frequent…”

    This assertion is false. In fact, the best computer modeling suggests that greenhouse warming should lead to hurricanes becoming considerably *less* frequent.
    Source: http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v3/n3/abs/ngeo779.html

  43. pierre Says:

    Scott writes:

    “Now hurricanes are getting more frequent and severe, and are hitting parts of the world (like the Northeast US) with a severity that’s far out of the norm for the past century.”

    Compare this with the following quote from the abstract of the same Nature Geoscience article (http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v3/n3/abs/ngeo779.html ):

    “Large amplitude fluctuations in the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones greatly complicate both the detection of long-term trends and their attribution to rising levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases. Trend detection is further impeded by substantial limitations in the availability and quality of global historical records of tropical cyclones. Therefore, it remains uncertain whether past changes in tropical cyclone activity have exceeded the variability expected from natural causes.”

    Thus the claim that Scott cites as fact is, at the very least, disputed among scientists who work in the area.

    Scott: I find it somewhat ironic that after all your public service debunking poor science – of which I am a great fan, incidentally – you are now making problematic claims about fields you have little expertise in. It’s very Lubosian (or perhaps Motlian? I can’t decide which of those two sounds better) of you.

  44. S Says:

    Scott, what is your opinion of geoengineering? For some reason, I don’t hear environmentalists talking about it much. What’s the consensus on this?

    It certainly seems like geoengineering would be more politically viable than a carbon tax, and therefore might be one of the more realistic ways to prevent the destruction of the world.

  45. mkatkov Says:

    There is more radical, but seems to be more practical solution to the global warming problem. Not that I’m saying it can be done tomorrow, but it seems to have nigher probability to be implemented, than any suggestions above. Move human civilization to the space. The only problem here is the relatively compact energy source. Let me give the crazy idea for that – inertial confinement drumming. Inertial confinement is proven to work via termonuclear weapon tests. The question how to make it small and controllable. The suggestion is to use spherical chamber, filled with hydrogen reach media like water, hydrocarbons, etc. On the surface of the chamber there are many micro-hammers that are synchronously drumming, such that the shock wave is collapsing in the center of the chamber, where there is enough concentration of energy to initiate nuclear fusion. The main problem here is to create computer (classical) that will learn the adjustment of the drumming time, to maximize the power of back wave to the specific level, ensuring nuclear fusion and its safe level. You do not need much energy in say one cubic micron, that the average energy of nuclei in this volume is above fusion reaction threshold. and if the quality of the chamber is good enough one does not loose much energy from reflected wave, so one can use resonance to amplify the amount of energy concentrated in reaction region.

    There is another way to change the human behavior (much less probable, but possible if active group will pursue) – change the economical model from consumption to production. That is move the social model from concentration of resources in big corporations that are useful during initial development phase, but are holding development when they have to protect accumulated resources to the open source model, where the society is interested in protecting the development. The economical stimulus than should be driven from protecting resources to creating them with reward given to the most useful applications (clicks, download, citations, orders) with banned commercials, but well structured review process similar to stackoverflow. Ecomonically, this is more optimal structure, the question whether it will survive the initial phase.

    This process can start with academic motion to change the communication of results from peer reviewed publications on the random page to structured wiki like presentations with stackoverflow like rating of the contribution and similar discussion board with questions and links to related problems. This will break the development into faster update rate with small contributions from different individuals, like polymath project on much larger scale. On top of this, one can create the educational resources, complementing presentations with problem sets. This is actually good way to sort out “cranks”, as they might be required to pass certain problem test before they can contribute, but on the other hand for people interested in understanding that creates very useful path, even if they have no resources to come to the college, or pursue academic position.

    Overall, this will move economics from distribution of resources, created by very small group of people to satisfactory creativity by the large fraction of people, that will allow to create sufficient resources to support basic needs for society members – food, roof, communication, usefulness, hapiness. We would be able finally move from Darvinian stone age to creative Humanship.

    And than he waked up.

  46. Scott Says:

    S #43: I had a whole discussion with Robin Hanson about geoengineering on his blog a while back. Summary:

    The fundamental problem with the geoengineering approaches I’ve heard of is that even if we did them, if we also kept emitting ghg’s, then we’d need more and more geoengineering to counterbalance it. And therefore, we’d still be pushing the climate further and further away (in some direction) from the Holocene quasi-equilibrium that we know can support civilization. It’s not warming per se that’s the problem, but rather the performing of a massive atmospheric-science experiment using Earth (rather than, say, Venus or Jupiter) as our test subject. And geoengineering doesn’t alleviate that problem at all.

    Consider, for example, the proposal of shooting sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to create “global dimming” and counteract warming. Sure, we could do that. But as we emitted more and more ghg’s, we’d also need more and more SO2. And more than likely, the increasing SO2 levels would create further problems, which we’d then need additional, “meta-geoengineering” to handle.

    Now, if we actually had a plan to reduce ghg emissions, then I think geoengineering could be an important part of how we tide ourselves over until the plan could be implemented. Unlike some environmentalists, I certainly have no moral objection to “playing God”: since we’re already playing God anyway, we might as well play a slightly more intelligent God! :-)

    But I have trouble seeing geoengineering as a long-term solution to anything, at least in the current state of scientific knowledge. If what we’re doing now is like putting our hands in a blender, then geoengineering is like taking powerful painkillers that enable us to keep our hands in the blender. The obvious long-term solution would be to remove our hands from the blender.

    Here, as often the case, a single Onion article is worth a thousand policy papers:

    New Technological Breakthrough To Fix Problems Of Previous Breakthrough

  47. Scott Says:

    pierre #41 and #42 (and others): I apologize, you’re absolutely right. Instead of saying “hurricanes are getting more frequent and severe,” I should said that “severe hurricanes are getting more frequent.” In other words, the problem is not in the mean, it’s in the tail. Which is what people actually care about anyway—a single severe hurricane can easily do more damage than 20 mild ones—but is not what I said.

    The claim that AGW will increase the frequency of severe storms, I understand is now approaching scientific consensus (and is affirmed by the very article you linked to). And if, unlike with the fact of AGW itself, a minority of otherwise-serious scientists still dispute the claim—well then, just consider me ahead of the curve there. :-)

  48. Scott Says:

    Everyone: One of the most profound problems in the entire climate debate has to do with the nature of scientific communication. When making decisions, people need to know what’s most likely to be true. But scientists—especially the kind who publish in places like Nature Geoscience (I’m not counting quantum gravity theorists here :-) )—train themselves their entire careers to focus on the small fraction of what’s probably true that can currently be shown. In their mindset—which I understand, and have even come close to experiencing myself—the destruction of the world is an extremely minor fear, compared to the terror of one of your colleagues shooting you down because you said something that went somewhat beyond what you could back up.

    Unfortunately, while the climate scientists’ caution is admirable in many ways, it opens those like Bill McKibben, Al Gore, or (if I dare) this humble blogger, who want to discuss what’s actually happening with the same reasonable standards of evidence that they’d apply to other areas of life, to the charge of going beyond what’s been proved.

    [And of course, the climate scientists don't thereby even succeed at the dubious goal of convincing the deniers of their objectivity. The deniers will despise them no matter how cautious they are.]

    I find myself in analogous situations all the time: when I write research papers, I’m careful to affirm that P vs. BPP and P vs. NP are currently open problems. But if the fate of the world depended on it, then I’d have no hesitation whatsoever in telling the President of the United States, or anyone else who needed to know, that P=BPP and P≠NP are almost certainly true statements—i.e., statements that every reality-oriented person (as opposed to willful contrarian) who’s studied the field agrees are overwhelmingly likely to be true based on the preponderance of evidence. Fanciful as that sounds, today the fate of the world might depend on how willing climate scientists are to communicate their own knowledge of “unproved” statements that are nevertheless at the P=BPP or P≠NP level of confidence.

    But what I find most absurd and tragic here is that no one ever demands 1% of this standard of evidence from the other side of the controversy! The deniers vociferously insist that, before the slightest, most innocuous step can be taken to mitigate climate change, the benefits of that step must be proved—since such a step is, after all, an “experiment.” And with the meekness of Congressional Democrats, the climate scientists concede that the evidence is imperfect and that more studies are needed.

    Why can’t we turn the tables, and point out that ghg emissions are themselves a massive, uncontrolled scientific experiment on the earth’s atmosphere? Why isn’t proof necessary before undertaking that experiment? Why don’t we demand that emissions be reduced by, say, 90%, until the scientific community is ready to assert with confidence that emissions at anything like the current levels are safe?

  49. Scott Says:

    Incidentally, regarding Raoul #32′s claim that “there is nothing you can do about it”: on reflection, the major difficulty with that claim is just how many of the world’s countries are now ready to move forward with GHG reduction treaties. I freely confess to Americocentrism here: I think that, to a depressing extent, progress really is being held back by one political party in one country, and the megaphone it’s chosen to give to an actually pretty tiny group of “think” tanks. If the United States ever managed to free itself from its stone-age half—i.e., from what used to be called the Confederacy and is now called the Republican Party—then I suspect the world would be about half the way toward a reasonable solution to the climate problem.

  50. Nex Says:

    @Mike: Did I claim anywhere that anthropogenic global warming is ruled out? No. I claim that it is not known to what extent man made emissions are responsible for past century warming.

    Personally I find it plausible they had some impact, but there is no way to tell reliably how large it was. It’s equally plausible that a large portion of said warming was due to not yet understood natural variability (similar to MWP for example).

    I also believe that do-nothing is the best course and find the apocalyptic claims about the end of the world due to a few degrees of extra heat laughable.

  51. Scott Says:

    Jay #40:

    1) OK, I agree that “render the planet uninhabitable” was a slight overstatement. If I were forced to guess, my best estimate is that AGW will be “merely” about as bad for humanity as a whole as the Holocaust was for the Jews. There will be unprecedented droughts and famines. Hundreds of millions of people might die horrible deaths. Whole cities and countries, including many of the most interesting ones, the ones most worth saving, will get flooded out of existence. But in other parts of the world, life will go on, much as it did in Israel, the US, etc. for those Jews who were “lucky” enough to survive the war.

    However, that’s only if I consider AGW in isolation from all the other related problems. Overpopulation, a major driver of AGW, also drives resource depletion in other ways. The world is running out of fresh water and usable land, both problems that AGW will exacerbate. Fish stocks are collapsing around the world. All of that seems to me extremely likely to lead to much more volatile planet, driven by desperate conflicts over diminishing resources, and a tinderbox for a nuclear war.

    But please don’t get depressed about this! What it means is simply that we should all write as many theoretical computer science research papers as possible, as quickly as possible, so that the aliens picking through the wreckage can see how many nontrivial results we proved before the end.

    2) Yeah, it’s a fair question: what’s the point of trying to slow emissions if that will just push the calamity back by 10 or 20 years? Well, firstly, if we could make climate change slow enough, then I think we really could adapt to it with much less difficulty. There are tens of millions of people, for example, living right now in coastal areas who are utterly unprepared for what’s already happening to them, let alone for what’s going to happen. If those coastal regions were to disappear gradually into the sea over 500 years, at least the affected communities would have plenty of time to relocate and rebuild elsewhere.

    Secondly, and more importantly, I agree with the geoengineering optimists that eventually, we can probably develop the technological capability to remove CO2 cheaply from the atmosphere, warm or cool the planet safely and at will, etc. (Likewise, eventually we might have renewable energy that’s so safe and cheap, everyone will switch to it even without tax incentives.) Where I disagree with the optimists is simply that I think it’s obvious that we don’t have these capabilities now! However, if we can just buy enough time, then the hope is that we can reach the “era of technological fixes” before we reach the tipping-point to an utterly-different climate equilibrium inhospitable to human life.

    3) What would be my energy policy if I had unlimited power? Firstly, I would build as many new nuclear plants as possible. I would recycle spent fuel rods like France does, and explore technologies like next-generation pebble bed reactors. I would relax safety rules if that made building new nuclear plants cheaper and faster. And yes, I’d do that over the screams of “purity”-focused environmentalists: I’m willing to lose a few cities in order to save the world.

    At the same time, I’d also start blanketing the Southwestern US and other desert regions with solar cells. I’d fund hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of research into improving solar cells’ efficiency, as well as improving the range of electric cars and the energy efficiency of buildings. I would tax fossil-fuel to the point where nuclear and solar power were decisively cheaper, and tax internal-combustion cars to the point where everyone bought electric cars instead or used public transportation. Gas, with tax, would be maybe $25/gallon.

    (Incidentally, I would not invest vastly more into fusion research than is being invested now. Fusion inside the sun is already a very practical energy source, one we should learn how to exploit more and more. Fusion on earth, by contrast, is unlikely to become a practical energy source for the foreseeable future. And crucially, even if it did become practical, it would have many of the same safety and cost problems that fission power has today.)

  52. Michael Gogins Says:

    Thank you for this usable summary of a rational view of our current ecological situation.

    My only quibble is that I would fund research into fusion power at a rate higher than today because, if it worked out, it could be very very useful.

    Although a direct causal connection of global warming with the frequency of cyclones may not yet be clear, there seems to be a consensus that the extant rise of sea level does increase the damage caused by surges in the storms that do happen.

  53. John Sidles Says:

    Scott asserts  “My best estimate is that AGW will be “merely” about as bad for humanity as a whole as the Holocaust was for the Jews.”

    Strong-and-sobering scientific support for Scott’s assessment may be found in this month’s Science article by Sun et al.Lethally Hot Temperatures During the Early Triassic Greenhouse“.

    To be more blunt than my posts usually are: Scott’s assertion is absolutely correct.

    Scott advocates  “I’d fund hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of research into improving solar cells’ efficiency, as well as improving the range of electric cars and the energy efficiency of buildings.”

    When we reflect that all of these objectives require the careful engineering optimization of dynamical transport processes — both physical and informatic — at atomic scales of size and hbar scales of dynamical action, it becomes strikingly evident that quantum information theory already is playing a central role (for example, by clarifying the dynamical origins of entropic localization) in creating viable technological enterprises for averting the dire Holocaust-scale calamities that Scott’s post so plausibly foresees.

    Conclusion  Quantum information theory already is serving to accelerate the pace, retire the risks, and technologically coordinate a broad span of enterprises, that can and must succeed, if humanity is to evade a global-scale Holocaust-type disaster.

  54. Bram Cohen Says:

    Your now understand why I unilaterally simply don’t show up to work for a few days every once in a while, regardless of its impact on everything else.

    There are perfectly good carbon sequestration techniques available today, likely to increase power costs by 25-50%. They’d be widespread if reasonable carbon taxes were in place.

  55. Anon Says:

    It may be caused by global warming or not but the weather control agenda shure gives my local utility excuse not to move single downed tree from 10 miles of power wire in three days to re-enabe power to 1000 customers.
    Also, if ice melts, shouldn’t resulting water take less volume than the ice? Why does sea level rise?

  56. Sebastian Says:

    Your somewhat warped joy at seeing the hurricane reminds me of the New York Times which almost gladly announced the Wall Street Crash of 1929, after years of promoting scepticism at the bull market and being put down by critics.

    I think the correct word to describe this would be ‘epicaricacy’ although that seems to allude to sadism.

    Long story short, I’m also in the position of not knowing whether to rejoice or grieve at Hurricane Sandy.

  57. Sebastian Says:

    (Sorry for the double comment!)

    @Ramsey be very very careful of supporting carbon taxes. ‘Taxes’ have in some cases elevated a certain activity. For example there was a psychological experiment where parents who picked up their children late had to pay a fee to the daycare. However initially this fee was so low that parents were happy to pay it, as an excuse to continue being late, rather than having to awkwardly explain why they were being inconsiderate of their childrens’ needs.

  58. Scott Says:

    Sebastian #55:

      I think the correct word to describe this would be ‘epicaricacy’ although that seems to allude to sadism.

    I love the sound of that word! Alas, on looking it up, it seems to be simply a synonym for schadenfreude, which I don’t think is a good description of how I was feeling. It wasn’t “joy at others’ misfortune”; it was “joy at having unexpected time to work,” combined with “the twisted, yet unfulfilled wish for the satisfaction of seeing those who mocked the predictions of climate scientists admit that they were wrong, on account of those predictions coming true.” There must be a single German word for that. :-)

  59. Mike Says:

    Nex: My mistake. I had placed you in the camp of absolutists because, honestly, when one uses words such as “cannot be trusted”, “agenda”, “crackpottery”, “absurd”, “laughable”, and puts science in quotes, that impression can be given off. I am glad that, unlike some out there, you are at least open to the possibility that human activity can affect the earth’s environment.

    You may find it laughable that a few degrees increase in mean global temperature could have a significant effect on climate, but the truth is, we don’t know what the effect would be. It could be minor… or it could be severe. And there is evidence that mean global temperature during the Triassic was only a few degrees Celsius warmer than today, but its climate was very different (no polar ice caps, for example). I’m not going to debate this particular point any further, because to do so I would have to delve into the literature much more deeply. But obviously weather, climate, and the biosphere are complex, chaotic phenomena that can’t be predicted.

    So to call it laughable would be premature. I guess my original point stands: let’s not dismiss anything outright. To be scientific is to be open-minded.

  60. Michael Brazier Says:

    “The world is running out of fresh water and usable land, both problems that AGW will exacerbate. Fish stocks are collapsing around the world.”

    I am frankly astounded and appalled at how the Greens have hared off after AGW, a speculative hypothesis that (contra Scott) is supported only by scanty evidence and computer models full of fudge factors, and neglected environmental problems like these, which are palpably real, impossible for anyone to deny, and far more amenable to solution by means which might be put in practice. It’s as if the Greens prefer the position of the street preachers in former days who shouted to uncaring passers-by to repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand, or of the interpreters of the Apocalypse of St. John who set a firm date for the Second Coming of Christ, to that of the social reformer giving practical help to people in need.

  61. tulpoeid Says:

    Speaking personally, there’s no question about the danger of future climate change, there is only certainty.
    But the cause isn’t helped by irrelevant and false “correlations”. At the beginning of the post I was ready to accept that localized isolated phenomena could have something more general to say, because and only because it came from you. Unfortunately I didn’t see any kind of proof or conjecture, opposite to what I expected.
    Why do “pro-climate” advocates have to fall for behaviour that actively harms their cause?

  62. S.K. Says:

    “Scott, I’m profoundly disappointed that a scientist like you, who surely knows better, would be so sloppy as to assert without any real proof that just because it has tusks and a trunk, and looks and sounds like an elephant, and is the size of the elephant, that it therefore is an elephant…”

    Isn’t this a bit like saying that sorting must be O(n^2) because you have to compare every element against every other element?

  63. Luke G Says:

    Sebastian #56: You’re right that sometimes putting a price on something can have unintuitive effects, due to it changing perception. However, I don’t think this effect will apply to carbon emissions. An awful lot of decisions about carbon consumption are purely economic: large businesses optimizing costs, power companies deciding whether to burn coal or natural gas, etc. And, as already has been mentioned in this thread, we already have empirical evidence that rising gas prices encourage more efficient behavior.

  64. Jay Says:

    Scott #47. Well said! But one thing usually not done is to carefully separate what is truly “at P=BPP level”, such as AGW, versus what is “maybe ahead of the curve”, such as AGW=Shoah-like consequences (here I assume you’d agree this latter idea is not exactly concensual).

    Scott #50. Thank you for this detailed response.

    John #52: in case you care to notice, you’re saying Scott is right to fear driving at 60 miles/h as driving at 180 miles/h has been proven dangerous (Bugatti J, 1939). You may be right, but not for this reason.

  65. Sniffnoy Says:

    I think the question that has to be answered by those who assert we should do nothing is, at what probability of AGW being true would they find sufficient reason to do something? (Remember, you should be trying to maximize expected utility, not figuring out which possibility is most likely and then treating that as the truth!)

    Admittedly that’s not really so simple as I may have made it sound as “AGW” in fact breaks down into multiple distinct propositions. Regardless, the essential point that if you are, say, 90% sure that AGW is false, that doesn’t necessarily imply we should do nothing (10% is a lot when it comes to global disaster), stands.

    (Also, #47 is a great comment.)

  66. Roy G. Biv Says:

    I’d really like to help y’all out with saving the planet and all, but unfortunately I’m too busy proving a fuck-ton of tedious poly-time reductions for a respectable grade in a CC class. :(

    On that note, I hope y’all arrive at a general consensus and an optimal-enough solution to justify the energy being wasted here… :D

    Also, don’t tell God what to do with his dice. :)

  67. pierre Says:

    Scott,

    If you haven’t spent a lot of time in the wild then maybe you shouldn’t assume everything with tusks is an elephant: you could be looking at a boar.

    If you want to claim that hurricanes have gotten more severe based on evidence that is convincing but not sufficiently stringent to pass peer review for a scientific journal: write a model, do some statistics, maybe reject the null hypothesis with a p-value that is above 0.05.

    Anything along those lines would be a good argument. However, asserting the claim without evidence, apparently based on the tiny sample of hurricanes that are large enough to become major news stories – that is a horrible argument.

  68. John Sidles Says:

    In participating on climate-change forums, I have found the following scientific resources to be helpful:

    • Historical climate-change science  Spencer Weart’s AIP-hosted Discovery of Global Warming offers outstanding historicity (and also, some powerful practical motivations for applying quantum information theory principles to transport physics).

    • Contemporary climate-change science  The arxiv server provides links to climatologist James Hansen’s recent survey articles. Especially commended are the two most recent: “Scientific case for avoiding dangerous climate change to protect young people and nature” (2011), and “Earth’s energy imbalance and implications” (2011).

    • Sociology of contemporary climate-change science  Naomi Oreskes’ Schneider Symposium video “Why are climate scientists so conservative?” (2011) provides a concise five-minute introduction.

    • Economics of climate-change response  David Good and Rafael Reuveny’s “On the collapse of historical civilizations” (2009) explains how short-term economic maximization strategies — for example, “Bain Capital seeks to harvest companies, at a significant profit, within five to eight years,” — have generically acted to ensure Shoah-scale cultural calamities.

    The sobering point is that dealing effectively and morally with the realities of climate change requires that we humans act responsibly on longer time-scales than heretofore … it is not yet clear whether we are capable of this. :(

    The above resources all reflect mainstream thought in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. None-the-less, on many public forums, the present political climate is such that it is prudent to reference these scientific works anonymously. The reason is, that very regrettably, there has grown-up an abusive and unscrupulous Stasi-style culture of denialist Zersetzung that attacks climate-change science by the methods that are well-summarized on Trish Roberts-Miller’s course notes “Characteristics of demagoguery.”

    A basic principle of democracy is that the general public can make appropriate decisions on matters of common interest. This ability is dependent upon the public’s access to information. The more distorted that information, the less likely the public will make appropriate decisions.

    Distorted information is generally called “propaganda,” and, while harmful to public discourse, it isn’t fatal. That is because, as long as the discourse is free and open, propaganda is likely to be countered—if you tell a lie, I can point out that it was a lie, as long as I have the ability to speak. If, however, my ability to criticize you is restricted, then your lies will stand.

    The easiest way to restrict the ability of people to criticize you is to make it dangerous to do so. This can be done through passing laws—so that people can be thrown in jail, fined, or sued for saying certain things. But it can also be done through so rousing your followers that they will try to harm anyone who disagrees with you. That is what demagoguery does.

    The hopeful intent of this post, is that access to the above scientific resources, and discussion of their implications, will help ensure that climate-change discourse remains free, open, vigorous, and solidly grounded in science! :)

  69. Anon Says:

    Scott 50,
    Are you sure your funds would not be appropriated but return will be similar to GM electric vehicles?
    Wealthy European and Far East countries would pay billions to substitute expensive oil for efficient alternative energy technology if such was already developed or close to development.
    Japan or China could rent areas in sunny regions and set it with solar cells as they buy agro lands now.
    Isn’t it better let businesses and universities work on basic technologies such as material and buttery engineering and keep using natural resources that are still aplenty? When their price goes up naturally we will have to use alternative sources.
    In the meantime we are spending valuable resources for artificially inflated regular energy instead of using it for research and development.

  70. Scott Says:

    Anon #68: buttery engineering? Mmmmm, sounds tasty… :-)

  71. Let’s talk about climate change, Sandy says… « chorasimilarity Says:

    [...] Silver lining by Scott Aaronson, who also provides links [...]

  72. Michael Gogins Says:

    Sidles 67:

    Thank you for the references.

    If we are not capable of designing and adjusting in the current environment, then if some biological or mechanical successor to us is more capable of adapting, then of course they will replace us. I’d expect such a successor to be a modified form of current humanity — modified in social and political psychology.

    Didn’t take long for us to replace Neandertals et al… will perhaps take less time for us to be replaced.

  73. Scott Says:

    pierre #66:

      If you haven’t spent a lot of time in the wild then maybe you shouldn’t assume everything with tusks is an elephant: you could be looking at a boar.

    I’ve been in the Masai Mara, where I saw both elephants and wild boars up close — have you? :-) Yes, there are grazing mammals that can be hard to tell apart from each other—gazelles, elands, waterbucks, kudus, all that stuff—but I can assure you that elephants and boars are not among them. My contention is precisely that whether or not severe weather is getting more frequent because of human activities has now become an elephant vs. boar sort of question.

  74. Rice Krispie Treat Says:

    Those of us sane enough to accept fully the terrible threat of global warming face one seemingly insurmountable obstacle when asked to defend our views: Freeman Dyson. A man of his intelligence, achievement, erudition, wit, and sagacity cannot be dismissed as a paid political operative the way almost all other critics of the global warming movement can be. Indeed, there is no apologist for global warming with so august a reputation as Dyson. Until he is dealt with I really don’t see how to advance the movement.

  75. Benoit Hudson Says:

    Once we’ve emitted a ton of carbon into the atmosphere, it’s up there essentially forever. Even CFCs go away after a mere 50 years or so; estimates are that CO2 concentrations would only appreciably drop over a timescale of centuries.

    Capturing carbon is a great idea given that CO2 concentrations are higher than we’d like. We know of any better carbon sequestration method than to take CO2 and turn it into rock form. The resulting substance is sometimes known as “coal.” Unfortunately, burning coal, capturing the output, and turning it back into coal is not going to net us any energy until we finally do away those archaic laws of thermodynamics that have been keeping us down since the 19th century.

  76. Scott Says:

    Rice Krispie Treat #73: LOL!

    Freeman Dyson is indeed brilliant and erudite. But the crucial context you omitted is that he adopts weird, contrarian, and yes, nutty views on pretty much every topic. Reading his books and essays, I concluded long ago that he doesn’t care at all about being right; he cares about being interesting and provocative (at which he succeeds, of course).

    Just to pluck a few random examples from memory:

    Dyson has “argued”—I use the quotes advisedly—that the solution to the quantum gravity problem is that general relativity and quantum mechanics are both true, yet totally incompatible with each other. Nature doesn’t seem to care about the logical inconsistency, so why should we? That really does make as little sense as it sounds; imagine if Einstein had used similar “reasoning” to shrug away the apparent contradiction between Maxwell and Newton.

    In the most recent New York Review of Books, Dyson blasts all 20th and 21st century philosophers as a “sorry bunch of dwarfs,” while holding up Nietzsche as the writer of the last great philosophical masterpieces, to whom those dwarfs couldn’t hold a candle. Nietzsche? The racist, misogynist windbag who laid much of the intellectual groundwork for the Holocaust? I’ll take one Bertrand Russell (who Dyson barely even mentions) over a thousand Nietzsches.

    Fine, that’s just a difference of opinion. But for a example of Dysonian “erudition,” you should check out this article of his in the Notices of the AMS, where he discussed the P versus NP problem in a way that clearly revealed he had no idea what it was and hadn’t bothered to check (keep in mind that Dyson trained as a mathematician). This is what caused Jeffrey Shallit to set aside his reservations and nominate Dyson as “Blowhard of the Month”; as Shallit notes, others haven’t hesitated to label Dyson a crank over his incredibly poorly-researched global warming views.

    Personally, I would not call Dyson a “blowhard” or a “crank”; I’d call him a “Freeman Dyson,” which is a category to itself. :-) Indeed, the very same article with that P vs. NP howler is full of fascinating insights and historical gems, and I strongly recommend reading it. But I hope I’ve established by now that, if there’s an overwhelming scientific consensus about X, then the predictable fact of Dyson writing an article where he claims not-X, probably tells us nothing whatsoever about X’s truth. At most, it tells us about the quirky personality of Freeman Dyson.

  77. Sebastian Says:

    Scott #57: If there isn’t a word for it, what’s wrong with just dumping it into google translate and taking the spaces out? Seems to be how they formed the German language…

    ‘derverdrehtenochunerfülltenWunschnachGenugtuungdiejenigendie die VorhersagenderKlimaforscherzugebendasssiefalschwaren verspottetwegenderdieseVorhersagenwahr’ sounds strangely right

  78. Alpha Omega Says:

    Hello Shtetl-optimizers. Don’t you think that humanity must evolve into a Borg-like super-organism and proceed to conquer the universe? Perhaps global warming will force us to evolve rapidly in this direction? Isn’t it clear that rapacious-primates-with-nukes is an unstable condition that we must quickly move beyond? Time may be short to optimize this planetary Shtetl before Neolithic conditions return! What are you doing to accelerate our Borgification and the conquest of the universe?

  79. Michał Kotowski Says:

    “Nietzsche? The racist, misogynist windbag who laid much of the intellectual groundwork for the Holocaust?”

    Sorry, but you are embarrassing yourself now – Nietzsche was actually *opposed* to nationalism and anti-Semitism, see for example Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_Friedrich_Nietzsche#Nietzsche.27s_criticism_of_anti-Semitism_and_nationalism

  80. Darth Imperius Says:

    Scott, where are you getting this crazy idea that Nietzsche “laid much of the intellectual groundwork for the Holocaust”? Did Marx lay the intellectual groundwork for Stalinist and Maoist massacres, or Thomas Jefferson the groundwork for genocide against native Americans? This is just silly and wrong, and sounds like something a person who has never read Nietzsche would say.

  81. Rice Krispie Treat Says:

    One final thought which I’m surprised hasn’t been brought up yet: if we’re serious about stopping global warming then we must consider the methane produced by the vast herds of factory farm cattle; it’s supposed to contribute about as much to global warming as does the burning of fossil fuels. Scott, are you willing to forgo that T-bone steak and strawberry milk-shake for the sake of the planet? I won’t hold it against you if you say no!

  82. Scott Says:

    Re Nietzsche: If you want to know what I think, see Bertrand Russell’s chapter on Nietzsche in A History of Western Philosophy, and Ron Maimon’s brilliant if profanity-laden takedown of Nietzsche here. Yeah, I agree that the situation is complicated: Nietzsche appears to have been embarrassed during his life by the great enthusiasm anti-Semites showed for his work, and no doubt his sister played a central role in shaping his work into the “intellectual foundation for Nazism” (though crucially, she couldn’t have succeeded if the material hadn’t lent itself to the purpose). But yeah, I did read Zarathustra and some other works, and I certainly didn’t find anything particularly admirable about them. Nietzsche is often entertaining, but more than anything he just reminded me of the periods in my own life when I was suicidally depressed and wanted to lash out at the world.

    Incidentally, yes, I’d say that Marx did lay the intellectual groundwork for the Stalinist and Maoist massacres. I don’t buy for a second the idea—often peddled atop “Mount Stupid”—that “communism is wonderful in theory but got horribly perverted in practice.” I think communism is a terrible idea in theory, that it’s obvious to anyone who thinks it through that the only way to implement it is through intimidation and violence.

    Also, Thomas Jefferson’s words about the Native Americans were often enlightened and admirable, but yes, tragically, his actions did help to create the framework for their destruction, and that (along with, y’know, the slavery thing) is an enormous stain on his record.

  83. Scott Says:

    Rice Krispie Treat #79:

      Scott, are you willing to forgo that T-bone steak and strawberry milk-shake for the sake of the planet?

    My answer to that is exactly the same as my answer to the earlier question about air travel. Making “saving the planet” a matter of personal do-gooderism was a lousy idea from the beginning—an idea that’s very likely held back the progress of environmentalism by limiting its appeal. Simply tax milk and meat products at a rate commensurate with the environmental damage that the cows cause, and I and everyone else will adjust their eating habits accordingly.

    (For whatever it’s worth, I’ve found that soy meat has gotten tastier and tastier over the last decade—I even prefer it over real meat sometimes—and I’ve also recently taken a liking to almond milk.)

  84. g Says:

    “Also, if ice melts, shouldn’t resulting water take less volume than the ice? Why does sea level rise?”

    If you melt ice that is floating in the ocean then the sea level doesn’t change noticeably. (Try it at home with a glass of water with ice cubes in it.) You get rising sea level through two effects:
    1. Not all ice is floating in the ocean. If you melt ice that isn’t floating then the sea level goes up. There’s lots of land-bound ice in Greenland and Antarctica.
    2. Ice is more reflective than water. Ice-covered water reflects more of the Sun’s energy back into space than open water. If you melt the floating ice then the planet keeps more of the Sun’s energy, which makes it warmer, which melts more ice.

  85. John Sidles Says:

    A terrific-yet-serious science-oriented site for all matters ice-related is Neven’s Arctic Sea Ice Blog

    What, you didn’t hear about the 4.000 year-old Ellesmere Island ice-shelves?

    You do it to your shelf

    The oldest non-glacial ice in the northern hemisphere is a small remnant of the former Ellesmere Ice Shelf which began forming about 5500 years ago. That remnant is breaking up. Where the ice shelf has vanished the fjords are free of perennial ice for the first time in 3000 to 5500 years. It seems likely that very soon the oldest non-glacial ice will be a mere 5 years old, or less.

    Yikes. :(

    The chronically sobering climate news is leavened (mercifully) in that Neven is a Scott-level punster! :)

  86. Radford Neal Says:

    Scott wrote: The storm surge in Manhattan last night broke all records, with the damage to the subway system the worst in its 108-year history. (One factor exacerbating the damage is simply that sea levels are 8 inches higher than they were a century ago.)

    You perhaps don’t realize that much of that 8 inches has nothing to do with present-day global warming, but rather with global warming 10,000 years ago, that ended the last ice age. Land that was under ice was pushed down by the weight of ice, and land a bit away from the ice was pushed up. Now that the ice is gone, things are gradually settling back to normal. New York City had been higher, and is now settling lower, which looks the same locally as the sea level going up. See the map at http://en.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/322530

  87. Luke G Says:

    Radford Neal #85: When I tried to verify your claim, what I find is that global sea level has risen 7-8 inches and NYC’s has risen 11-12 inches–ie. 4 inches of glacial rebound in NYC in addition to the 7-8 inches of global sea level. Did you have another source?

    http://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/sltrends/sltrends_station.shtml?stnid=8518750
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Trends_in_global_average_absolute_sea_level,_1870-2008_(US_EPA).png

  88. Joe Fitzsimons Says:

    Scott, I don’t think tax alone is a solution. You need to take the revenue from that tax and use it to combat the negative effects of the activities which were taxed in the first place. Can I suggest that the revenue generated by such a tax be invested in actually combating climate change (i.e. investing in greener sources of energy, research into greener means of propulsion, etc.). That would tell you what level you need to tax at: which ever level allows you to keep negative effects at a managable level.

  89. Scott Says:

    Joe #87: Yes, thanks! I had thought that was sort of implicit in the tax proposal, but you’re absolutely right that it’s important to state it explicitly.

  90. Mitchell Porter Says:

    Off-topic: http://arxiv.org/abs/1210.8368 claims to exhibit “the first significant lower bounds obtained within the GCT program”.

  91. John Sidles Says:

    Radford Neal remarks: “You perhaps don’t realize that much of that [New York sea-level rise] has nothing to do with present-day global warming, but rather with global warming 10,000 years ago, that ended the last ice age. Land that was under ice was pushed down by the weight of ice, and land a bit away from the ice was pushed up. Now that the ice is gone, things are gradually settling back to normal.

    Radford Neal’s [technically correct] remark illuminates the twin banes of rational discourse regarding climate-change: (1) cherry-picked data, and (2) short-sighted econometric valuation.

    Two recent surveys by James Hansen and colleagues provide a master-course in scientific methods for combating these two banes.

    Against Cherry-Picking:
    Earth’s Energy Imbalance and Implications

    Nonlinear transport systems in general, and the earth’s climate-system in particular, generically exhibit local spatio-temporal fluctuations associated to the turbulent dynamical transport of quantities that are globally conserved (mass, energy, momentum, and charge especially). A key ingredient of futile discourse thus is present: denialists can cherry-pick local fluctuations as evidence to support any desired climate-change scenario.

    The analysis of Hansen and colleagues seeks to avoid the cherry-picking fallacy by focusing upon energy as a climate-change measure that is globally conserved. Specifically, the geodetic data from satellite altimetry (TOPEX and JASON), the mass-flow data from satellite gravimetry (GRACE), and the temperature data from ocean floats (ARGO), all combine to yield a (noncherry-picked!) view of a planet that is monotonically heating-up.

    This global analysis yields a sobering prediction, that is stated as the concluding sentence of the abstract: acceleration of the rate of sea level rise this decade. Assuming that this short-term acceleration is observed, then a key question is, how long will the acceleration be sustained?

    Hansen’s simple-but-sobering point is, that if the observed warming and the predicted acceleration of sea-level rise, both are sustained over periods comparable to the lifetime of CO2 (that is, thousands of years), then we are headed toward a world whose coastal lands are drowned (which would be very bad) and whose equatorial latitudes are uninhabitable (which would be a calamity of planetary-Shoah scale).

    Regrettably, in coming decades we can expect to hear strident quibbling from denialists regarding the JASON/GRACE/ARGO datasets … because the science is conveying a message, loudly and clearly, that denialist cognition cannot accept.

    Against Short-Sighted Valuation:
    Scientific Case for Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change
    to Protect Young People and Nature

    This nineteen-author article can be read as a thorough science-driven exegesis of the point that Scott made in his (excellent!) Comment #19:

    Scott posted: “If people think that increasing our standard of living today is worth rendering the planet uninhabitable 100 years from now—well, that’s fine, but then at least let them have the balls to come out and say it that way, rather than cloaking their naked value-judgment in the language of economic analysis and discount rates, and thereby giving it an undeserved veneer of objectivity.”

    That’s well-said (IMHO).

    Conclusion  Scott’s concerns regarding climate-change are solidly and verifiably grounded in science, economics, and morality … the cherry-picked short-sighted analyses of denialist quibblers, not so much, eh? :)

  92. Anon Says:

    G,
    I would think that water holds heat longer than air and most melting would occur underneath of oceanic ice sheets. In my very rough estimate this should overcompensate for Antarctic/Greenland ocean side melting.
    Do weather models spell all such scenarios? Can you link to one?

  93. Scott Says:

    Mitchell Porter #89: Yeah, I’d heard about Burgisser and Ikenmeyer’s results using GCT to lower-bound the border-rank of matrix multiplication — good stuff!

  94. Radford Neal Says:

    Luke G: Your second link doesn’t work for me. Your first link shows about 10.5 inches of New York City sea level rise in the last 100 years (the period Scott referred to). Scott had mentioned 8 inches, which perhaps was meant to be a figure for global sea level rise, rather than for local New York City rise. My googling hasn’t found a figure for New York City glacial rebound specifically, but from the map I linked, it is clearly not negligible in comparison to either 8 or 10.5 inches.

    By the way, your first link shows a pretty much linear rise in local sea level at New York City since 1855. Since any warming due to CO2 emissions would have been neglibible before about 1950, it seems that the New York City sea level rise so far is quite likely to be nearly entirely due to some combination of a long-term natural warming trend, glacial rebound, and perhaps some other local geological issues.

    John Sidles: Scott posted specifically about the New York City flood, and mentioned sea level rise as an exacerbating factor, clearly thinking that this rise was due to global warming caused by CO2 emissions. I pointed out – correctly you admit – that much of this rise is completely unrelated to CO2 emissions. You characterize this as an example of “cherry-picked short-sighted analyses of denialist quibblers”. Can you perhaps see why many people find the arguments presented by some global warming alarmists to be unpersuasive?

  95. John Sidles Says:

    Radford Neal mind-reads: “Scott posted specifically about the New York City flood, and mentioned sea level rise as an exacerbating factor, clearly thinking that this rise was due to global warming caused by CO2 emissions.”

    LOL … mind-reading acts are fun! Radford, isn’t it true that focusing upon cherry-picked questions, and answering these same question by mind-reading, is comparably futile to data cherry-picking? :)

    A science-centric antidote to cherry-picking and mind-reading is provided by Hansen and Sato’s recent survey Paleoclimate implications for human-made climate change (2012).

    On the other hand — human nature being what it is — fans of superficial discourse may prefer to obsess over New York City’s submerged West Side Highway, eh Radford? :)

  96. John Says:

    Joe #87 and Scott #88: “Scott, I don’t think tax alone is a solution. You need to take the revenue from that tax and use it to combat the negative effects of the activities which were taxed in the first place. Can I suggest that the revenue generated by such a tax be invested in actually combating climate change (i.e. investing in greener sources of energy, research into greener means of propulsion, etc.).”

    This is wrong. The tax alone is enough. If the prices are correct (i.e., include externalities), then the market will figure out the best way to invest in greener sources of energy, etc. (Obviously this will be supplemented by federal research, as is already occurring.) That’s the main point.

    If you want a carbon tax to pass, in fact you should insist on it being revenue neutral. Don’t invest the proceeds in anything. Just give them back to people as income tax refunds. This way net taxation remains unchanged, but there is still a huge incentive to act more “greenly.”

  97. John Says:

    Scott #82: “My answer to that is exactly the same as my answer to the earlier question about air travel. Making “saving the planet” a matter of personal do-gooderism was a lousy idea from the beginning—an idea that’s very likely held back the progress of environmentalism by limiting its appeal. Simply tax milk and meat products at a rate commensurate with the environmental damage that the cows cause, and I and everyone else will adjust their eating habits accordingly.”

    I can’t agree. Your argument is extremely self serving. If you really believe in this, then you should be willing to adjust your habits voluntarily. This doesn’t mean you can’t travel or eat beef, but you should cut down on both.

    Looking at this post, we have somebody who claims to believe in anthropogenic global warming, but who isn’t personally doing anything about it. (I don’t really know, so I might be misrepresenting your position, this thread is way too long for me to read.) Furthermore, they are proposing a major tax—400% or so—on gasoline, which price they admit currently does not even register. This comes across as insensitive and arrogant.

  98. John Sidles Says:

    John, your arguments illustrate that folks who look ahead multiple generations reach very different conclusions regarding climate-change, compared to folks who are less far-sighted.

    Who looks ahead centuries and more?   America’s Founders and Framers.   Jane Goodall.   Wendell Berry.   James Hansen.   Ed Wilson.   Theodore Roosevelt.   The Pope.

    Now, do all of the above folks receive plenty of criticism for “insensitivity and arrogance”? You betcha they do! :)

    Now let’s ask: who looks ahead on shorter time-scales?

       • libertarians look ahead to retirement,
       • senators look ahead 6 years,
       • presidents 4 years,
       • representatives 2 years,
       • business CEOs 1 year,
       • radio pundits one week, and
       • scoundrels and fools, not at all.

    Is it any wonder that the former group regards climate-change seriously, and the latter group does not?

    Both groups are economically rational, of course!

    It’s their insensitive, arrogant, moral choices that differ profoundly, eh? :)

  99. Joe Fitzsimons Says:

    John #96, blind faith in the market is insane. They do not always (or even often) find the optimal arrangement, and often get trapped in local minima.

  100. Gil Kalai Says:

    A few remarks:

    1) When we consider economic measures like taxation that will bring Gas price to 25 dollars a gallon we have to realize that an economic collapse (which may result from such measures) may have devastating effects on the lives of hundred of millions of people as terrible as the effects of global warming and in a much shorter time-scale.

    2) It is very important to have some sense of time- and cost- scales for various threats from global warming and various measures proposed here. Delaying the effect of warming by 10 years is one thing and delaying it by one month is completely different.

    3) I tend also to support the idea of building more nuclear power plants. (I was surprised that this obvious measure was not more central to the discussion.) But I realize that there is much opposition to this, and, in fact, most countries go in the opposite direction, and I would like to understand better why.

    4) Some of the proposed measures and statements are not consistent with democratic thinking, (and the damage from dictatorship, even scientists-run dictatorship again can be much worse than the damage from global warming and at a much shorter time-scale).

    5) The comparison of the projected suffering and loss of life from global warming to cases of mass murders is not good (and can be unnecessarily offensive). A good analogy for these claims could be with natural disasters like the 1918 flu pandemic (the “Spanish flu”). This was a natural phenomenon, likely intensified by human actions and negligence, that led to the death of 50-100 million people.

  101. Johnny C Says:

    Roger Pielke Jr., Wall Street Journal, October 31:

    While it’s hardly mentioned in the media, the U.S. is currently in an extended and intense hurricane “drought.” The last Category 3 or stronger storm to make landfall was Wilma in 2005. The more than seven years since then is the longest such span in over a century.

    Flood damage has decreased as a proportion of the economy since reliable records were first kept by the National Weather Service in the 1930s, and there is no evidence of increasing extreme river floods. Historic tornado damage (adjusted for changing levels of development) has decreased since 1950, paralleling a dramatic reduction in casualties. Although the tragic impacts of tornadoes in 2011 (including 553 confirmed deaths) were comparable only to those of 1953 and 1964, such tornado impacts were far more common in the first half of the 20th century.

    The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that drought in America’s central plains has decreased in recent decades. And even when extensive drought occurs, we fare better. For example, the widespread 2012 drought was about 10% as costly to the U.S. economy as the multiyear 1988-89 drought, indicating greater resiliency of American agriculture.

    There is therefore reason to believe we are living in an extended period of relatively good fortune with respect to disasters.

  102. John Sidles Says:

    Johnny C posts  [a cut-and-paste letter-to-the-editor from the Wall Street Journal]

    Johnny C, how is it that you are unconcerned with that letter’s multiple symptoms of cherry-picking?

    • Unexplained spatial restrictions  USA only.

    Unexplained temporal restrictions Recent decades only.

    Unexplained measure choices Hurricanes, floods and droughts only.

    Absence of physical theory  No physics context is offered.

    Absence of verifiability  No verifiable references.

    Conclusion  The letter’s restrictions and lacunae act to obstruct rational scientific discourse … and that is why denialist arguments characteristically impose these restrictions, eh? :)

    It’s not complicated, Johnny C! :)

  103. Joel Rice Says:

    I did not notice any global warming enthusiasts having anything constructive and practical to say – like how to minimize damage to the subways. Is civilization ‘allowed’ to warm up the planet ? How much and for how long ? Under what conditions ? What are the priorities ? If this crowd had some practical and affordable solutions we would not be in this mess to begin with. And why do the blabbermouths keep going on about Wind and Solar – fat load of good it does up here in NY. Instead they want to shut down Indian Point. BTW my father arrived in America during the hurricane of 1938. Sections of Long Island have Still Not Recovered from that one.

  104. Johnny C Says:

    Mr. Sidles,

    My point (in posting that excerpt) is that, if Scott is to argue that increased weather disasters lend support to the theory of global warming, we must first establish the premise that weather disasters have increased.

    Can you please point me to any such evidence, for any space, time, and “measure choices” of your choosing? Thank you.

  105. John Sidles Says:

    Johnny C says: “If Scott is to argue that increased weather disasters lend support to the theory of global warming, we must first establish the premise that weather disasters have increased.”

    Johnny C, the strongest climate-change skepticism addresses the strongest climate-change science, eh? Such that skepticism and science both gain in strength?

    Whereas skepticism that consistently cherry-picks the weakest science becomes — in the long run — merely a futile polemical exercise.

    The strongest climate-change science (it seems to me) rests upon:

    (1) theoretical foundations in heat transfer physics,

    (2) affirmed by observations of global energy imbalance,

    (3) given moral weight by concern for future generations,

    (4) as appreciated by a global scientific community,

    (5) in a spirit of respect for what we do not understand,

    (6) and a commitment to conserving what we can never recreate, if it is destroyed.

    Johnny C, hopefully the above references will help you in appropriately broadening your skeptical appreciation of science! :)

  106. Radford Neal Says:

    Johnny C says: “If Scott is to argue that increased weather disasters lend support to the theory of global warming, we must first establish the premise that weather disasters have increased.”

    John Sidles says: “Johnny C, the strongest climate-change skepticism addresses the strongest climate-change science, eh?”

    So after numerous comments on this post, containing no substantive argument, but lots of sneers at other commenters who addressed the issues raised by the post, your latest contribution is to say that Scott doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but commenters who disputed his points are polemicists who shouldn’t have tried to correct him because there are other better arguments that global warming is a problem.

    Never mind that a supposed increase in exteme weather events is probably the most prominant argument for global warming being real that the general public is exposed to. Like the “hockey stick” graph, it’s fine to feed them bullshit, if it advances the cause. Right?

  107. John Sidles Says:

    Radford, news of your skepticism no doubt will sadden Jane, Wendell, Jim, Ed, Teddy, and Benedict … not to mention (posthumously) Alex, James, and John Jay. Because all of these folks make no secret of their opinions, eh?

    In the meantime, the covert cadre that really controls the global conspiracy to (in your phrase) “advance the cause” — hmmm  would that be the cause of science? the cause of the Enlightment? the world wonders! — remains ebulliently confident of its power! :)

  108. T H Ray Says:

    ” … possibly reduce my conference travel even more than I already have as a consequence of getting married.”

    Most of us just have to give up the sports car and poker night. :-)

    I hope to make time to read more of this important thread. For now, I would only contribute the comment that instead of taxing us into paralysis, or limiting creative opportunities (like scientific conferences), would it not be more productive to decentralize and expand economic activity into many small and redundant local systems that consume resources on smaller scales — and network them, not on the big business model of efficiency, but on the old agrarian model of effectiveness?

    Even if global warming is caused by humans, the fact that it is happening at all is also a human problem to solve — and it seems to me a head in the sand solution to cut back and deny resources for individual growth, especially since a significant portion of the world’s population is starving and undereducated. We won’t go back to the days when 97% of people were farmers; we can, however, in this age of information, use that technology to effectively build and link self sufficient communities in a robust way — so that we as a world community can protect ourselves not only against natural disasters such as hurricanes and famine, but against patently manmade disasters (e.g., terrorism, slavery, war) as well.

    Tom

  109. T H Ray Says:

    Having now digested most of this colloquy, I find Peter Morgan’s question most soundly reasoned, ” … can we get our heads around the complexity of the world enough to make a cultural difference?”

    Appropriate for a blog titled “Shetl Optimized,” recalling the original shtetl system, built on self sufficiency and a healthy dose of tzedaka toward the rest of the shtetlen. If the object is to optimize, not paralyze, cooperation will work more effectively than taxation; i.e., disperse the wealth for collective well being (the wealth of creative opportunity as well as the wealth of energy and resources) as opposed to hoarding it as a form of punishment.

    Tom

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