Kuperberg’s parable

Recently, longtime friend-of-the-blog Greg Kuperberg wrote a Facebook post that, with Greg’s kind permission, I’m sharing here.


A parable about pseudo-skepticism in response to climate science, and science in general.

Doctor: You ought to stop smoking, among other reasons because smoking causes lung cancer.
Patient: Are you sure? I like to smoke. It also creates jobs.
D: Yes, the science is settled.
P: All right, if the science is settled, can you tell me when I will get lung cancer if I continue to smoke?
D: No, of course not, it’s not that precise.
P: Okay, how many cigarettes can I safely smoke?
D: I can’t tell you that, although I wouldn’t recommend smoking at all.
P: Do you know that I will get lung cancer at all no matter how much I smoke?
D: No, it’s a statistical risk. But smoking also causes heart disease.
P: I certainly know smokers with heart disease, but I also know non-smokers with heart disease. Even if I do get heart disease, would you really know that it’s because I smoke?
D: No, not necessarily; it’s a statistical effect.
P: If it’s statistical, then you do know that correlation is not causation, right?
D: Yes, but you can also see the direct effect of smoking on lungs of smokers in autopsies.
P: Some of whom lived a long time, you already admitted.
D: Yes, but there is a lot of research to back this up.
P: Look, I’m not a research scientist, I’m interested in my case. You have an extended medical record for me with X-rays, CAT scans, blood tests, you name it. You can gather more data about me if you like. Yet you’re hedging everything you have to say.
D: Of course, there’s always more to learn about the human body. But it’s a settled recommendation that smoking is bad for you.
P: It sounds like the science is anything but settled. I’m not interested in hypothetical recommendations. Why don’t you get back to me when you actually know what you’re talking about. In the meantime, I will continue to smoke, because as I said, I enjoy it. And by the way, since you’re so concerned about my health, I believe in healthy skepticism.

168 Responses to “Kuperberg’s parable”

  1. Max Says:

    I’m on the P’s side in this dialogue.
    D. should provide some numbers, e.g. “each cigarette per day reduces your estimated life expectancy by 2 months”. Otherwise his recommendation is indistinguishable from superstition.

  2. Shmi Nux Says:

    This seems like a bad argument. The “quantum computers do calculations in parallel” bad argument. Smoking and Global warming are not in the same reference class.

    We know experimentally from following millions of people that 50% of smokers die from smoking-related diseases, hence the degree of certainty. A global warming equivalent would be observing a multiverse with millions of Earths and counting on how many of them humanity ended up catastrophically affected due to excessive CO2 emissions.

    Current situation with anthropogenic global climate change is more like watching a single smoker coughing and estimating their quality of life 50 years down the road. There are too many unknowns to predict what might happen in one specific case. Existing climate models have been proven rather inaccurate in the short term, with some factors and consequences overemphasized, others completely unexpected.

    Of course, it’s probably best not to smoke, and not to emit all this CO2, but insisting that our current climate models are accurate, whereas they are anything but, is like insisting that quantum computers provide speedup where they won’t, because we know that the climate models will make false predictions in the short term, eroding public’s trust in the underlying science.

  3. Scott Says:

    Max #1: If enough people think like you do, then no wonder tobacco killed about 100 million people in the 20th century. The statistics you ask for are, of course, available; accusing the doctor of superstition if he can’t cite them offhand seems like a clear example of motivated reasoning. Why isn’t P indulging in superstition, if he can’t provide the statistics to convince his doctor that his smoking is safe? The only answer I can think of to that question is that it’s P’s life, and neglecting the toll on the healthcare system, P is ultimately the main one who suffers the consequences of his choices. That reply is, of course, unavailable in the case of climate science.

  4. Roger Says:

    I am also with the patient. Physicians have a long history of reciting official recommendations, without examining the actual evidence or applying it to an individual case. The patient gets pleasure from smoking, and wants to make his own decision about the trade-offs with health risk. But the doctor tells him nothing about his risk that allows him to make such a decision.

    Here is a news story about the health risk of saturated fat. If the new study is correct, a great many doctor recommendations on the subject have been wrong, and a patient is right to be skeptical when told not to eat saturated fat.

  5. Fake Says:

    The notion we can use mathematical modeling to make useful predictions about climate is absurd. The differential equations are impossible to integrate, the model parameters are unknowable, and the uncertainties are so large that the only intellectually honest assessment of, say, temperature sensitivity to human emitted co2 is “who the hell knows?”

    I predict this post will be met with appeals to authority, attacks on its anonymity, and an unwillingness to admit we lack the experimental apparatus required to make actionable, scientifically justified conclusions in the domain of climate science.

  6. Scott Says:

    Shmi #2: It’s not like there are no other planets to compare to. We know that Venus, with a runaway greenhouse effect, is hot enough to melt any probes we send there, while Mars, with hardly any atmosphere to trap sunlight, is freezing—with both effects much more pronounced than could be explained by the planets’ distances from the sun. And of course, we know exactly the physical mechanisms that produce those effects—in more detail, in fact, than we know the effects of smoking on the human body.

    I think it’s unfortunate that people focus so much on the computer climate models, and in retrospect, it seems clear that climate researchers made a mistake when they decided to focus so heavily on them—it was like announcing, “as soon as these models do a poor job at predicting any small-scale, lower-order phenomenon, you’re free to ignore everything we say.”

    (Compare Doctor D. saying to P.: “this diagram shows exactly how I predict smoking is going to affect each specific part of your lungs.” And P. thinking to himself: “aha! if he’s wrong about any part of that, it means I can smoke as much as I want.”)

    In reality, even if we eliminated all the computer models (as if they’d never existed), it seems to me that there’d still be a compelling case for action based on back-of-the-envelope, 19th-century physics and chemistry (i.e., what was obvious to Arrhenius and John von Neumann), together with the actual fact of the earth warming along with rising CO2 concentrations in more-or-less the way that that 19th-century physics would predict.

    Finally, I’m not seeing the analogy to quantum computing at all. I think it’s likely, for example, that the adiabatic algorithm will give at most a modest speedup for NP-hard optimization problems, but I certainly wouldn’t bet the future of civilization on that belief. In the actual case, the future of civilization is being bet on a belief in climactic feedback effects just so happening to cancel out whatever we’re doing (rather than, say, making it worse). And I’d sooner bet on a big adiabatic speedup than on a happy coincidence of that magnitude.

  7. Chris W. Says:

    In fact, of course, most indications are that the climactic feedback effects are largely those we should be worried about, e.g., reduction of the albedo in the Arctic due to reduced ice and snow cover in the summer, increased melting of permafrost and decomposition of peat over large areas, potential (and some observed) decomposition of methane hydrate on the sea floor along continental margins.

    And that is to say nothing about changes in ocean chemistry that would follow directly from the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

    I think a major underlying motivation—perhaps the major motivation—for dismissing or belittling the scientific understanding of these issues is that those offering the dismissal know that they will not see most of the consequences in their lifetimes. A certain kind of libertarian will say: “Our descendants’ problems are not our problems. They’ll have to take care of themselves.”

    On much the same basis some might say: “The problems of the Philippines during typhoon season are not our problems. They’ll just have to figure it out how to deal with it themselves.”

  8. GASARCH Says:

    1) Just curious- how long was it before Scientists had correlation of smoking and lung cancer (or other bad health) and when they understood why?

    2) Do we now understand why CO_2 causes global warming? I think we do, so we are past the correlation game.

    3) The analogy you give is a bit behind the times- skeptics have, so some extend, pivoted from `there is no global warming’ to `there is but its not man-made’ to `if we act alone (without China) it won’t do any good anyway’. If the current China committment is serious then the skeptics will find some other excuse.

  9. Raoul Ohio Says:

    I am NOT a climate denier (and hate to side with Republicans, TeaPartiers, KKK, etc.) but the dangers of smoking and climate predictions are orders of magnitude apart as far as what is known goes.

    Certainly nothing can ever be known absolutely, but a reasonable estimate for likelihood is:

    “Smoking is very likely to be very bad for your health”: 99.999%.

    “Carbon dioxide emissions = global warming”: 90% at most.

    1. If you think the likelihood is higher, how do you explain the inconvenient truth that since these models have become well known in the last decade or two, their predictions have zero correlation with what has turned out to happen? The “global warming pause” appears to be real. It may well be a fluke, but can hardly be ignored.

    2. A hot science story from the last couple days is that modern agriculture (particularly corn) is causing a big factor of the carbon dioxide. If this turns out to be true, your bonus points for driving a Prius are cut in half.

    3. It should be obvious to anyone that the real problem is population growth: “An exponential always beats a power”.

    4. In the final analysis, there is nothing anyone can do about it. Punishing yourself for the sins of the human race might make you feel better, but it will not do any good.

  10. Elbi Gilgen Says:

    Dr Kuperberg ought to post this on the blog of his old friend Lubos Motl.

  11. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    If you look carefully, the patient in effect demanded certitude from the doctor, only to then use it against her. The doctor was willing to provide the general correlation between smoking and fatal illness, and to discuss causal models. The patient brushed that away as well, first by citing that correlation does not imply causation, then by implying that a general theoretical model might not apply to him specifically.

    These are all clever debate positions, but what’s behind them is a misinterpretation of the role of uncertainty in science; and a misreading of the purpose of talking to scientists or doctors. The role of scientists is not to win debates — maybe debates with each other sometimes, but not debates with people in general. The role of scientists is to explain and advise to their best abilities. Part of a good explanation is admitting to uncertainties. But then the clever debater can always say, “Aha! Until you know everything, you don’t really know anything.” (As Scott already pointed out.)

    The idea that understanding the Earth’s climate requires a “multiverse” is nonsense. The Earth has a 4-billion-year history with many climate excursions of many kinds, and a substantial geological record to study those excursions. Even otherwise, satellites can directly measure the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide. (And measure a lot of other data.) As it turns out, one of the main residual uncertainties in the current climate is not the aggregate insolation and insulation of the Earth’s surface, but rather the role of ocean currents in *burying* (rather than eliminating) surface heat.

    Meanwhile, the only way for climate scientists to predict the future is with some kind of model. By definition: If it’s not a model, then it’s not a prediction. I don’t think that climate scientists have made any real mistake here. It’s only the same kind of “mistake” that the doctor made: Promising some degree of assurance to satisfy the pseudo-skeptical patient, only to be accused of over-promising.

    Another side to this is that the patient’s self-described healthy skepticism is actually neither healthy nor skepticism; instead, it’s a disguise for gullibility. The patient naively clings to the idea that smoking doesn’t hurt him. That’s why pseudo-skepticism is a very appropriate word for his philosophical position.

  12. Raoul Ohio Says:

    (Continued) Update on background info for those in the “any little thing we do will help” camp:

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2014/11/21/renewable_energy_simply_wont_work_google_renewables_engineers/

  13. Vitruvius Says:

    Cui ea res bono est?

  14. Rahul Says:

    “Why isn’t P indulging in superstition, if he can’t provide the statistics to convince his doctor that his smoking is safe?”

    Well, one reason is smoking was the status quo. At least, say, till the 1970’s. Ergo anyone telling you not to smoke would reasonably be assigned the burden of proof. As a counterexample, if someone ridiculed you for not smoking today, I’d put the burden on him to show why you ought to.

    The burden of proof should rest on anyone pushing for changes from accepted practice.

    “The statistics you ask for are, of course, available; accusing the doctor of superstition if he can’t cite them offhand seems like clear example of motivated reasoning.”

    I guess a better approach in such cases might be for the doctor to admit he doesn’t have the numbers offhand but knows they are available and offer to look them up.

    PS. I am not a GW skeptic.

  15. Rahul Says:

    I think smoking is a bad example in this parable because what you are giving up by ceasing to (at least to a rational observer, not the addicted mind) is a lot lesser than in the cures to AGW.

    The remedies to doing anything significantly impactful against AGW is not easy & probably quite painful. You are taking a huge quality of life hit.

    If I needed an analogy, imagine a doctor talking to productive, lab chemist with a promising future in R&D, telling him he needs to give up Chemistry because he has developed late life sensitization to lab-solvents. And he won’t feel the severe effects right now but has a serious chance of fatal lung disease later in life.

    Smoking was too easy a target. The barrier there is more addictive, impulsive, irrationality & self-control not a well reasoned cost benefit analysis.

  16. Anon Says:

    A more appropriate parable would be:

    D: You have a gene linked with breast cancer. You should amputate your breasts.

    P: What is my life expectancy with/without amputation? What are the chances that a cure will be found before I die?

    D (version 1): I have no clue.
    D (version 2): Giving some alarmist wild guess.

    (Comment: Posting anonymously since climate heresy has too high a social cost.)

  17. Alexander Says:

    Some disjointed thoughts from a student of the geosciences:

    Even without anthropogenic forcing, people would still be doing physics-based modeling of climate—the idea is to get a sense of how the climate system works, responds to perturbation and evolves.

    We, of course, have an incomplete understanding of climate, thus there are model-observation discrepancies (and in some instances the discrepancies actually lag observations in terms of change—sea ice in CMIP3 is one example that comes to mind off the top of my head), but I don’t think that disqualifies broader conclusions. Climate isn’t a system where you can look at a small-scale event and use it to make generalizations about the entire system, and people who work on annual or decadal variability have different questions and problems than those who work on longer scales.

    Climate models are best seen as an evolution of that back-of-the-envelope reasoning, then—an attempt at put that in a mathematical context which can be used as a basis for experiments. Venus and Mars play heavily in the history of climate modeling, as does paleoclimate, both on a very long term (the faint young sun paradox) and on shorter terms, particularly over the Quaternary and increasingly deeper into the Tertiary, where we see climate shifting multiple times. In fact, there’s a lot of interest right now in paleoclimate because it offers a good testing ground for model validation (and people have done statistical, climate model-free analyses of temperature and CO2 using paleodata).

    Other planets and paleoclimate give us other climate events to examine, and climate models are run multiple times, with big projects using multiple runs on multiple models to generate results. And maybe I haven’t thought hard about these issues (I am merely a dumb geoscience student), but saying we need a multitude of Earths to understand how climate works sounds a bit like saying we can’t come to any conclusions about how evolution works because we only have the example of life on Earth, or about inflation because we only have access to one history of the universe, or make any other sort of model (back-of-the-envelope or otherwise) about systems that exhibit development over time.

  18. Handle Says:

    The Doctor is right about the best available knowledge of course, but not about the recommendations, “You ought to stop smoking,” and, “I wouldn’t recommend smoking at all.”

    Those are unsupported leaps which assume that P holds his expected health value as sacred. But there are trade-offs. After all, P says, “I like to smoke. It also creates jobs.” P finds other values important.

    If D isn’t merely being patronizing and is supposed to act as P’s agent and help inform P as to how to make the best decisions according to P’s value system, then he should be trying to help P optimize the number of cigarettes he smokes to balance the hit to expected health with personal pleasure and economic benefits and all the other values.

    D has no real basis to conclude that the optimal number of cigarettes is always absolutely zero for P, but that’s what D tells P he ought to do.

    Now compare this to the problem of making policy prescriptions for climate change in an environment with hundreds of independent sovereigns and mostly free international trade and seven billion present (and uncountably future) different value systems.

    How are we to aggregate them all together to come up with a right answer, when even our forecasting models for more objective things like climate and economic production are extremely noisy?

    There is room for a lot of mischief in situations like these. On all sides.

  19. James Cross Says:

    The science about global warming is more comparable to a doctor measuring the immediate physiological effects of smoking a cigarette. For example, it increases the heart rate and raises the blood pressure.

    The science for the side effects and long range consequences are not on as firm a ground because they need to rely to multiple models (for example crop growth or disease propagation models) that introduces additional levels of uncertainty. When you combine multiple models each with some uncertainty you can a lot more uncertainty for the combined outcomes.

  20. Rahul Says:

    In the Global Warming debate, the denial-ism seems the sillier, more easily argued against position.

    To me the harder issue is that even after convincing someone that AGW is real, how to justify the sort of massive effort that will be needed to do anything substantive about the problem.

    I’m not a AGW existence skeptic but I’d call myself an AGW solution skeptic.

  21. Sandro Says:

    Handle #18: “D has no real basis to conclude that the optimal number of cigarettes is always absolutely zero for P, but that’s what D tells P he ought to do.”

    Sure, his basis is that his profession as a doctor is concerned only with health. All of D’s recommendations follow perfectly given this premise, and one could extend most of these to P because *the pursuit of most other values implicitly depends on good health*.

    “How are we to aggregate [countries] all together to come up with a right answer, when even our forecasting models for more objective things like climate and economic production are extremely noisy?”

    Because whatever their values and internal policies, they will invariably depend on their own continued existence, and continued existence is threatened by anthropogenic warming. Specific predictions don’t matter, general trends suffice to identify increased risks. Specific predictions have utility only to scientists to refine their models.

  22. Dave R Says:

    It is a bad analogy because it is not clear at all what it would mean to “stop smoking” in the sense of climate change. First of all, there are many more clear benefits to “smoking” in this case than there are with actual smoking – providing heat and transportation are pretty big upsides, which are not comparable to anything in the smoking model.

    Secondly, how could we actually stop? Even if the US stopped all emissions tomorrow, you still would never be able to convince India and China to let their people starve so that it would be easier to deal with the earth’s conditions in 50 years.

    If we can design artificial intelligence, we can figure out a way to adapt to climate change. Besides, I’m sure the people in Buffalo wouldn’t mind it being a few degrees warmer.

  23. Michael Gogins Says:

    Thank you Scott for again bringing up this quite urgent matter.

    I note that people who argue online against anthropogenic global warming tend to use pseudonyms. If they want to be taken more seriously they should use their real names. They appear to be hiding from a real argument.

    Regards,
    Mike

  24. Scott Says:

    Greg #11 and Alexander #17: Thanks for the comments. On reflection, I’d like to amend what I said: building detailed computer models of the climate, and then improving them when they’re wrong, is exactly the right thing to do scientifically. It’s only a mistake politically, to let anyone get the idea that the case for action on climate hinges on the outputs of these models. The case for action is not abstruse or technical; it’s something anyone can understand: much more CO2 implies much more trapped sunlight implies big disruptions to the kind of climate that humans have been used to for the last 10,000 years, and that our current civilization is built around. And we know this because

    (1) basic chemistry and physics predicts it, and
    (2) we actually see it in the world right now, consistent with the basic physics and chemistry.

    At this level, computer models simply never enter the argument. The models are needed only if you want to try to answer more detailed questions—if, so to speak, as your car is racing toward a gas tanker, you want to know the exact sequence in which things will happen, which parts of the car will explode right away and which will last a few more seconds.

    In my own life, when people talk nonsense about quantum computing, I often feel the urge to give them a complex, multilayered reply that draws heavily on my own recent research, even if a much simpler reply would suffice. After all, that way I get to showcase the relevance of my research! Yet whenever I succumb to that urge, I almost always decide right afterward that it was a mistake.

  25. Scott Says:

    Anon #16 and others: It occurred to me that there’s at least one major disanalogy between the medical and climate examples, but it’s one that militates in favor of action on climate. Clearing this up also answers many of the counterarguments that have been offered on this thread.

    In medicine, we have the luxury of ignoring many proven, serious threats to our health, simply because it’s likely that some other thing will kill us first anyway. E.g., even if you had a gene that caused your probability of getting breast cancer to approach 1 as you approached 200 years old, you might reasonably choose not to amputate your breasts, since it’s likely that heart disease or something else will get you first.

    But decision-making on the scale of the entire planet should hopefully be nothing like that. Some of us—the optimists!—dream of civilization continuing millions or billions of years into the future, if humanity ever gets its act together.

    Even so, some people ask: why deal with the climate crisis now? Why not wait another century or so, until we know more about the effects, and the technology will hopefully be more advanced? To this, there are some obvious answers:

    Hundreds of millions of people are likely to be displaced from their homes, or suffer drought, famine, or severe weather within the next century, and thousands of species will go extinct. These are not issues where we have the option of waiting very long.

    Also, of course, we know that the longer we wait, the more daunting it becomes to fix the mess—and that needs to be balanced against hypothetical future improvements in technology.

    Finally, one could say: if we know that eventually, we’re going to have to move the world from fossil fuels to more sustainable alternatives, and if viable alternatives already exist (albeit needing a little more research and a lot more political support), then why not start doing this now? Why shouldn’t we be just as impatient to move to new, better technology as we are with smartphones or anything else?

    From the above, I draw two extremely ironic conclusions: first, that it’s the environmentalists who are the optimists in this debate (since they take seriously the possibility that humans could survive on earth for millions more years); and second, that it’s the environmentalists who are the aggressive technologists (since they see where energy generation eventually needs to go, and insist that we get there fast, rather than taking our time).

  26. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    There are many directions that I could have taken the analogy. The patient could easily have lashed out at the remedy rather than the diagnosis: From exaggerating the toll (“When I tried to quit smoking, I considered suicide”), to swinging between extremes (“You want me to stay away every wisp of smoke out there”), to laying claim to separate expertise (“Of course you have studied medicine, but do you know about the sociology and economics of smoking?”).

    There are of course economists and technologists who study greenhouse gas mitigation, for instance William Nordhaus at Yale. These economists do talk to the climate scientists. It is just not the case that greenhouse gas emissions are a juggernaut that can only be altered at the cost of economic ruin. There are a lot of things that humanity can do at low cost that would make the outcome better rather than worse. It is … interesting … that the same pseudo-skeptics who slam climate scientists for alarmism because they predict global warming, quickly switch to their own certitude and hysteria when it comes to the cost of mitigation. That is a real mark of pseudo-skepticism: What sounds at first like honest skepticism turns out to be a huge double standard.

    Besides, the Republican/conservative urge to belittle environmentalists and climate scientists is so strong that if you do convince them that greenhouse gas mitigation is affordable, or even in some cases a good idea otherwise, they can then escape from the point that the science is important. “Then we should do it anyway, without wasting our time trying to believe global warming.”

    That too is something that the patient could have said. “I’m just not interested in health alarmism, but you do have a point that my employer banned smoking at work.”

  27. Rahul Says:

    Is there a good reason why we think people care or should care about cohorts remote in time than in space? There’s already millions of people dying all over the world from causes far more fixable than AGW.

    Sure, the west spends plenty of funding dollars on Malaria & AIDS & starvation but obviously we are not spending enough so long as these large numbers are still dying.

    I’m not making a normative argument but I’m just saying that when we find people so loathe to spend on people dying right now what makes us optimistic about collective action whose goal is to save some life in the inchoate distant future?

    The comparison is quite real for a lot of the third world. Do we rapidly build fossil fuel power plants & improve the standard of living of our current populations or restrain ourselves to safeguard the interests of future generations?

  28. Jr Says:

    Michael #23, what conceivable difference does it make whether they are using their real name? It is not like we are asked to believe in some personal anecdote that is supposed to prove AGW is not happening.

  29. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Scott – I looked at the history of the idea of global warming from fossil fuels. You are right that Arrhenius proposed that global warming could be correct, and that his thinking was very good and quite prescient. However, it is not really as simple as a back-of-the-envelope calculation. Arrhenius was careful to say that his ideas were only his intuition and needed more investigation. Then and even decades later, other scientists found their own back-of-the-envelope reasons to disagree with him. Even many scientists who expected net global warming were right for the wrong reasons.

    The turning point came when scientists went from 0-dimensional models of the atmosphere to 1-dimensional models, which required at least rudimentary computer simulations. Possibly the first paper that was right for the right reasons about global warming was Manabe and Wetherald, 1967. As I said, they had a 1-dimensional computer model of an atmospheric column. Syukuro Manabe is one of the under-celebrated heroes of climate science. He has won important awards in the field; he’s just not that famous in newspapers.

    You’re right that one major smoking gun is direct observation of greenhouse absorption by carbon dioxide. This is used not so much to prove that anthropogenic global warming is real (which is a stale question among climate scientists), but to measure CO2 concentrations. One thing that the satellite data has in common with Manabe-Wetherald is that each pixel of a satellite map is also, in effect, a one-dimensional model of the atmosphere.

    A fraction of research faculty in mathematics and similar, roughly 10%, are political conservatives who accept much or most Republican propaganda. They tend to act surprised and bemused that satellites directly measure the greenhouse effect every day, even though they know plenty enough to expect it. They then tend to suppose that climate scientists need to resort to magic amplifiers to argue that anthropogenic global warming is significant. Now, Arctic ice sheet collapse is an obvious amplifier that will be important in the future. But the CO2 greenhouse effect so far is fully on the same scale as witnessed global warming.

  30. Jay Says:

    >Hundreds of millions of people are likely

    Are they? Ten years ago, I was sharing your position almost entirely (1). Now I would count myself as AGW solution skeptic (2). What’s your best argument to get me back on the right track?

    (1) AGW can threaten our whole species. Let’s build as much nuke plants as we can. Yes we’ll have some Tchernobyl or Fukushima, and no that’s not such a big deal
    (2) yes AGW is real, but no I’m not convinced the associated costs justify more than a few dollars on a carbon tax

  31. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    “Do we rapidly build fossil fuel power plants & improve the standard of living of our current populations”

    Of course, India and China need to generate electricity. It just doesn’t have to be coal. One important comparison point is between China and South Korea. China is about to catch up to South Korea in greenhouse gas emissions per capita, even though South Korea is a far wealthier country. The reason is that China leapt to coal as the quick and dirty solution to every problem. South Korea didn’t.

    This has not only taken a toll on the atmosphere, but also reduced the life expectancy in China due to air particulates. (Essentially, due to breathing smoke.) It didn’t stop them. The Chinese coal industry is largely exempt from externalities; it’s as simple as that.

    Exemption from externalities is what it’s really about in the US as well. And the US and China together are nearly half of the entire problem.

  32. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Sorry, I meant that China is about to catch up to Japan. See this chart. CO2 emissions in China are nearly 7 tonnes per year per capita; emissions in Japan are a little over 9. In fact, China has already surpassed France in emissions per capita, even though France also is much wealthier per capita.

  33. Dave R Says:

    Two things:

    1) This conversation dovetails nicely with last night’s episode of The Newsroom.

    2) What is a bigger problem – 1.3 billion people not having electricity now (which is the case), or 1.3 billion people not having [something] in 50 years (which has some chance of being the case I guess)?

  34. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    “yes AGW is real, but no I’m not convinced the associated costs justify more than a few dollars on a carbon tax”

    First of all, at the present time, a greenhouse tax equivalent of two cents per kilowatt hour is roughly enough to price coal out of the electricity market. Not quite immediately, but within a decade or two.

    Second, here as an important back-of-the-envelope calculation: Oil and natural gas are fundamentally supply-limited resources. The world had a certain endowment of oil, natural gas, and coal when the Industrial Revolution began. With oil, we are already digging into diminishing returns. World oil production per capita peaked in the 1970s and it might never return to that high mark. The same thing will eventually happen with natural gas. But coal is not supply-limited. Coal is dirt cheap; in fact it is a type of dirt. It will always be dirt cheap. Instead, coal is atmosphere-limited. (And hydrosphere-limited.) One way or another, humanity will have to limit its use of coal; the only question is when and how.

  35. Rahul Says:

    @Greg Kuperberg:

    I didn’t get the per capita emissions analogy.

    It’s like asking who’d be more likely to own a Prius or solar power panels; a poor inner city family or a relatively well off executive.

    Generating clean electricity needs Capex. A wealthy nation has more money to spend on clean power & efficiency than a poorer one.

  36. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Wealth and fossil fuel emissions are positively correlated, and China is following a different and worse development trajectory than the comparison countries of Japan and South Korea. Even when those countries were less wealthy, they did not follow the philosophy that coal solves every problem.

  37. Scott Says:

    Jay #30:

      What’s your best argument to get me back on the right track?

    My best argument is that, unlike nearly everything else ever considered in politics, this is not an issue that will ever just go away by itself. Rather, everything we know suggests it will continue to get worse and worse without limit, until (a) it’s solved, or (b) the planet becomes unable to support human civilization in anything like its current form.

    Sometimes people look at the warming / sea-level rise projections for the 21st century, and argue that maybe it’s not so bad compared to the cost of doing anything differently. I think they’re probably wrong even about that. But even supposing they were right—why should we agree to stop the clock in the year 2100? The warming we’ve already set in motion will continue for centuries, melting the ice caps and destroying many of the world’s current cities, unless those cities are surrounded by huge and expensive seawalls, which will put those cities in a precarious and likely-unsustainable position. If we drastically cut emissions now, we could at least slow the warming to the point where our descendants would be better able to cope with it, thereby increasing the chance that they’ll make it through the civilizational bottleneck we’ve imposed on them.

    So in summary, among all existential risk scenarios, climate change shares with only a few others the properties that it must be dealt with eventually (if we continue as usual into the indefinite future we die), and it can be meaningfully dealt with starting right now (as is arguably not the case for, say, preventing the takeover of the world by hostile AIs). That being so, why don’t we start dealing with this right now?

  38. Jay Says:

    >two cents per kilowatt hour is roughly enough to price coal out of the electricity market

    Let’s call that a retrodiction, as it’s almost what happened in the USA since the rising of shale gas. But in what sense do you feel that contradicts my position?

    >One way or another, humanity will have to limit its use of coal; the only question is when and how.

    Again, why do you think my position is arguing that?

  39. Scott Says:

    Rahul #27:

      Is there a good reason why we think people care or should care about cohorts remote in time than in space? … Do we rapidly build fossil fuel power plants & improve the standard of living of our current populations or restrain ourselves to safeguard the interests of future generations?

    That’s a deep question of values that everyone should contemplate individually, but I can tell you my answer. Mine is: I want human civilization to thrive thousands or millions into the future. I want our descendants to solve P vs. NP and quantum gravity and to colonize the galaxy—and to create art and music and literature surpassing anything we know—even if I don’t live to see it all myself. I want this badly enough that, if you gave me a choice between

    (a) massive suffering for the humans alive today, after which humanity pulls through, proves P≠NP, and colonizes the galaxy, or

    (b) no extra suffering today, but massive suffering 100 years from now that causes the complete extinction of the human race,

    I would unhesitatingly choose (a).

    Yet in practice, I don’t think the choice facing us is nearly that stark. As Greg pointed out, many of the changes we’d need to make to address the climate crisis would improve the standard of living for the people alive today (for example, by improving air quality), rather than making it worse. (Here I’d also count the psychological benefit of children and teenagers no longer having excellent reason to believe that they’re growing up in the waning years of a reckless, self-destroying civilization.) On the whole, if the response were managed intelligently, I think it would at worst be a wash for the people alive today (and of course, a matter of life or death for those in the future).

  40. Jay Says:

    >Rather, everything we know suggests it will continue to get worse and worse without limit

    Sorry, but that’s just not true! Sooner or latter (and yes, probably latter) peak oil and peak coal will happened, and then the peak of our emissions. There is no way it will continue to growth forever, even if we try!

    > the planet becomes unable to support human civilization in anything like its current form.

    This possibility was the reason I shared your position for many years, until I became convinced that this risk was not existent (in 15 words, because of paleoclimate on Earth and because of better understanding of what happened on Venus). Can we at least agree that this kind of existential risks has never ever been mentionned in any IPCC report?

    >I think they’re probably wrong even about that.

    And you might be right! Problem is, can you afford to “sacrificiate one or two towns” on a “probably”?

    > The warming we’ve already set in motion will continue for centuries, melting the ice caps and destroying many of the world’s current cities

    Here the problem is the time frame. We’re not speaking of destructing current cities tomorrow morning. We’re speaking about a progressive shift that will force cities to reconstruct their building over hundreds of years. We may “loose” New York, and have a new New York a couple of kilometers inside what is presently the land. In what sense is that catastrophic at all?

    >That being so, why don’t we start dealing with this right now?

    All for it, and I’m not arguing that. I’m arguing we should do more than a reasonable carbon taxe.

  41. Rahul Says:

    Scott #39:

    I agree that these are questions everyone must personally decide.

    OTOH, I (perhaps condescendingly) think that you can afford to unhesitatingly choose your option (a), of “massive suffering for the humans alive today” simply because you personally (or via people close to you) would not be shouldering a big share of this suffering.

    By “you” I don’t mean you personally specifically, but just a lot of the western world population who might think like you.

    Ok, sure you’d be paying more for electricity and taking fewer vacations and might have to pay more for your groceries et cetra. But surely that’s not as significant as the suffering of the third world poor who’s contingent choice is between having electricity in his home or not at all for the rest of their lives (imagine a 45 year old if you will).

    And yes the choice is indeed that stark. Even with dirty coal plants a nation like India will have plenty of trouble getting electricity to its 300 million citizens with no access to electricity. But now put on top clean energy constraints and the already bleak picture becomes many times more bleaker.

    There really is a *massive* slowdown in how fast & how much you could electrify a nation like India if you did not allow access to relatively dirty coal.

    If you took the welfare of the hundreds of millions of such extremely poor people (just Africa + Asia alone have a billion plus people without electricity access! ) I think it’d be much more difficult to justify your option (a) I think.

  42. Scott Says:

    Jay #40:

      Sooner or latter (and yes, probably latter) peak oil and peak coal will happened, and then the peak of our emissions. There is no way it will continue to growth forever, even if we try!

    The problem is that there’s too much coal in the ground. If only there were less! Alas, there seems to enough to continue running coal plants at current levels for thousands of more years, which is more than enough to “destroy the world” in the everyday meaning of that phrase—unless we make an explicit political decision to stop. Running out of resources isn’t going to save us here.

      Can we at least agree that this kind of existential risks has never ever been mentionned in any IPCC report?

    I haven’t studied the IPCC reports enough to say, but my guess is that they massively understate the long-term danger—for example, by cutting off all forecasts at the year 2100.

      We may “loose” New York, and have a new New York a couple of kilometers inside what is presently the land. In what sense is that catastrophic at all?

    It’s amazing to me that, when it comes to anything we have experience with, like (say) a terrorist attack, a fire, or a hurricane, everyone agrees that losing even 5% of New York would be a massive catastrophe. Yet when it comes to sea-level rise, people can calmly discuss losing the entire city as if it weren’t a big deal at all.

  43. P=NP? Says:

    RE: Climate Change

    Not to worry, all our problems have been solved!
    Apparently claims in reference #11 have been refuted:

    [11] Scott Aaronson. NP−complete problems and physical
    reality. ACM Sigact News, 36(1):30–52, 2005.
    .
    .

    Memcomputing NP-complete problems in polynomial time using polynomial resources

    http://arxiv.org/pdf/1411.4798.pdf

  44. P=NP? Says:

    Ah, it seems this was already addressed here:

    http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=2053#comment-269770

    and here:

    http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=2053#comment-271488

  45. prasad Says:

    I am very glad to read the “solution skeptic” posts by Rahul, and his focus on third world growth. Let me make a related point, but coming at it from a more idiosyncratic vantage point – geo-engineering. Everyone in the west takes for granted that’s a horribly hubristic thing to do. To speak of it is to immediately bring up incantations about playing god and mother nature, even from hard-nosed science types who’d never cop to thinking anything so gauche as this.

    And yet:
    – we know buying a hundred or 150 years on stopping climate change will be not just cheap but ridiculously so. Bill Gates has enough in his sofa cushions to do it.
    – And we know such technologies are remarkably powerful.
    – If nothing else we can sharply cut down the worst tail risks. – And we have something like 7-8 decades to figure out how to do it in a way that hurts the environment only at some acceptable level.

    But no, that’s just not a live option, or at least no-one brought it up yet.

    Meanwhile, here’s a different horrible thought – that cutting carbon may involve restricting the growth opportunities of the world’s poorest. But notice how quick we now are to heroically bite THAT bullet. It’d be very sad and painful. Naturally. But we would much rather very reluctantly have hundreds of millions face suffering today, if need be, than risk losing galactic conquest and P=NP proofs a few millennia on. How much easier to talk like this, to build up drawbridges, when you and the people who look like you have already gotten yours.

    I suppose “the poor will always be with us” is an easy thought for any well off person (like everyone reading this post or commenting at it) to produce. We’ll make noises about deep philosophical values and how sad such tradeoffs are, but ultimately that’s a cost we can think (oh so reluctantly) of incurring. Seeding the oceans with iron or spewing sulfur into the air, now THAT’S actually actually unthinkable.

  46. James Gallagher Says:

    In the future, an alien child is given a historical project to analyse Earth 21st century:

    ======================================

    The climate was warming

    So they tried to reintroduce windmils and shit like that.

    WTF!!!!

    Almost ALL the evironmental “scientists” dimissed France’s model for Nuclear energy decades earlier – sadly

    They should have a created a MASSIVE global fund to get economical fusion energy to work – but they devoted all their economy to “windmills” and such

    This was because they allowed the general public to dictate policy far too much after they created their “internet”

    They failed, and perished

    As we now know

  47. Rahul Says:

    “It’s amazing to me that, when it comes to anything we have experience with, like (say) a terrorist attack, a fire, or a hurricane, everyone agrees that losing even 5% of New York would be a massive catastrophe. Yet when it comes to sea-level rise, people can calmly discuss losing the entire city as if it weren’t a big deal at all.”

    The rest are point events, a shock impact. A hurricane hit does its damage over about 24 hrs. A projected, gradual, sea-level rise gives you maybe ca. 100 years to plan & respond.

    PS. I’m not saying shifting NYC is easy or even possible. Just emphasizing why one of those events is different from the rest. So the comparison & amazement isn’t valid.

  48. Scott Says:

    prasad #45: In principle, I have no objection whatsoever to geo-engineering. And my guess is that we will be forced to resort to it, after all other options are exhausted. But it’s intellectually dishonest to present it as a magic-bullet solution, while ignoring the likelihood that it would simply make our situation worse. For example, consider the widely-discussed idea of shooting SO2 into the atmosphere to block sunlight and counteract the warming. Well, that might buy a few years, but what then? Are we going to shoot more and more SO2 into the atmosphere, to counteract the more and more CO2 that we’re also emitting? Sure, if someone overdoses on sleeping pills, you might be able to counteract that as an emergency measure by shooting them full of stimulants. But if you keep putting in more and more sleeping pills and more and more stimulants, you don’t get a perfect and harmonious balance; you get a dead patient. As in Greg’s story, this is all perfectly obvious when we’re talking about health; only when it comes to climate do people pretend not to understand it.

    And yes, I accept moral responsibility for my view that we need to ensure a future for the human species, even if it means lifting billions of the world’s people out of poverty not in the fastest possible way, but in a slower, more sustainable way. But I do so only under one condition: that you accept moral responsibility for your apparent view, that it would be OK to end the story of human civilization, the rich and poor parts alike—even, we might as well suppose for the sake of argument, let the last of our descendants die alone like the last T-Rex; let there be no language or humor or art from then until the sun engulfs the earth; let it all have been for this, for nothing, for a preventable global holocaust that we saw coming but failed to prevent—if it means people today can have cheap electricity and gas. So far, I haven’t seen any hint of that moral responsibility from the other side, which puts that side in a strange position to accuse me of smugness.

  49. Jay Says:

    >there’s too much coal in the ground. If only there were less! Alas, there seems to enough to continue running coal plants at current levels for thousands of more years

    So, if this number was, say, 200 years, then you’ll change your mind entirely?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_coal

    > I haven’t studied the IPCC reports enough to say, but my guess is that they massively understate

    No feeling this sentence starts as from a climate change denier?

    >people can calmly discuss losing the entire city

    Ok what about losing your entire skin? Sounds painfull? I promise you can calmly discuss it if the time frame is two months, for the reason all your skin will be “lost” anyway within this time frame. Cycle of life is longer for buildings, but it exists too. No matter what you do you will “lose” New-York within a couple of centuries, but no that’s not as scary as it sounds.

    >I’m not saying shifting NYC is easy or even possible.

    Within three hundred years, I’d say it’s self-obvious we can construct a New-York from scratch. Hint: New-York did not exist three hundred years ago.

  50. Rahul Says:

    One point I’m wondering about is does AGW in a do-nothing scenario indeed lead to something as drastic as the “end of the story of human civilization”?

    Most projections I’ve read are for the next hundred years & they are pretty bad & sad. Probably displacing millions & maybe killing millions too.

    But is it an existential crisis for the race? Is there a good scientific analysis describing how the endgame is likely to play out? What’s the timescale for end-of-civilization in this AGW-do-nothing scenario?

  51. Jay Says:

    >No feeling this sentence starts as from

    On rereading, this one sounds as from an a**hole. Apologies for my poor management of the tone.

  52. Rahul Says:

    Scott #42 says:

    “The problem is that there’s too much coal in the ground. If only there were less! Alas, there seems to enough to continue running coal plants at current levels for thousands of more years…”

    Do you have a source for that?

    The estimates I see for proven coal reserves are ~150 to 250 years. At the current levels of consumption.

  53. Raoul Ohio Says:

    As Rahul pointed out far above, what is the analog for quitting smoking in this parable?

    There is none.

    In the 1960’s I was very concerned about population growth and the degrading environment, and spent a lot of time thinking about what could be done. The basics are pretty simple:

    (1) The world now contains perhaps 10 to 100 times as many people as it can support for the long term.

    (2) Population growth continues merrily along.

    (3) Will population growth significantly slow?

    (4) No. Probably the biggest obstacle is organized religion. All major religions have gotten to be major by out breeding the competition. They are not about to give up this advantage. The Roman Catholic crew is the worst offender; not that they are the most draconian, but because they are the biggest.

    (5) For those of you with enough energy to save the world, quit wasting your time pestering the Canadians to sell oil to China rather than the US, and start haranguing Pope. Oh, and BTW, all the other religions out there. Let us know how that turns out.

    Conclusion: bummer!

    One final thought: I suspect many people do not actually disbelieve in the likelihood of climate change, but are concerned that acceptance of this idea will promote laws that punish the US while doing zero good other than providing the rest of the world with a good laugh. The Canada pipeline issue is a poster child example of this.

    The proposed fixes are similar to Kurzweil spending big on vitamins so that he lives forever.

  54. prasad Says:

    Re. “But it’s intellectually dishonest to present it as a magic-bullet solution”

    1) Well, good job I actually said And we have something like 7-8 decades to figure out how to do it in a way that hurts the environment only at some acceptable level, and not that it’s a magic bullet!
    2) A solution doesn’t have to be a magic bullet to be worth considering. Indeed, it only needs to be potentially better than a bunch of rich people sacrificing the well-being of a bunch of poor people. My suggestion essentially is that the sacred values of the western elite make “let’s not sacrifice the well-being of poor people” a much easier taboo to violate than “let’s not play games with mother nature.”

    Re. SO2 and unsustainability:
    1) The argument is that “buying a hundred or 150 years” with geo-engineering is a distinct possibility. That’s very far from being something to sneeze at. It gives us much more time to develop and deploy new technologies, and time for people to grow richer and more capable of absorbing economic shocks. Just because something is growing doesn’t mean the best possible way to stop is to slam the brakes as hard as possible. For heaven’s sake, derivatives matter.

    2) I picked an example with solar radiation management (SRM) – sulfur based, as well as one that sequesters carbon – iron seeding to encourage algal growth. The latter basically *doesn’t* fall to the Futurama ‘ever-larger-icecubes-solving-the-problem-once-and-for-all’ critique. This kind of scheme has lots of environmental issues too, but I don’t know what calculation you have in your pocket to tell me keeping Indians poor longer is better than screwing up the ocean ecosystem more.

    Re. “moral responsibility for your apparent view, that it would be OK to end the story of human civilization”

    My view is not that ending civilization is worth it so long as we manage the decline.

    My view is:
    [0) That climate change isn’t an existential threat, and I lean on IPCC reports to support me on this. Activists will frequently hype up climate porn doomsday scenarios, fine, that’s what activists do. I say we stick with consensus estimates. iIn any case, on our little geo-engineering tangent, geo-engineering makes perfect sense as insurance against exactly the far out right tail scenarios. It enables us to get them out of the way and proceed with sensible cost-benefit analysis. ]

    1) That some amount of environmental damage is worth incurring for the sake of purely human goals, that ecological and humanitarian goods can (and do) come apart, and when they do it’s plausible that the latter may weigh more.

    2) That any burden of combating climate change must fall equitably on the world’s people. Equally at worst, in a nice Rawlsian way ideally. Asking poor people to stay poor longer – even as you live in Boston and prove nice theorems and zip around in planes and cars with all that horrible “cheap electricity and gas” – isn’t how you do that.

    To be clear – the idea here *isn’t* the Peter Singer view that funding research while people die is bad, or that everyone must give till it hurts. The moral claim made is much less stringent and harder to defeat – the claim is simply that people in your shoes and mine have no business advocating that people who consume **much** less carbon than we do be kept from consuming more, but still less than us. It’s a claim about the rich not having the right to impose iniquitous deals upon the poor.

    That’s about it, nothing much to do with holocausts and humour and art, though I do find the claim that growth for the poor is simply “cheap gas and electricity” somewhat humorous, and not entirely in a becoming way.

  55. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    The reason that geoengineering proposals seem “controversial” is that they are insincere. It is always cheaper to mitigate pollution at its source. It just doesn’t make sense to warn environmentalists that we just can’t afford to stop CO2 emissions, and then turn around and claim that it will be economical to fix everything with geoengineering. It may sound sophistication, but it is really a code for making excuses.

    After all, one of the simplest and cheapest forms of geoengineering, one that has already been invented and implemented in many places, is flood walls. But when developers in North Carolina were asked to build flood walls to protect the state’s coast from future sea level rise, they and their political allies panicked and lashed out with the same denialist and pseudo-skeptical tactics as those used to defend fossil fuel use. They tried to legislate the false scientific assertion that sea level rise is linear.

    I could have added the same sort of argument to the parable: “Even if I do get lung cancer, why can’t you just treat it? Isn’t that your job?”

  56. Silas Barta Says:

    A doctor is speaking beyond their expertise when they say you should never smoke. “Smoking has negative net health benefits”? Sure. “Smoking may trigger an addiction you can’t get out of”? Sure. “Every cigarette has negative value on your utility function”? No.

    Since cigarettes are increasingly taboo, swap it out with marijuana. What if a doctor told you that you should never smoke weed? You would rightly reply,

    “Whoa there, doc: you can’t honestly recommend against that without a model that includes its benefits to me.”

    Similarly, the CBA on carbon emissions, does not justify the cold-turkey approach here.

  57. James Cross Says:

    Scott #37

    You write: “Rather, everything we know suggests it will continue to get worse and worse without limit, until (a) it’s solved, or (b) the planet becomes unable to support human civilization in anything like its current form.”

    Really?

    Predictions are very hard, especially about the future – Niels Bohr but often attributed to Yogi Berra

    You can probably point to a long history of accurate predictions by economists and scientists about the future, right?

    A hundred years ago who would have predicted computers, space travel, or the Internet. Two decades ago who would have predicted US CO2 emissions would be lower than anticipated now because we have shifted from coal to methane.

    Even if we agree to the objectives can we force ourselves to get there by prescriptive action? That I doubt. We can’t predict the technologies and economic forces that will unfold in the next hundred years. The chance that decisions we make now will be able to affect that future in a significant and positive way is not good. In fact, it might be more or less even odds whether decisions we make now might even affect the future adversely.

    http://broadspeculations.com/2013/01/19/predictions-are-very-hard/

    Part (b) even climate scientists do not agree with.

    There is no catastrophic scenario – no Venus scenario – in the IPCC reports.

    We are dealing with a good bit more uncertainty than you seem to realize.

    First, there is uncertainty about the magnitude of the green house effect and whether clouds might enhance it or diminish it. Then there is natural variability in the climate system – an explanation provided by climate scientists as to why the temperatures over the last 15 years or so have fallen on the low side of the models. We could add to this the unexpected, for example a series of major volcanic eruptions or a super volcano.

    Now combine that with predictions of technological change economic growth. The Third World is not installing land telephone lines. They are moving straight to mobile. Something similar could easily happen with energy generation. They could move to hydrogen power or solar power or even some new form of atomic power we can’t envision today. Improved sanitation and agricultural practices could easily mitigate warming effects on disease or possible reduced crop yields. Crops yields have increased enormously in the last fifty years even while we have lived through the blade of the hickey stick. Improvements in agricultural technologies is exactly what has made Paul Ehrlich’s predictions of massive famine fail.

    Do you really want to predict ” it will continue to get worse and worse without limit”?

  58. James Says:

    Just wondering, have any representative AGW skeptics proposed an amount of CO2 in the atmosphere at which they would become concerned? I mean, they’d be unmasked if they denied the qualitative statement that there is some CO2 level beyond which we’d be in trouble. So it must be a quantitative disagreement. Assuming that’s right, how do they reach their quantitative prediction and how does it differ from mainstream climate scientists’ predictions?

  59. John Sidles Says:

    Rahul wonders  “Does AGW in a do-nothing scenario indeed lead to something as drastic as the “end of the story of human civilization”?

    Short answer  yes.

    ———–

    Readings

    • Hansen et al, “Climate sensitivity, sea level and atmospheric carbon dioxide” (arXiv:1211.4846)

    Burning all fossil fuels, we conclude, would make much of the planet uninhabitable by humans, thus calling into question strategies that emphasize adaptation to climate change.

    • Goldblatt and Watson, “The Runaway Greenhouse: implications for future climate change, geoengineering and planetary atmospheres” (arXiv:1201.1593)

    The ultimate climate emergency is a ‘runaway greenhouse’: a hot and water vapour rich atmosphere limits the emission of thermal radiation to space, causing runaway warming. Warming ceases only once the surface reaches ~1400K and emits radiation in the near-infrared, where water is not a good greenhouse gas. This would evaporate the entire ocean and exterminate all planetary life. […]

    We cannot completely rule out the possibility that human actions might cause a transition, if not to full runaway, then at least to a much warmer climate state than the present one.

    Observation  Grappling with these sobering thermodynamic realities presents substantial political, economic, and even cognitive challenges.

    • Dunning, “We Are All Confident Idiots” (2014)

    What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.

    So what’s the connexion to quantum computing?

    • Preskill, “Quantum computing: pro and con” (arXiv:quant-ph/9705032)

    :Work on quantum error correction has generated profound new insights into the nature of decoherence and how it can be controlled. My own view is that the development of the theory of quantum error correction may in the long run have broader and deeper implications than the development of quantum complexity theory.”

    Falsifiable prediction  The converse of decoherence is the low-entropy ordering that every energy-production technology seeks to deliver; in consequence, advances in our microscale\(\ \)/ dynamical and macroscale\(\ \)/ thermodynamical understanding, that were originally motivated by long-term quantum computing objectives, will turn out to have near-term practical application to carbon-neutral energy production technologies.

    Summary  Market-fundamentalists and Rand-style libertarians commonly embrace climate-change skepticism as a non-rational means of denying the irretrievable planetary-scale market-failure that anthropic global warming (AGW) represents. Quantum computing research helps to create new dynamical understanding that crucially speeds the evolution of carbon-neutral energy economies.

  60. Scott Says:

    Silas #56: But doctors have always gone beyond laying out the implications of various options, to tell and even exhort their patients about what they should do. That’s socially accepted as part of the job of a doctor.

    The reason for this, I’d say, is that humans are not well-modeled as decision-theoretic agents with a single utility function that they’re trying to maximize. Rather, humans are afflicted by laziness, akrasia, temptation, and countless things that they “want to want, but don’t want.” Part of the role of the doctor is to try to align the patient’s health choices with his or her long-term preferences, rather than short-term ones.

    In the specific case of marijuana, I’d think it reasonable for the doctor to say something like this: “well, marijuana is much safer and less addictive than tobacco, so if you’re going to smoke something, then I’m happy it’s the former. But please consider getting your marijuana through a vaporizer, or mixing it in smoothies or baking it in cakes, rather than smoking it and ingesting carcinogenic ash into your lungs.”

  61. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    It’s as simple as the doctor is paid for her advice. It’s part of her job. Instead of accepting the truth whether or not he quits smoking, the patient wants to bend the truth to justify his actions.

  62. luca turin Says:

    There has been no warming for 18 years.

  63. MadRocketSci Says:

    We know that Venus, with a runaway greenhouse effect, is hot enough to melt any probes we send there, while Mars, with hardly any atmosphere to trap sunlight, is freezing—with both effects much more pronounced than could be explained by the planets’ distances from the sun.

    Venus’s atmosphere is 92 times thicker than Earth’s. In addition, it is composed almost entirely of CO2 and sulfur dioxide. In addition to that, doppler broadening (due to the extreme temperatures) makes CO2 on Venus a more potent greenhouse gas than it would be on Earth (where it only has two tiny absorption bands). The Venus thing is a bit of hyperbole – it doesn’t matter how much we can pull out of the crust and burn, Earth’s atmosphere is never going to look anything like Venus.

    Second, to extend your metaphor, your patient would have to have some sort of bizzare metabolism that runs only on nicotine. Sure, he can ‘quit’. Then he starves to death.

    Until civilization has a real, industrially useable alternative to fossil fuels, you have to weigh global warming against civilization coming to a grinding halt. Your target isn’t an electric car: it’s an electric long-haul semi truck constructed out of materials refined in electric steel-mills.

    That’s why quantifying the problem is important. Venus would be bad, but we’re not looking at Venus: We’re looking at a slightly warmer Earth.

  64. MadRocketSci Says:

    PS: I think we *do* have a very good alternative in terms of nuclear power.

    Furthermore, I think battery technology is getting good enough that some sort of stab at an electric truck might be able to be made. (Swappable batteries at charging stations to minimize time, something like that).

    On the other hand, people acting defensive about access to energy is perfectly understandable. They do have a very compelling interest to keep the lights on and their food/water/goods/power moving. Acting like they can just ‘quit’ using the only form of energy that they are de-facto allowed to use right now is not very realistic.

  65. Rahul Says:

    I think we’ve made progress in this discussion: So long as you frame the thing as a morality trade-off between caring for current populations versus the difficulties of civilization in the distant future I am satisfied. That’s a deep, nuanced question.

    But that is quite a bit different from simplistically assuming that everyone that is not enthusiastic about Global-Warming-solutions is a doofus or science-disbeliever or deluding himself etc. Or characterize (vilify?) them as fundamentalists.

    It is not as black-n-white as equating action with good & inaction with bad. And there’s some of us who acknowledge the existence of AGW but are only skeptical of the solutions suggested. i.e. one can totally believe AGW yet side with the do-nothing scenario. @prasad in Comment #54 & others have fleshed out the issue in great detail. It is OK to disagree with our moral choice but annoying when someone tries to pretend that there is no moral dilemma involved here.

    Equating these moral choices involved in AGW policymaking with the Kuperberg smoking parable just trivializes the complexities of the decisions involved.

    To suggest that there is a compelling case for action based on back-of-the-envelope, 19th-century physics and chemistry seems naive to me.

  66. Scott Says:

    Rahul #65: But Greg’s parable isn’t black-and-white either. Greg avoided the temptation to make his patient a completely idiotic strawman: the patient puts forth arguments for why continued smoking is a good idea. And once again, the patient might be right, if we weighted his current pleasure heavily enough compared to his future survival. I take Greg’s point to be that even the patient himself, deep down, knows that that’s an insane way to weigh things. And indeed, that’s exactly the reason why the patient feels the need to offer arguments (rather than just saying “I want to smoke and that’s that”): because he’s trying to avoid facing up to the insanity of his preferences.

  67. Fred Says:

    Nature always finds a way to thin the herd, to weed out the stupid.
    Science for ideas.
    Tobacco for individuals.
    Global warming for civilizations.

  68. Scott Says:

    Fred #67: But global warming could weed out everyone, not just the stupid…

  69. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Until civilization has a real, industrially useable alternative to fossil fuels…

    Civilization does not quite have a practical alternative to all uses of fossil fuels for all purposes. However, it does have real, industrially usable alternatives to coal, which is the biggest problem and which is mainly used for electricity. For example, in some years, the entire nation of France makes more than 100% of its electricity carbon-free. (With nuclear power. The surplus is exported, along with residual fossil fuel electricity.) Natural gas is also much less bad than coal as a way to make electricity, even if in the long run it isn’t good enough.

    And it’s clear that a lot of energy in the US in particular is outright wasted because it’s inexpensive and because of market inefficiencies. Energy conservation won’t solve everything either, but it would be a big help.

    …you have to weigh global warming against civilization coming to a grinding halt.

    As I said, one pseudo-clever way not to listen to people is to exaggerate and swing between wild extremes. “If you expect me to avoid ever breathing any puff of cigarette smoke, I would never be able to leave home.”

  70. Scott Says:

    Incidentally, Anon #16:

      Posting anonymously since climate heresy has too high a social cost.

    Give me a break: at least judging from this comment thread, it’s my position that’s the “heretical” one!

    Or maybe people mostly only leave comments here when they disagree with me? So that, if I want comment threads that reflect what I think the balance of educated opinion ought to be (and maybe quietly is), I should instead be posting Lubosian “AGW is a hoax” rants?

  71. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    the patient puts forth arguments for why continued smoking is a good idea.

    Well, he spends a little time on that, but he devotes the majority of his point to the safe territory of pseudo-skepticism: Chipping away at the doctor’s expertise to protect a gullible status quo.

    (Of course, not to nitpick too much myself. It’s fun for us to agree to agree. 🙂 )

  72. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Even with dirty coal plants a nation like India will have plenty of trouble getting electricity to its 300 million citizens with no access to electricity. But now put on top clean energy constraints and the already bleak picture becomes many times more bleaker.

    But that is the passive-aggressive philosophy that there is no such thing as good advice, only burdensome impositions. In fact, much of India’s economy policy since independence has been a passive-aggressive response to Western advice in general. And that has a lot to do with why India has so many problems, problems that go well beyond just electricity shortages and dirty air. But, taking that as the question, India’s air is already very bad and already takes a big health toll. The idea that it needs coal as the quick-and-dirty answer, not just any coal but quick-and-dirty coal that will create more smoke for Indians to breathe, is just very foolish.

    In any case, India is far enough behind China that it is just not the point. China and the US are 40% of the entire world problem. They both have deeply arrogant factions, and the recent accord between them is a big relief. If nothing else, it shows that there are some grownups in the room.

  73. Lurk Says:

    Scott #69: “Or maybe people mostly only leave comments here when they disagree with me?” — at least true for me. I’ve been following this thread, on your side, without making a comment, as usual.

  74. Scott Says:

    Jay #49 and Rahul #52: The question of how much coal is in the ground is an extremely complicated one, and I’m certainly not an expert on it. But it looks like if you count only “proven reserves” (i.e., stuff the coal companies know they could make a profit from at current prices if they dug up), then indeed there’s “only” enough of that for the next ~150 years at current consumption levels. (Which, of course, is already enough to cause massive amounts of warming.)

    The trouble is that, as the world runs out of relatively “clean” fossil fuels, it’s entirely possible that, rather than switching to nuclear or solar, we’ll just keep digging up dirtier and dirtier fossil fuels that we previously wouldn’t have even included in the “reserves” count, and will keep doing so even as it becomes more and more dangerous, destructive, and expensive to get it out. Indeed, that’s what we already see happening right now, for example with the oil sands in Alberta.

    Anyway, I’ve read that, if we really “scraped the bottom of the barrel” for the worst, dirtiest fossil fuels available, then there’s probably enough to last thousands more years at current consumption levels—assuming, of course, that we survived that long. But I don’t remember the source for that, and it could be wrong. Does anyone know?

  75. Gil Kalai Says:

    I like Greg’s parable and it certainly led to interesting discussion. What seem to be missing (at least for me) is what should we take as the “doctor’s position” in the analogy with global warming. Can we consider the IPCC’s report as the best representative of (most) expert’s assessments?

  76. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    The “proven reserves” of coal (or oil or natural gas) are in the larger scheme of things an underestimates, for reasons that have to do with what the phrase means. Proven reserves means reserves that can be extracted with at least 90% probability or efficiency, profitably at current prices. After that you have probable reserves (conceptually 50%), possible reserves (conceptually 10%), and technically recoverable reserves (recoverable at an economic loss).

    So, if you improve geological mapping, all of the lines can move: Between provable and probable, probable and possible, etc. If you improve extraction technology, again, all of the lines can move. And if simply the price of the fuel goes up, then all of the lines move other than boundary of technically recoverable. For instance, Canada’s proven oil reserves skyrocketed when the price of oil passed a certain threshold, because everyone knew that the tar sands are there in Alberta, but merely expensive to excavate.

    Coal is at the moment more than 10 times cheaper than oil in the US, per joule of energy. It is so cheap and widespread that it is largely a regional resource rather than a global one. It has a global price spread rather than a global price, because it also costs money to transport it. Changes in the price of coal largely reflect mining supply vs demand, rather than the geological endowment. There is a lot less effort to figuring out how to find and extract as much of it as possible, even at a fixed level of quality. If Wikipedia or similar estimates that we have ~150 years of coal, all that’s really being said is that there is “plenty”.

    If you estimate the total amount of technically recoverable coal in the world, it really could (by my wild guess) be something like 1000 years at the current rate of consumption. I don’t know if I would say thousands, plural, but one thousand is already beyond the atmospheric/oceanic capacity.

  77. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Gil – “Can we consider the IPCC’s report as the best representative of (most) expert’s assessments?”

    That is the report’s purpose. For all I know, it is respectable for that purpose, if surely not perfect. I have skimmed it and I see many valuable things to learn from it. And each new IPCC report tends to be more interesting than the last one as knowledge improves.

  78. Scott Says:

    Gil #75: My understanding is that the IPCC recommendations get watered down by political considerations before they make it from the scientists to the public. So, in this metaphor, they’d be like a surgeon general’s warning that maybe people should smoke less, but whose wording had to be negotiated with Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds. It would still be much better to follow the warning than to do what we’re doing now.

  79. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Scott – “My understanding is that the IPCC recommendations get watered down by political considerations before they make it from the scientists to the public.”

    That’s true, but most of the controversy has been in the “summary for policymakers” rather than the full report.

  80. Shmi Nux Says:

    Scott #6:

    > I think it’s unfortunate that people focus so much on the computer climate models, and in retrospect, it seems clear that climate researchers made a mistake when they decided to focus so heavily on them—it was like announcing, “as soon as these models do a poor job at predicting any small-scale, lower-order phenomenon, you’re free to ignore everything we say.”

    Right, that’s exactly my point, and the parallel is with the way quantum computer capabilities are being overhyped. Once the marketing promises prove false, the credibility disappears, be it inaccurate climate models or no “computing all answers at once”.

    I, of course, agree that relying on mother nature to fix our screwups is foolish.

  81. Dez Akin Says:

    Scott, you have my support at least in this argument. However I would like to add the economic dimension to this. It is, in my opinion, unlikely that climate change from unmitigated human activity over the next couple of centuries would be catastrophic from the perspective of survival of the human species. But it’s likely to be very expensive in terms of raw economic cost.

    We have probably hundreds of trillions of dollars of capital and infrastructure that depends on the current climate being what it is, and spending a few trillion, even with a steep discount rate, to delay having to invest in new infrastructure to accommodate a changed climate will likely save us quite a bit of cash… from massive irrigation projects for existing farm lobbies, to property damage and destruction from rising sea level. This is before you take into account externalities from fossil fuels that aren’t climate related (air quality health related issues for instance, or heavy metals contamination of water supplies)

    Doing the simplest and cheapest of mitigations are easy; Ban all coal power plants and replace them with nuclear, buttress the grid with HVDC transmission infrastructure would be a top down approach. A carbon tax would be the simplest market based approach, especially since you need to raise tax revenue somehow anyways.

  82. Ben Standeven Says:

    I thought up another version of this parable, which for the most part seems closer; although it does introduce a new few problems:

    Economist: You ought to balance the budget, among other reasons because excessive deficit spending causes recessions.
    Senator: Are you sure? My constituents like it when I spend government money. Plus, it injects money into the economy.
    E: Yes, the science is settled.
    [Actually, I don’t know if this is true; but never mind…]
    S: All right, if the science is settled, can you tell me when the recession will start if we continue with the current budget?
    E: No, of course not, it’s not that precise.
    S: Okay, how much excess spending can the economy handle?
    E: I can’t tell you that, although I would recommend no excess spending at all.
    S: Do you know that there will be a recession at all no matter how much we spend?
    E: No, it’s a statistical risk. But overspending also causes inflation.
    [Would our economist really admit this?]
    S: I certainly know some countries with serious inflation problems, but some of them don’t have significant deficits. Even if we do start having serious problems with inflation, would you really know that it’s because of our overspending?
    E: No, not necessarily; it’s a statistical effect.
    S: If it’s statistical, then you do know that correlation is not causation, right?
    E: Yes, but …
    [No idea what to put here.]
    S: Some of those countries’ economies subsequently recovered, you already admitted.
    E: Yes, but there is a lot of research to back this up.
    S: Look, I’m not a research scientist, I’m interested in the policies I vote on. You have an extended brief for me with models, computations, graphs, you name it. You can gather more data about the economy if you like. Yet you’re hedging everything you have to say.
    E: Of course, there’s always more to learn about economics. But it’s a settled recommendation that deficit spending is bad for the economy.
    P: It sounds like the science is anything but settled. I’m not interested in hypothetical recommendations. Why don’t you get back to me when you actually know what you’re talking about. In the meantime, I will continue to spend public money, because as I said, my constituents enjoy it.

  83. Rahul Says:

    Scott #74:

    “The trouble is that, as the world runs out of relatively “clean” fossil fuels, it’s entirely possible that, rather than switching to nuclear or solar, we’ll just keep digging up dirtier and dirtier fossil fuels that we previously wouldn’t have even included in the “reserves” count, and will keep doing so even as it becomes more and more dangerous, destructive, and expensive to get it out.”

    Only if you assume the industry is unusually stupid or you are very very pessimistic about the future technology trajectory of solar.

    People are already talking about grid parity of solar right now (though I’m skeptical we are there yet). The prices of solar panals have halved in the last decade whereas like you say the deeper, more inaccessible coal will get more expensive to mine. I’m not saying this exponential fall in SPV will continue for ever but it’s reasonable to imagine that at some point in the next 150 years solar will be hugely more competitive than digging deeper for coal.

    Why would you imagine the power industry wouldn’t switch even when there’s a clear, sustainable, proven cost advantage to switching?

  84. Scott Says:

    Rahul #83:

      Why would you imagine the power industry wouldn’t switch even when there’s a clear, sustainable, proven cost advantage to switching?

    Because if the world was rational, then we would’ve switched already.

    In the US, there’s now a whole subculture of people who engage in “rolling coal”: spending thousands of dollars to outfit their cars and trucks with useless smokestacks, just as a way of thumbing their noses at environmentalism. Likewise, when Reagan became president, he removed solar panels that Jimmy Carter had installed on the White House roof, even though the panels were just sitting there saving money—solely because he didn’t like the symbolism.

    Given everything we know about the United States, I find it entirely plausible that we’ll continue burning fossil fuels, even in a hypothetical future where the alternatives have become indisputably cheaper—purely as a matter of obstinacy and spite, of inertia and entrenched financial interests, and of people being unable to admit they were wrong. Consider Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK): do you seriously think he would ever, under any circumstances, install a solar panel—regardless of how much money he’d save? Well, there’s a third of the country that thinks like him, and that third wields disproportionate power.

  85. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Economist: You ought to balance the budget, among other reasons because excessive deficit spending causes recessions.

    But then that it is a really bone-headed economist. Many real-life economists have explained why this is simplistic and wrong in many cases. In fact even outright backwards in many cases, including in actual periods of American and modern European history.

    The presumption of my parable is that the doctor fairly represented the established science of the health consequences of smoking cigarettes. (Even if that weren’t true, the patient did nothing to improve matters.)

    [Actually, I don’t know if this is true; but never mind…]

    It’s a good thing you said that, except that I don’t want to not mind.

    E: No, it’s a statistical risk. But overspending also causes inflation. [Would our economist really admit this?]

    Actually this is true: Overspending does cause inflation. But overspending is not at all the same thing as merely not always balancing the budget.

  86. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Consider Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK): do you seriously think he would ever, under any circumstances, install a solar panel—regardless of how much money he’d save?

    Well, there is more to learn about global warming and its mitigation than just to identify and reject pseudo-skepticism. Inhofe is an incredibly obnoxious ideologue on this issue and on environmental issues in general. He is an unvarnished denialist, in fact a Biblical fundamentalist to the extent that that’s logically possible in science, and not even much of a pretense of a skeptic.

    The problem is that residential solar electricity is not a useful way to mitigate greenhouse gases, and is not going to be useful for the forseeable future. Utility solar electricity could become competitive, but that’s different. Residential solar is a way to buy off environmentalists with roof jewelry instead of listening to rational science. Depressingly, it has also served as a way to procrastinate. It is a fantasy approach in countries that want to reject both coal electricity, and unpalatable but realistic alternatives such as natural gas and nuclear electricity. In practice, the coal largely stays.

    If you think that committed anti-environmentalists would always reject solar on their own roofs, actually that’s not always true. I know a counterexample. They don’t consider it hypocrisy, because they think of liberalism as a philosophy for suckers and they are happy to accept the subsidy.

  87. Aaron Sheldon Says:

    Actually the reason we haven’t stopped using fossil fuels is perfectly rational, and perfectly thermodynamic. Not just in analogy, but in actual practice, once we lit the match on fossil fuel reserves that fire was going to burn, no matter what; and will do so until it is no longer favored by entropy.

    You see, over about 25 million years a chemical potential was stored up in the form of the organic hydrocarbon bounds, a small potential in geological terms, but large biologically. Life being the stochastic process it is, explored that elevated potential energy manifold until it found an enzymatic pathway to reduce the potential energy stored in fossil fuels and thermally exhaust it back to space: namely homo sapiens industrious. What we consider to be the endless advancement of the human race, is really just a short term (2-3 centuries) set of transitions through planetary metabolic pathways to oxidize the stored chemical potential.

    Now that we are starting to dredge the really low EROEI fuels, in the 1:5 to 1:2 range we will see industrialization slow down, as agriculture and photosynthetic pathways become competitive again, having EROEI in a similar range. If you are still in denial over what is a pretty straightforward planetary thermodynamic process I ask you to consider this:

    For the last 3 years rail companies in Canada have chosen to ship bitumen over grain, stranding incredible amounts of agriculture products on the prairies. So how long can a modern industrial society sustain its demand for energy when it is quite literally starving itself of food for that energy? The Canadian labor market is equally being drained by this apparently insatiable appetite for fossil carbon.

    …and this my learned colleagues is just the tip of the iceberg, the whole of human civilization is on the cusp of slowing down to an enormous degree; not collapsing, just slowing.

    Now there will be some who will try to claim we can run an industrial society off of renewable energy resources, but I have some very crafty arguments regrading that as well. Arguments that make it clear that an appeal to industrialized renewable energy will leave us in a very tenuous position.

  88. quax Says:

    Love the parable. Personally I find climate change deniers about as irritating and annoying as 2nd hand smoke.

  89. John Sidles Says:

    Scott appreciates “The IPCC recommendations get watered down by political considerations before they make it from the scientists to the public.”

    Harvard scientist/historian Naomi Oreskes analyzes these issues in a brief on-line interview Why are climate scientists so conservative?

    More recently, Prof.\(\ \)Oreskes has given an in-depth presentation of these views in her summary lecture at the Pontifical Academy Workshop, Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility (2-6 May 2014, Vatican City)

    Scientific Consensus and the Role
    and Character of Scientific Dissent

    I would argue that something has been lost, over the last fifty or sixty years; something that Bohr and Einstein knew how to articulate.

    And that, I would argue, is a sense of moral gravity, a sense of what is at stake.

    We miss the opportunity to communicate what Bohr and Einstein recognized, in a different context: that scientists, by virtue of our expertise, at least in some cases have a uniquely vivid appreciation of the risks that we face, and in the case we’ve studied most closely, the damage that climate-change can wreak.

    Note: Oreskes’ lecture begins at 8:07:03 (on most web-browsers, the URL links directly to it).

    At this Vatican Workshop, the follow-on praise by Walter Munck — the world’s most celebrated oceanographer, and a long-time JASON member — spoke well to the merits of Oreskes’ work.

    Falsifiable assertion  Historically, the inhibitory mechanisms that Oreskes identifies in respect to climate-change science have operated strongly in the context of dynamical transport theory broadly conceived, and specifically in quantum information theory regarded as an aspect of transport theory; an interlocking interest in climate-change and quantum dynamics is in this sense natural both historically and technologically.

    ————–
    Readings

    @misc{Oreskes:2014ab, Author = {Naomi Oreskes},
    Howpublished = {Joint Workshop of the Pontifical Academy
    of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences,
    \emph{Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature:
    Our Responsibility} 2-6 May 2014, Vatican City}, Month =
    {2-6 May}, Note = {video presentation,
    \url{http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXS6X3P0sVU&t=8h7m10s},
    beginning 8:07:03; the title-slide is “The role of
    scientists: what is ‘our responsibility’?”}, Title =
    {Scientific Consensus and the Role and Character of
    Scientific Dissent}, Year = {2014}}

  90. Scott Says:

    Greg #86: OK, I wasn’t trying to argue that residential solar is (or will become) a cost-effective answer—just that there’s a large fraction of the American population that will reflexively oppose even those environmental initiatives that move us strictly northeast on the Pareto curve. So my hypothetical question should be revised to read, “do you think James Inhofe would ever support any energy/environment initiative that Greg Kuperberg also supports?”

  91. Fred Says:

    Scott #68
    🙂 I meant that nuclear war and global warming are ways for nature to weed out species/civilizations at the galactic scale (Martians didn’t make it).

  92. Fred Says:

    Imagine that we suddenly discover a free, totally clean, and unlimited source of energy.
    Since it’s all free, potentially everyone on the planet would be consuming multiple times what the current American average is (already pretty high). Industries would also be consuming way more: getting clean water by removing salt out of sea water is free, dealing with pollution by brute force is feasible, etc.
    There wouldn’t be any dirty emission, but every KW generated would still end up in the environment as wasted “heat”.
    I’ve always wondered what would be the impact of that heat. I’ve tried estimating that (it’s very likely I messed up :P)

    In the US the total energy consumption (including industries, etc) per million ppl per year is ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_in_the_United_States ):
    82 TWh per year per million ppl
    Say that with unlimited free energy that consumption would be multiplied by 12, (for everyone on the planet):
    1,000 TWh / year per million ppl
    For the whole planet (7 billion)
    P1 = 7,000 x 1,000 TWh per year
    P1 = 2 x 10^13 KWh/day

    Comparing that to the sun energy hitting the earth surface
    http://www.itacanet.org/the-sun-as-a-source-of-energy/part-2-solar-energy-reaching-the-earths-surface/
    = 2.88 kwH/day per m^2
    (Earth surface = 5.1 x 10^8 km^2)
    P2 = 1.5 x 10^15 KWh/day

    P1 is about 1.3% of P2.
    Would that be enough to have a significant impact on the environment?

  93. Maxwell Says:

    I would add to Scott’s Comment #3 that smokers’ habits also inhibit public funding of research into thoracic cancers. For example, many people hear about lung cancer and immediately assume that the afflicted are smokers (who disregarded a mountain of evidence). Consequently, people are reluctant to donate money.

    This is in contrast to, say, the massive pink-ribbon campaigns. Despite that 10% to 15% of lung-cancer patients have never smoked, and that lung cancer is by far the deadliest cancer, this disease simply doesn’t attract the support it should, in part thanks to smokers.

    – A very different Max

  94. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Scott – Sure, those people exist. However, some years ago there was an interesting article in the New York Times about this. It seems that many or most ordinary political conservatives are actually very receptive to clean energy and energy conservation until you mention global warming, or worse, Al Gore. And then identity politics kicks in and they lose their heads.

    In Kansas, Climate Skeptics Embrace Cleaner Energy

  95. Anonymous coward Says:

    Fred #92

    I think you may be ignoring energy lost due to the reflection of radiation back into space.

    In any case, I believe you would have to see how the increase by x% increases the amount of energy loss of the Earth, then put this into a differential equation with starting condition +1.3%, and find its limiting behavior.

  96. Jay Says:

    Scott #74 and Greg #76

    Yes it’s hard to precisely estimate how much coal can be extracted, for the reasons well explained by Greg. But reasonable estimates range from 100 to 500 years (one thousand would require almost any ressource to become a reserve), not thousands with an s.

    That said, I don’t think this point is actually central to your position, Greg’s or mine. First because you would then know these numbers very well! Second Greg directly indicated “150 years is already too much”, and third I don’t think I would change my mind either if clathrate extraction was suddenly economically feasible with thousands of years of reserves (which is not too unreasonable scenario -we just don’t know yet).

    So imho the main reason is elsewhere, maybe in #39 and as per Greg that 150 years is already too much: you think the choice is suffer now (massively according to you, slightly according to Greg) or our children will suffer massively latter. I think massive suffer latter is not especially likely, and, more important, massive suffer now could as well delayed the rise of technological improvements that would make the cost lower both now and latter. Of course we can agree a few dollar on carbon tax is not massive suffer at all, and should be done anyway.

    Scott #70: Or maybe people mostly only leave comments here when they disagree with me?

    Sure! My guess is it forms some mexican hat, as for Kohonen maps. If you’d turn SO in LSO, I won’t comment -at least because I won’t read either. 🙂

    Fred #92: no, direct heating is peanut as compared to anthropic forcing. Multiply by ten and you’ll get ten peanuts. Worse, inertia is completly different: stop heat now and it leaves, stop CO2 now and AGW will still be on us for centuries (unless we also find fast ways to recapture huge amounts of CO2)

  97. Fred Says:

    Jay #96
    “no, direct heating is peanut as compared to anthropic forcing.”
    You’re probably right, unless a increase of x% of direct heating is enough to switch the atmosphere/oceans into a different mode (extra humidity in the atmosphere, etc) which wouldn’t get reversed by turning off the extra heat. More hysteresis than inertia.
    (but I know nothing on actual ocean/atmosphere dynamics).

  98. Aaron Sheldon Says:

    Fred #92

    If there was a renewable “free” energy source available to only industrial humans, then long before we cooked the planet we would have wiped out all biological life.

    The “free” energy source would allow human industrial civilization to replicate itself faster than biological ecosystems, and depending on the size of this energy source this could result in the devastation of all biological life within a couple of centuries.

    There are only 5 alternatives available for future human development:

    1. The photosynthetic-aerobic pathways are a local equilibrium in the state space, and industrial terrestrial solar power is a lower equilibrium, then industrial civilization eventually wipes out all biological ecosystems; through positive feedback.

    2. The photosynthetic-aerobic pathways are a local equilibrium in the state space, and industrial fusion power is a lower equilibrium, then industrial civilization eventually wipes out all biological ecosystems; through positive feedback.

    3. The photosynthetic-aerobic pathways are a local equilibrium in the state space, and industrial space based solar power that sends energy back to Earth is a lower equilibrium, then industrial civilization eventually cooks the whole planet; through positive feedback.

    4. The photosynthetic-aerobic pathways are a local equilibrium in the state space, and industrial space based solar power that use power to establish space colonies is a lower equilibrium, then industrial civilization eventually surrounds the sun in a Dyson sphere; through positive feedback. Biological life on Earth would likely die out long before Dyson sphere civilization would completely block out the sun, as the rate limiting thermodynamic step becomes the ability to transport large amounts material around the solar system.

    5. The photosynthetic-aerobic pathways are true lowest equilibrium in the state space, then over the next century civilization reverts back to agrarianism.

    Personally I prefer option 4. But if we are going to do it, we better get on it because we sure are running out of high ERORI energy sources.

  99. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Of course we can agree a few dollar on carbon tax is not massive suffer at all, and should be done anyway.

    That depends on the value of “we”. If you look at what happened in Australia, they repealed a CO2 tax which was just 2 cents per kilowatt-hour for coal electricity as a conspiracy to murder jobs. That’s all it takes to make coal uncompetitive in the long run, and that’s why the Australian coal industry found it unacceptable.

    By the way, the equivalent tax on gasoline is only 50 cents per gallon. Oil is much more expensive than coal; 50 cents per gallon has only a moderate effect on consumption.

  100. Rahul Says:

    Is comparing 2 cents versus 50 cents valid in this case? The denominator is very different.

    A tax of 2 cents per kWhr is approx 25% of the current industrial cost of electricity in many locales.
    Not saying we shouldn’t do it, but don’t make it sound like an insignificant change.

    This sort of tax, applied unilaterally by any one nation, might have a large, distortionary impact on industrial output. This flavor of economic engineering needs to be done very carefully.

  101. John Sidles Says:

    Aaron Sheldon proclaims (#98) “There are only five alternatives available for future human development”

    LoL\(\ \)… Aaron Sheldon, your “only five” list will remind “all true libertarians” of a passage in Robert Heinlein’s young adult SciFi novel Tunnel in the Sky (1955, and still in print!)

    “Intelligence can find solutions where there are none. Psychologists once locked an ape in a room, for which they had arranged only four ways of escaping. Then they spied on him to see which of the four he would find. The ape escaped a fifth way.”

    Modern stories like Kathleen Ann Goonan’s (of Georgia Tech) story “Girl in Wave: Wave in Girl”, (which is collected in Neil Stephensen’s recent omnibus Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, 2014) carry on Heinlein’s tradition

    (p.\(\ \)p. 41:  “No one person pushed a button. It [transformative medicine] emerged, evolved, changed as connectivity increased, with bottom-up feedback. All kinds of people\(\ \)— neurologists, biologists, cognitive scientists, artists, computer scientists, musicians\(\ \)— had been working on aspects of it, first separately and then connectedly, for years.\(\ \)[…] it was a time of chaos and glorious growth, a watershed as important as the printing press.”

    Good on `yah, Robert Heinlein, Neil Stephensen, and Kathleen Ann Goonan\(\ \)… whose hopeful narratives are crafted with comparable passion, imagination, and attention-to-detail, as the technologies that (hopefully!) in our century will make their visions real.

    @book{Author = {Heinlein,
    R.A.}, Publisher = {Scribners}, Title = {Tunnel
    in the Sky}, Year = {1955}}

    @incollection{Author =
    {Kathleen Ann Goonan}, Booktitle = {Hieroglyph:
    Stories and Visions for a Better Future},
    Editor = {Finn, Ed and Cramer, Karen}, Pages =
    {38–73}, Publisher = {HarperCollins}, Title =
    {Girl in Wave: Wave in Girl}, Year = {2014}}

  102. Jay Says:

    >That depends on the value of “we”.

    Indeed… “we” was you, Scott and I, not coal industry.

    >This sort of tax, applied unilaterally by any one nation, might have a large, distortionary impact on industrial output.

    Actually this would not be enough to counter the drop in electricity cost we had in north america in the last 15y. Plus, a carbon tax would not cause a distorsion, it will *correct* a large one, e.g. that market price does not include the cost of externalities.

    http://ec.europa.eu/research/energy/pdf/kina_en.pdf

  103. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Rahul – “Is comparing 2 cents versus 50 cents valid in this case? The denominator is very different.”

    Okay, we can get a clearer comparison in units of gigajoules. One gigajoule of gasoline is about 7.6 gallons, which at current prices is about $23. One gigajoule is also 278 kWh, which at typical industrial rates is $19.50 and at typical residential retail rates is about $33.50. So, this is not that different, and the typical carbon tax wouldn’t be all that different either: At 2 cents per kWh, it would be $5.50 for each one. Okay, this is 72 cents per gallon rather than 50 cents. I’m not correcting for the fact that gasoline has less CO2 per energy unit than coal does, although it also takes significant energy to convert crude oil to gasoline.

    But the thing is, gasoline is 100% fuel, while the coal fuel is only a fraction of the price of the electricity, about $7.50 at current rates in the US. So, with a realistic carbon tax, electricity and gasoline would both change in price moderately, while coal go up in price by 75%. In the long run, a lot of it would stay in the ground in favor of energy conservation and other ways to make electricity. (Which is the whole point of the policy.)

  104. Darrell Burgan Says:

    Empirical evidence will settle the climate change debate. Already deniers have to concede the evidence is clear that climate change is happening. Soon the evidence will be clear that various aspects of human existence are the root cause.

    Until the evidence is so compelling that even hardliners cannot evade it, deniers will deny. The only real question is whether the evidence comes in before it is too late to do anything about the problem.

  105. Nikny Says:

    Just a brief comment on the standard argument given here in various threads (by Rahul and perhaps others) that maintenance of current oil production is necessarily intertwined with the development in the third world etc; Who do you think are most eager to approve of these kind of arguments? Is it the “struggling population of the third world”, or is it perhaps these guys:

    http://www.aus.edu/site/custom_scripts/profile_details.php?profileID=45

    http://www.gazprom.com/about/management/directors/

  106. JimV Says:

    Thanks for the post.

    But … it is very depressing to find out that many of the smart people (as I assume they are since they read this blog) just don’t care about the future of this world (the only place in the universe which we know of so far that supports our chemical form of life) and/or disparage the hard work of climate scientists. I have a bad feeling that I know one of the answers to the Fermi Paradox.

    I have never owned a car (tough now that I’m retired and in the suburbs, not difficult when I worked in a city with good public transportation), and spent several years without a TV. I waste too much electricity on my laptop checking to see if Scott’s or other blogs which I follow have a new post up, but really as long as there are public libraries and good places to walk, it would not be the end of the world for people in first-world countries to cut way back on their energy consumption. It doesn’t take a lot of energy to play bridge or chess, for example. (Or pinochle and checkers.)

  107. mark Says:

    I think that this writing had a good intention, but it seems somewhat naive. For example:

    ***************
    Doctor: You ought to stop smoking, among other reasons because smoking causes lung cancer.
    *OK, its a fact.

    Patient: Are you sure? I like to smoke. It also creates jobs.
    * Valid answer, everyone is responsible by himself.

    D: Yes, the science is settled.
    * OK, it is a fact.

    P: All right, if the science is settled, can you tell me when I will get lung cancer if I continue to smoke?
    * Perfectly valid answer.

    D: No, of course not, it’s not that precise.
    * Incomplete answer. There is a probability to have lung cancer, if somebody smokes. This kind of answer of a competent professional is .. arbitrary, justifies a defensive actitude of patient; therefore, it is unrealistic dialog.

    P: Okay, how many cigarettes can I safely smoke?

    * Valid answer.

    D: I can’t tell you that, although I wouldn’t recommend smoking at all.

    * Arbitrary answer. This professional looks incompetent. The dialog with very god intentions turns weak..

    On the other hand, tha analogy is interesting but I doubt if it was properly constructed . The climate change is a mucho more complex problem since the multiple involved variables. We must protect the planet because we live here. Even if a bird is damaged by oil fuel industries, we should prioritize the life. The complexity of this problem is distracting and suggests the need of new approaches to communicate the truth and research the consequences of human activities.

  108. James Cross Says:

    Darrell, Nikny, et al

    Many who are labelled deniers are not denying the reality of climate change. They are mainly questioning how big human caused change is or will be. The range of projections even in the IPCC report is fairly wide. They also question whether the human caused change will be severe or catastrophic enough to justify severe and immediate measures that might curtail growth and prosperity for years.

    One of the keys to mitigating the possible negative effects of climate change is economic growth of the Third World. If warming does increase tropical disease threat, a Third World with better water supplies and sanitation would be able to cope better than a Third World with poorer capacities. If warming diminishes crop yields, the development of drought resistant varieties, improved agricultural practices, and better water management would reduce the effects of the warming. All of these things require development. Development requires energy. Forcing the developing world to curtail their greenhouse gas emissions could result in delay in the economic and technological progress that could allow these countries to cope better with the changes of global warming. In other words, the developed world could reduce its costs in dealing with global warming at the cost of the increasing the vulnerability of the developing world.

    For my part, I would prefer to look at the broad range of human influence on the ecosystem rather than just focusing on global warming. Things are a good deal more interconnected anyway.

    Our problem is an irrational consumption of resources of all sorts – fossil fuels, , water, and land – combined with vast inequality in the distribution of wealth that leaves poorer countries with fewer resources to adapt to changes whether caused by global warming or other things. Global warming caused by greenhouse gases is but a part of the bigger problem of global mismanagement of the planet. Reducing greenhouse gases while we still pillage the Amazon, pollute the oceans, and leave millions impoverished and malnourished in the Third World will do far less to make a world a better place than would be addressing the real problems directly. Even if we reduce or eliminate human caused climate change, the climate and the world will still change. Nothing will stand still. The future will be better if we reduce our impact on the Earth in all ways, not just reduction of greenhouse gases. This will in part require that developing countries obtain greater access to the economic and technological resources they need.

  109. Nikny Says:

    Any reasonably sane person can see that the obvious thing to do which is objectively most efficient, if your object is to maximize the mitigation and minimize the societal impact of anthropogenic climate change, is to put into action some sort of global policy which makes it impossible to profitize on fossil fules and cole, such that the remaining resources stay in the ground. That “we also have other problems in the world” and that “the whole picture is more complex than that” is just not a valid argument against it. Of course we have, and of course it is, but nevertheless we must focus on the main concrete actions which could be undertaken. This is broadly considered to be sort of an extreme and utopian position, and that in itself is probably the most pressing obstacle to progress in these issues at this moment.
    The correct way to frame the problem is as an economic conflict between people who care about at the least modest wellbeing in a not to distant future, and those who, for various reasons, are stuck in a profit-driven loop of insanity.
    What else do we got?

  110. Vitruvius Says:

    “The main thing that is lacking at the moment is humility. The climate experts have set them selves up as being guardians of the truth. They think they have the truth. That’s a dangerous situation.”
    — Freeman Dyson

  111. Serge Says:

    There used to be those who danced to make it rain. It was of no use at all but that was all they could do about the weather. Today – now that we have the knowledge – most people refuse to start dancing slowlier, even though that might indeed slow down global warming. But it’s so much easier for an individual to change their own behavior – e.g. to stop smoking – than for an entire society to implement even slight changes in the collective way of life! This must have been one of the lessons which Grothendieck learnt to its detriment in the latter part of his life, when he quit math for ecology…

  112. James Cross Says:

    I would be very interested in know what the sides of this issue felt to be the relative probabilities of various scenarios.

    For example, probabilities of global warming producing the following: (I’ll put my estimates in parenthesis)

    1- Ecosystem catastrophe (1%)
    2- Mainly negative effects but not catastrophe (39%)
    3- Some positive and some negative effects – on balance a wash (50%)
    4- Mainly positive effects (9%)
    5- No negative effects (1%)

    I concede that in my estimate there is > 0% probability of negative or even catastrophic effects.

    Do those who argue for dramatic action concede that there is a probability, however small, that global warming might have positive effects?

    At any rate, framing the issue in terms of probabilities highlights the difficulty of how to act to affect future events that can be only be estimated in a probabilistic fashion when the actions being proposed have immediate and more known consequences.

    I would argue for a modest carbon tax that could be used to pay down the debt in the US. Hopefully this would spur the development of alternative technologies which would reduce our emissions (even more than the shift from coal to gas has) and that could be adopted by the Third World.

  113. Scott Says:

    Vitruvius #110: Do you detect much humility on the part of, let’s say, James Inhofe? Or Lubos?

    To justify a carbon tax, a push for solar and nuclear, or other commonsense measures, doesn’t require any certainty about the exact effects of our massive experiment on the climate—just the assigning of a reasonably high probability to really bad scenarios (cf. James Cross’s comment #112), combined perhaps with ordinary risk-aversion. (By analogy, we don’t keep a fleet of nuclear submarines under the Arctic because we’re certain we’ll be victims of a nuclear first strike if we don’t.) It seems to me that it’s the other position, the do-nothing one, that requires an arrogant and totally-unjustified level of certitude.

  114. Scott Says:

    James Cross #112:

    You didn’t specify which timeframe you’re talking about, which makes it very hard to assign probabilities. But for the 21st century, assuming we do nothing differently, my probabilities would be roughly as follows:

    1- Ecosystem catastrophe (35%)
    2- Mainly negative effects but not catastrophe (35%)
    3- Some positive and some negative effects – on balance a wash (20%)
    4- Mainly positive effects (10%)
    5- No negative effects (0% — there have already been negative effects)

    The longer business-as-usual continues, the more of my probability mass gets shifted onto 1.

  115. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    My personal understanding is as follows:

    Net cost far-and-away greater than than the cost of mitigation: 80%.

    Blessing in disguise: 5%

  116. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    mark #107 – I deliberately made the doctor’s explanations incomplete and the patient’s retorts a little bit clever. Again, this is one of the key aspects of pseudo-skepticism. The patient should be trying to learn from his doctor, not win a debate with her.

  117. Rahul Says:

    Why is it termed callous, insane or arrogant for me to care more about the welfare & happiness of millions of currently alive fellow human beings than whether at some point hundreds of years later mankind will exist to colonize the galaxy, solve P vs NP etc.?

    I disagree that to do-nothing implies arrogance nor a high level of certitude.

  118. Nikny Says:

    What about blessing in disguise as an incentive for people to actually cooperate peacefully on a global scale for the sake of both survival and cultural and technological advancement of societies? (maybe I’m being overly optimistic here, mildly speaking, but at least a worthwhile thought experiment..)

  119. Rahul Says:

    For the 21st century, in a do-nothing scenario, my probabilities:

    1- Ecosystem catastrophe (<1%)
    2- Mainly negative effects but not catastrophe (~85%)
    3- Some positive and some negative effects – on balance a wash (10%)
    4- Mainly positive effects (5%)
    5- No negative effects (0%)

    I'm not an AGW existence skeptic but an AGW action skeptic.

  120. Vitruvius Says:

    You’ve read your own bias into my comment #110, Scott. When quoting Dyson, I did not specify who the supposed “experts” are: the ones who believe in very high probability of disaster, or the ones who believe there’s no chance of disaster. Personally, I’m not happy with either. Nor did my comment #13 answer the question it posed: the who could be either, both, or neither. But is it us?

    Since you’ve asked, in my opinion, in this discussion: I think we’re all faith-based believers, because as Feynman said: “The fundamental principle of science, the definition almost, is this: the sole test of the validity of any idea is experiment”. I see no experiments here, I see only beliefs in disparate unvalidated models. As a professional computing scientist, I create models for a living. I’ve learned to not trust unvalidated models. Thus, the way I see it: the arguments over the always changing weather are not based on science, they’re based on faith. And, perhaps, in the case of the egregiously concerned, a bit of that oh so modern angst arising among the rich from their discomfort over not feeling sufficient guilt for their success, which is its own kind of irrationality that I’ll leave aside in this comment.

    Now, since we’re working on a faith basis here anyway: personally, if I look at all the arguments that have to come together in order for humans’ effect on the normal variations of climate to produce catastrophic abnormal effects, each argument with a probability less than one which reduces the net probability of the whole conjecture, and then I compare that to the number of ways the best quality of life conditions in the history of man (Pinker, Ridley) could go wrong if humans go nuts because they become afraid enough of a few degrees of warming or cooling, with the concomitant piling on by the less noble of the species taking advantage of the situation for sinister and possibly draconian ends as we’ve already seen, I find myself much more concerned about the dangers from the latter than from the former. When I see real scientists stop being skeptical (which Dyson considers to be an a priori requirement for scientists), because they are afraid or because they need research grants (which causes Smolin concern); when I see so-called scientists claim personal certainty, and call for judicial action against those who honestly disagree with their conclusions, in violation of all the arguments in favour of freedom of thought, belief, and speech, my concerns about the dangers from the latter increase.

    I could be wrong. I try to asses the risks of bad results should I be wrong. What if it does get a bit warmer, and there is a higher concentration of plant food in the atmosphere? Considering mitigating factors ranging from the Beer-Lambert Law to the planet’s self-damping behaviour over the previous hundreds of millions of years to the changes that will inevitably happen over the next century even without any specific directed action on our behalf, I don’t think that would be all that bad, that could be quite good, and no, I’m not certain. Do you think you could be wrong? What are the risks of bad results should you be wrong? Have you considered the dangers posed by your proposed autocratic state intervention, in light of its historic record? Have you considered the dangers posed by the citizenry rioting in the streets if your plans decrease their perceived quality of life by too much? If they burn your house down in a fit of mob misbehaviour, your temperature may well rise by more than an a couple of degrees.

    It wouldn’t be the first time the masses have misbehaved based on misinformation from those either well-intentioned or ill-intentioned; one need only consider the cases described in Charles Mackay’s 1852 classic, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds and Volume II. On the other hand, we have achieved the best quality of life conditions in the history of man. Perhaps it would be best if you left us to our own devices so we can muddle our way through this case too, in order to again improve our conditions by the time this current exercise is complete. Perhaps you should apply the precautionary principle to your desire to apply the precautionary principle.

    But that’s just my opinion; in the big picture I matter very little. I’m also a bit of a natural contrarian: if everyone were saying there’s no need to worry, I would probably be asking if there was, in order to provide balance to our deliberations. Yet overall, for now, I’ll side with Lomborg, and propose dedicating resources to more pressing matters, at least in the short term, over the next few decades, supposing the status quo holds. Because my fears are not yours, nor yours mine. In the matter at hand, you’re afraid of inappropriate inaction; I’m afraid of inappropriate action. Still, I think that overall when averaged among the competing belief systems things will work out in the end, because that’s my nature. As Talk Talk sang in Rotterdam in 1984, It’s My Life. Your mileage, as the kids used to say, may vary 😉

  121. Anonymouse Says:

    The post #5 “Fake” says it all concisely and accurately in one paragraph. A graduate level course in PDEs is sufficient to appreciate this. I would also recommend a graduate level course in numerical methods.

    Nevertheless, Scott says: “it seems to me that there’d still be a compelling case for action based on back-of-the-envelope, 19th-century physics and chemistry”.

    I find this mind-boggling…
    computer models based on PDEs are not reliable enough,
    approximation arguments using the best available applied math
    are inconclusive, but never mind, we know what the result
    should be because we can do a back of the envelope calculation
    using high-school physics???

    Not only that, but Scott later says that “The case for action is not abstruse or technical; it’s something anyone can understand: …”

    But there are plenty of people who have studied a lot of math
    and a lot of physics, and who have read a lot of technical stuff,
    who still do not understand. Some of them posted on this thread,
    and I consider myself to be one of them.
    Scott, you are insulting these people by claiming that this is a
    trivial problem with a simple obvious solution that anyone can understand. This is not true. It is a difficult problem.

    When you don’t have math and computer models behind you,
    you are standing on a treacherous ground.
    Your best bet is probably to look at experimental data.
    But we only have satellite data for a couple of decades,
    and we can’t see any global warming trends in this data.
    So we look for older data, and to our dismay we find that there
    is very little of it and that the people who handled it committed fraud.

    Unfortunately, and undeniably, climate science has been politicized. The following is worth reading in this context:
    http://arxiv.org/abs/0809.3762

    Scott, with all due respect, your “give me a break” remark to #16
    is completely inappropriate. There is a “consensus” in the science community and people do not dare to speak up. I have heard quite a few climate science lectures delivered by “big-shots” which were full of nonsense, and I know plenty of people who
    are smart enough to see the nonsense and smart enough to keep their mouth shut.
    Best regards, Anonymouse.

  122. John Sidles Says:

    Isn’t the global dominance of the carbon-sector of the world’s energy economy already exerting catastrophic negative effects? What measures can assess these ongoing carbon-costs at anything like their true value?

  123. Scott Says:

    Vitruvius #120: Advocates of action on climate change are often derided as elitists with a sneeringly low opinion of the common folk. But notice the irony here: I’m not the one who worries that my fellow citizens are going to form a mob to torch my house if, let’s say, their gas taxes go up to the levels common in Europe, with the revenues used to pay down the national debt and do other worthwhile things. I have a higher opinion of my neighbors than that.

  124. Nikny Says:

    Ok so let’s for a while accept all the nonsense about not seeing anything implying anthropogenic climate change in the data, and instead take the viewpoint implied by previous writer that advocating action is only “political driven”, whatever that means. Then who do you see in the various “political camps” divided by the action/no action standpoint, and, more importantly, what is the economical incentives most prevalent in those camps? Needless to say, in one camp you see a strong and firmly united oil industry with all it´s industrial alliances, and a large non characterizable group of people mysteriously buying their propaganda, while in the “other camp” you see a fairly scattered and diverse group of experts in various relevant fields and a non characterizable group of people, mostly young people for the obvious reason, believing in their common sense. In the latter of these camps the presumed “political interest” seems a bit to vague to be real, at least to me. This is an purposely oversimplification of the main characteristics of my picture of this, which I would be both glad and surprised to see seriously challenged in the near future.

    It´s by the way very interesting to see presumably well educated people not seeing these fairly simple facts, when they are obviously interested enough in the subject as to write lengthy comments on blogs about it.

  125. Nikny Says:

    Or “not seeing” was maybe a bit to strong. Should be “not taking into account”

  126. James Cross Says:

    Thanks for the estimates. Very interesting stuff. I was thinking of the 21st century as a time frame for the estimates.

    I wouldn’t mind such a survey being done with a larger audience.

    I think we would find areas of agreement between what seem to be very different viewpoints.

    For example, Scott, you are heavily weighted toward catastrophe but my probability of mainly negative effects is even greater than yours and our probabilities of mainly positive effects are almost the same. Actually if you became convinced the catastrophic scenario was really unlikely (as I have) we might find ourselves very close to agreement.

    Also I think if more skeptics were forced to admit that there is a > 0% probability of catastrophe or at least severe negative effects they might come to embrace at least small steps.

    Rahul, with your probability for mainly negative effects at ~85%, I can’t see how you can be an AGW action skeptic. With things potentially that bad wouldn’t we have to try something?

    Greg, can you cite any economists that would agree with that assessment? I think Greg Lomborg’s assessment is that costs of negative effects do not exceed benefits until sometime around mid-century. Do you have anything to support your numbers?

    I think we really need to find areas of agreement, although there may never be any between the extremes on both sides.

    As I mentioned, a small carbon tax to pay down the national debt might be one area since it would have a clear potential benefit.

    As for coal, I think it is pretty much done for in this country anyway with the abundance of natural gas we have. Now if we can get China…

    There are a number of other actions with clear immediate benefits.

    Reforestation for one. Worldwide we are losing forests. The destruction of forests puts immediately carbon into the atmosphere and takes away future growth of trees which could sequester carbon. Reversing this balance could contribute to a solution.

    Reversal of desertification. Some have claimed that if we could simply restore a natural balance to many semi-arid parts of the world we balance out our carbon emissions. I doubt that claim. Nevertheless, microbial life in soil that are associated with grasses and plants in semi-arid areas are carbon sinks,

    Improved agricultural practices. More low till and no till. Better water management. Water might be a problem if we continue population growth whether we have significant AGW or not.

  127. Rahul Says:

    James Cross #126:

    “Rahul, with your probability for mainly negative effects at ~85%, I can’t see how you can be an AGW action skeptic. With things potentially that bad wouldn’t we have to try something?”

    I’m a skeptic because one only has a limited amount of resources & the problems are many. i.e. Although I think AGW is real, & will cause problems, there are other problems I feel I’d rather apply my resources more fruitfully.

    e.g. If you are an Indian policy maker you better figure out how to get electricity to all the 300 million extremely poor people that don’t have it as fast as you can. To do this, you have some limited budget & looking at the current state of technology, coal fired conventional plants are the fastest, cheapest way forward. At least for now.

    Every dollar India spends on solar, bio, or wind (outside of niche segments; e.g. far from grid, very high wind potential etc. ) is a dollar that could have been spent far far more effectively generating more power by more conventional routes.

    If you are looking at a dirt poor subsistence farmer living in some dark remote village,, whose kids are dying of malaria & dysentery I’d rather focus on giving him electricity first than worry about some decrease in air quality or some existential crises of mankind 1000 years into the future.

  128. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    “Greg, can you cite any economists that would agree with that assessment? I think Lomborg’s assessment is that costs of negative effects do not exceed benefits until sometime around mid-century.”

    I follow William Nordhaus, for example. Besides, interpreting the mid-century as the deep future is silly; it’s only 35 years from now and well within national planning horizons. Also, Lomborg has no real authority as a social scientist, just as he has no authority as a climate scientist. He has published almost no original research on any topic, and his public pronouncements are mealy-mouthed. His only significant achievement in life has been to stir up controversy.

  129. Nilima Nigam Says:

    For what it’s worth, I like Greg Kuperberg’s parable a great deal.

    Over the past three weeks, variants of the D-P conversation have played out in many parts of the city I live in. I’ve been part of the protests against Kinder Morgan’s plans to cut trees and drill in a conservation area, as they hope to massively expand a pipeline bearing oil to Burrard Inlet. The proposed pipeline would tunnel through Burnaby Mountain (under the university where I work).

    In the specific instance of this pipeline and this company, it is clear that for the tar sand operations to be economically profitable, the pipelines need to be built. It’s a very expensive form of fuel. So sayeth the Premier of Alberta.

    What does this instance have to do with climate change? Surprisingly, a lot.

    I have come to be astounded by the scope of influence of Kinder Morgan, and the other major oil companies in Canada. I used to think that public policy reflected what the people wanted… but am waking up to realize that on the issue of climate change, it isn’t.

    The province I live in has a successful carbon tax. The population here actually supports public transit, and investments in alternate/renewable energies. An existing pipeline here had a leak in 2007, and we were left holding the can. We remember the Exxon-Valdez disaster, which was not too far from here. We are faced with a dramatic increase in crude oil and tanker traffic through this part of the world. TransCanada pays ludicrously low taxes here, and will be creating fewer permanent jobs than there are coffee barristas in the Lower Mainland.

    We know this, and we don’t buy the ‘economic benefits of fossil fuel development in Canada’ argument. It is not compelling enough to offset the risks we are assuming. This is a seismically active area, and we all have to purchase (expensive!) earthquake insurance. We are already experiencing the effects of climate change – it says so on my rising home insurance bills. The actuaries have quantified the increased risks of extreme weather events, and costs are being passed on to us.

    So it is all very silly, for so many reasons, to be developing the tar sands and building pipelines here. Climate change is real to those of us who live in Canada (being further North). We would like to see more investment in other forms of energy.

    But the oil companies have managed to push through legislation at the federal level which makes it very hard indeed to challenge fossil fuel development. Indeed, the federally-appointed National Energy Board *disallows* public comment on projects if climate change is brought up as part of the testimony. It is also able to allow privately-owned multinational companies to override local municipal laws.

    In the specific instance of Burnaby Mountain, colleagues at my university protested, in a public park, against Kinder Morgan. They have been hit with a lawsuit. The City of Burnaby sued Kinder Morgan to be able to enforce its own municipal laws. The suit is still in the courts.

    A court issued an injunction against people who wanted to peacefully voice their dissent against the activities in the conservation area. Over 100 people have been arrested under this order – including academics, mums of toddlers, lots of First Nations people, and an 85-year-old former librarian. The protest has brought together thousands of people from all walks of life. We’re fed up. Many of us have been up on the mountain at the boreholes, protesting, in the rain and the mud. It is INSANE that otherwise law-abiding citizens can be charged with contempt of court for speaking out about climate change. It is bizarre that a grandpa, or a microbiologist, or family members of a mathematician, can find themselves in a paddy-wagon for speaking out against climate change in a peaceful manner. But this is what is happening.

    It then emerged that Kinder Morgan messed up the GPS coordinates of the area it stated it wanted the injunction to hold in… so all these charges have been dropped. But Kinder Morgan has announced it really likes the proposed route through the pipeline.

    I’m just a mathematician who would like to be left alone to prove theorems and occasionally write code. I don’t want to be sitting in courtrooms. But when I see my students getting arrested because they want real alternatives to climate change, I have to get out of my office. It is very muddy and scary and wet, but it needs to be done.

    The point of this long post is to say: I think public policy, at least in Canada, may not be an accurate reflection of what the population thinks. The patient may want to give up smoking and maybe switch to a nicotine patch, but the cigarette makers are blocking the makers of patches, and seeking to criminalize the doctors. Sorry if this has been tangential to your post, and apologies for the rant.

  130. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Rahul – “If you are an Indian policy maker”

    This obsession over India is too clever by half and mostly beside the point. India is responsible for only 6% of world greenhouse emissions. China is 23% and the US is 15%. For every reason under the sun, the thing that India should concentrate on right now (and should have concentrated on decades ago) is its birth rate. Its methods to produce electricity are a secondary question.

  131. James Cross Says:

    Rahul,

    I think there is a good deal of synergy between solutions to other issues and solutions for global warming whether the solutions involve directly reducing global warming or increasing the capacity to cope with it.

    Getting electricity to people requires energy but it raises living standards. Raising living standards lessens population growth, which down the road reduces impact on the ecosystem, and provides greater ability to cope with global warming. There is nothing to say also that the electricity might eventually come from alternative fuels.

    My key point is that to deal with whatever problems global warming will cause we need to tackle it from many angles and not simply focus on the obvious one of cutting fossil fuel consumption.

  132. Vitruvius Says:

    Notice the irony here, Scott: four days ago your fellow citizens torched numerous buildings along a 1½ mile stretch of Ferguson because they are dissatisfied with the results of the exercise of your society’s due process (in that case, the findings of a grand jury). I fail to see why any other sufficiently large subset of your society wouldn’t do the same thing if they feel similar levels of dissatisfaction under other circumstances, even if those other circumstances are also conducted via due process. Maybe you’re counting on “your house” being special, but I’ve been trapped in a hotel by a riot with fires, in San Francisco, which was terrifying, so I’ve learned to not count so naively. But what do I know, maybe your Senator Inhofe will keep the peace next time. Maybe your fellow average citizens are, like you, many standard deviations more intelligent than the average. Maybe nobody watches your society’s daytime television. Or maybe it’s just that, due to your youthful exuberance, you’ve mis-characterized the matter as a scientific and a logic problem when in fact it is a sociological and a realpolitik problem.

  133. Darrell Burgan Says:

    James Cross, your points about ecological problems being interconnected are well taken. To me, those points are relevant mostly to the question of “what, if anything, do we do about climate change?”.

    Before we even get to that, we have to achieve political consensus that climate change is real and humans are directly involved in the causes. Nothing can be done until that happens.

    I do share a bit of skepticism about the impact of climate change. It doesn’t scare me so much that sea levels might rise some number of meters in a century. I suppose if I owned property close to sea level, I would be more concerned, but it doesn’t seem apocalyptic. A runaway effect yielding a Venus-like atmosphere is obviously to be avoided, but is that really possible?

    To me climate change is just one part of the larger problem. Human impacts to the ecosphere are clearly unsustainable. Something has to give.

  134. James Cross Says:

    Greg #128

    Nordhaus isn’t a climate scientist either and your objections to Lomborg (Bjorn I meant in my original post) are ad hominem.

    The challenge of providing the probability estimates I asked for are that you really need to consider three separate factors:

    1- How much additional greenhouse gas will increase global temperatures
    2- How much additional greenhouse gas will humans put into the atmosphere
    3- What will be the consequences of #1 and #2

    The starting point for me for #1 is what the IPCC writes:

    “Increase of global mean surface temperatures for 2081–2100 relative to 1986–2005 is projected to likely be in the
    ranges derived from the concentration-driven CMIP5 model simulations, that is, 0.3°C to 1.7°C (RCP2.6), 1.1°C to 2.6°C
    (RCP4.5), 1.4°C to 3.1°C (RCP6.0), 2.6°C to 4.8°C (RCP8.5)”.

    Note the rather wide range in the models. Which range do you choose and why? For comparison, the lower model is about the difference between late 20th century temperature and the Little Ice Age. I go with the middle range – about 2-2.5 degrees.

    However, the models are based on business as usual.

    This I very much doubt will happen. Almost nothing continues as usual. I would expect significant advances in solar, hydrogen, and probably nuclear technologies.

    So I would expect a temperature range based on technology improvement to lower the temperature range to 1-1.5 degrees.

    None of this, of course, is able to be modeled but that is a part of the challenge of deciding what actions to take in the present.

    So then the question becomes about the impact on ecosystems.

    I wrote an extensive post on that a few years ago before the latest IPCCreport so I won’t go into the all of the details.

    The problem in evaluating impact is that we have to combine models of climate (imperfect and with a wide range of results) with models of other systems often affected by a wide range of human activities not just temperature rise. Species diversity is clearly affected by all sorts of things other than climate. Agricultural productivity is affected by technological innovation.

    My summation of what we could expect at that time was:

    1- An exacerbation of problems already caused primarily by human mismanagement and over consumption of environmental resources. Shouldn’t we address our mismanagement first before we worry about climate change?

    2- Problems which can be mitigated by technology that most adversely will affect poor countries with less economic and technological resources. Don’t these countries need improved access to modern sanitation, medical, and agricultural technologies anyway?

    3- A sea level rise that may require evacuation of people small islands and low-lying areas – one fairly unequivocal effect that might be costly to remedy through technology and that could disrupt people in these areas.

    http://broadspeculations.com/2012/08/26/climate-of-change/

  135. Scott Says:

    Vitruvius #132: If we’re trading disaster scenarios, then how about this one. Climate change leads to drought and crop failures leads to widespread famine leads to anarchy and rioting in the streets. If it sounds implausible, then just keep turning up the severity of the drought until it’s no longer implausible (once again, using the central property of climate change, that it never goes away on its own, but keeps getting worse and worse without limit if we don’t change what we’re doing). It’s not that I’m blind to realpolitik; it’s just that I consider it part of a system that also includes realchemik and realphysik.

  136. James Cross Says:

    Scott,

    Do you guys just make this stuff up?

    Take a look around page 244 at the final IPCC Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis.

    Here are some selected quotes:

    “There are very few direct measurements of drought related variables, such as soil moisture (Robock et al., 2000), so drought proxies (e.g., PDSI, SPI, SPEI; Box 2.4) and hydrological drought proxies (e.g., Vidal et al., 2010; Dai, 2011b) are often used to assess drought. The chosen
    proxy (e.g., precipitation, evapotranspiration, soil moisture or streamflow) and time scale can strongly affect the ranking of drought events (Sheffield et al., 2009; Vidal et al., 2010). Analyses of these indirect indices come with substantial uncertainties.”

    Substantial uncertainties?

    “Studies that support an increasing trend towards the land area affected by drought seem to be at odds with studies that look at trends in dryness (i.e., lack of rainfall). For example, Donat et al. (2013c) found that the annual maximum number of consecutive dry days has declined since the 1950s in more regions than it has increased.”

    “Most other studies focusing on global dryness find similar results, with decadal variability dominating longer-term trends.”

    “In summary, the current assessment concludes that there is not enough evidence at present to suggest more than low confidence in a global-scale observed trend in drought or dryness (lack of rainfall) since the middle of the 20th century, owing to lack of direct observations, geographical inconsistencies.”

  137. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    James – Nordhaus isn’t a climate scientist either

    He is a climate economist, which was exactly the question you asked me.

    your objections to Lomborg are ad hominem.

    That is a typically pseudo-skeptical stance: To cite someone as an authority, and then call it ad hominem for anyone to point out that he isn’t one. Really pseudo-skepticism is all that Lomborg has ever contributed to the topic of global warming.

    However, the models are based on business as usual. This I very much doubt will happen. Almost nothing continues as usual. I would expect significant advances in solar, hydrogen, and probably nuclear technologies.

    This is another typically pseudo-skeptical philosophy: To dismiss global warming as a problem, by taking it for granted that someone else will take it seriously.

    “Relax, doctor, I expect that my wife or my brother or someone will tell me to stop smoking at some point.” I didn’t think to add that to my parable, even though that attitude bugs me a lot.

    Certainly in the past 20 years, business has not been usual with greenhouse gas emissions. It has been worse than usual, because China’s economy developed faster than economists expected. Also against expectations, they chose coal as their overwhelming source of electricity, when they could have done more to develop hydro, nuclear, and natural gas.

  138. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    To me climate change is just one part of the larger problem.

    Also a common pseudo-skeptical mode of thought: To dismiss something as a problem, by generalizing it to a more nebulous, larger problem. So that that way, you can’t solve anything without solving everything.

    “The problem isn’t guns, it’s a culture of violence.”

    “The problem isn’t Americans lack health insurance, it’s that the system is too complicated.”

    “The problem isn’t the deep pothole in front of your house, it’s the general decay of our cities.”

  139. James Cross Says:

    Greg,

    Oddly I am attacked on the skeptic boards too.

    I note you did not provide the range of temperatures you are basing your ideas on. I would imagine the high end since you seem to imagine a great deal more negative effects than what can actually be found in the IPCC reports.

    I frequently find that most alarmists have little more understanding of the science than the denialists. See my quotes on drought for example. These are taken directly from the IPCC report yet I would imagine if you asked the typical alarmist they would declare that beyond a doubt (settled science) that widespread drought caused by climate change has affected our climate significantly. At the same time, they would also argue global warming will increase flooding. They would also be surprised to discover than according the IPCC world crop output will likely increase as a result of global warming in the short term (next few decades) and that only at the higher end of the projected temperature ranges does it begin to decrease. But even that is assuming current technologies and not the likely advancements which would be made. Aside from perhaps more heat waves, the jury is also out on most extreme weather predictions.

    One other point before you dismiss my arguments so easily.

    I am very much a Progressive on almost every issue. I voted for Obama and even gave money despite the fact I am fairly disappointed that he has not done more to advance the Progressive agenda. Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders are more to my liking.

    I think the Progressives are trying to advance this particular issue in the wrong way. What more evidence of that do you need than the fact that little if anything is being to deal with the issue and sentiment of the people is moving in the opposite direction.

    Alarmism doesn’t help. If you have a couple years of destructive hurricanes you can blame it on global warming but when the pendulum swings the other way (as it has for about the last decade) you lose your argument. And if you try to argue that now the absence of strong hurricanes is also global warming then you sound absurd. People remember things. You might be able to persuade a teenager or young adult that a heat wave or large snow fall is caused by global warming but good luck getting them to vote. Older people (of which I am one) remember heavy snowfalls and heat waves from our youth. We know hurricanes are unpredictable. Some years bad, some good. Sometimes we have a stretch of good years and sometimes one of bad years. It’s called variability and we become more cognizant of it with more years of experience. So the people who are voting have those more years of experience, are likely to perceive (perhaps not correctly) themselves as the ones who will bear the heaviest burdens as a result of strenuous actions to combat climate change, and also the ones with fewer years to benefit from whatever actions are taken.

    We have “boy crying wolf” phenomenon going on with many on the Left on this issue. We can keep coming out with more and more reports about how bad things are doing to be but as the years go by really nothing very bad happens or, if something bad does happen, it is almost impossible to attribute directly to climate change. At some point, people tune out. “Yeah, we heard that last year and the year before that and the year before…” Remember the ice free Arctic predictions that were due to come to pass this year, I think.

    So I would say let’s tone down the gloom and doom before we start to sound like the preachers who need to continually recalculate the date of the End of the World when the signs don’t come to pass as predicted.

    I think there is plenty Progressives can do to mitigate the worst case scenarios for climate change and most of them are things we believe we should be doing anyway and don’t really require us to talk about climate change.

    Let’s focus on encouraging alternative energy technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a promoting a modest carbon tax to pay down the debt. If it is better technology, it will replace the greenhouse gas belching one. If it isn’t, then it probably won’t make it anyway.

    Let’s improve agricultural practices everywhere to improve productivity and to reduce fertilizer runoff and water wastage.

    Let’s focus on improving health and sanitation in the developing world because, if the worst predictions come about, the people in it will be much better off and, besides, they should have it anyway.

    Let’s save the rain forest and all other forests.

    And, finally, let’s stop crying wolf about global warming, because we will be doing all the smart things we should doing anyway.

  140. Joseph Hertzlinger Says:

    Would anti-nuclear activists be the equivalent of anti-vaping activists?

  141. charles23 Says:

    Suppose one believes in AGW and in its potential negative effects on future human life, but also believes that one of the biggest problems facing mankind and the Earth’s ecosystems is human overpopulation. Global warming is projected to interfere with people’s ability to produce food because of droughts, flooding, unfavorable temperatures, etc. In light of these projected consequences, is it unreasonable or unethical for such a person to welcome global warming as a beneficial and relatively gentle brake on human overpopulation?

  142. Aaron Sheldon Says:

    Anonymouse #121 (read Geronimo Stilton much? Scott get ready, that particular pleasure of children’s reading is rapidly approaching you ;o)
    Scott #16 (…plus whatever else of your understandably exacerbated comments…)

    In defense of Scott’s argument, if not his sentiment, the counter argument that the atmospheric system is so complicated that back of the envelop calculations are not predictive is complete hogwash.

    Somehow during the industrial revolution steam power and steel was engineered using only the broad predictions derivable from the basic principles of thermal and mechanical physics; without the use of supercomputer simulations of the fluid mechanics of steam, or the molecular interactions of organic combustion.

    The same thermal and mechanical principles are equally applicable, if not more so (thanks to the strong law of large numbers), at a planetary scale, to the atmosphere. In fact the less detailed theories generally provide more robust predictions (accuracy is less sensitivity to measurement error), at the cost of precision (broader range in the predictions). So yes we may never have a theory that exactly predicts every consequence of global warming, but even by the late 1950s the broad sweeps were well understood.

    So what “back of the envelope” calculation was Scott talking about? Probably something along the lines of a simple 1-dimensional radiant-convective transfer between a bi-layer*. In this case we have the 2 temperatures of the lower and upper layers; linked by a pair of first-order differential equations in time:

    heat capacity * rate of change of temperature in time =
    change in energy content in time =
    radiation transfer + convection transfer

    The limiting solution is just the roots of a pair of ?sixth? order polynomials in the temperatures (radiation goes as the fourth power of the temperatures, vis-a-vis Stefan-Boltzmann, and I think convection goes as the ratio of the squares of the temperatures). For a large range of absorption, transmission, and reflection coefficients, heat capacities, densities, and viscosities (the last three necessary for buoyancy driven convection), an application of Newton’s method provides temperature solutions that agree well with the actual observed forcing (pg 472, Climate Modelling through Radiative-Convective Models, Ramanathan and Coakley, Reviews of Geophysics and Space Physics, vol 16, no 4, Nov 1978).

    It is important to remember that the largest source of quantitative uncertainty is not in the physical theories, rather it is in the measurements of the dependencies of heat capacity, absorption, emission, and reflection on CO2 concentration (CO2 does some odd things to heat capacity). Remarkably, we even have a fairly accurate quantitative understanding of the sequestration half-life of CO2 in the atmosphere, so we can predict how long the CO2 effect will last as compared to other gaseous and aerosol forcings. Hint: where is the bulk of the CO2 that was originally from volcanism? Sand(calcites) and limestone(carbonates). Only a tiny fraction of CO2 has been sequestered in fossil fuels; and yet it is enough that mankind’s CO2 output from fossil fuels is equal to 1 mount Pinatubo eruption (1991) in every year, in every country, since the start of the industrial revolution, in 1750 (again well understood because, funny thing, those fossil fuel and cement companies really liked to carefully account for their yields and their sales. Who would have thought, capitalists counting their coins!). I’m pretty sure that signal is six-sigma above background.

    *Why a bi-layer? Because spectral absorption in the lower troposphere is saturated in the CO2 and H2O frequencies (the lower troposphere cannot be forced to absorb anymore solar energy in those frequencies), whereas at higher altitudes H2O is not present and CO2 spectral absorption is concentration dependent. With some careful thought the analogy with greenhouses is convincingly astute. It is not that a real greenhouse only blocks or transmits particular light, rather it shifts the balance between radiative and convective transfers; with a double punch of driving down convective losses, which requires driving up radiative loss, and hence temperature, and reducing opacity to thermal radiation requiring even higher rates of radiative loss to meet first law conservation.

    **if you ask me to cite my sources I’m just going to send you to a combination of the bibliographies of RealClimate and the IPCC physics report; which I think you can do on your own.

    Clear as mud? Right?

  143. Darrell Burgan Says:

    Greg #138:

    “Also a common pseudo-skeptical mode of thought: To dismiss something as a problem, by generalizing it to a more nebulous, larger problem. So that that way, you can’t solve anything without solving everything.”

    But I’m not a skeptic. I do think we should address climate change, and accept it is directly human-caused. I just don’t find the prospect of climate change quite as horrifying as, say, ecosystem collapse caused by extinction of honeybees or pollution, or the massive species loss of the past few hundred years, or the incredible load of toxins we release into the environment every year, etc.

    Climate change is certainly bad, but it doesn’t seem to be the forest fire that several other ecological problems are. Am I wrong? Maybe I’m missing the point about climate change …

  144. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Darrell – But I’m not a skeptic. I do think we should address climate change, and accept it is directly human-caused.

    Okay, fair enough.

    I just don’t find the prospect of climate change quite as horrifying as, say, ecosystem collapse caused by extinction of honeybees or pollution, or the massive species loss of the past few hundred years, or the incredible load of toxins we release into the environment every year, etc.

    Well, this is still missing the forest for the trees to some extent. The honeybee problem turned out to be somewhat temporary and not nearly as bad as first reported. Meanwhile, global warming (and ocean acidification also caused by CO2) is ecosystem collapse caused by pollution. It is the largest looming case of ecosystem collapse due to human intervention.

    The environmentalist movement has a scientific side and it has a philosophical/emotional side. It is very important to keep a correct sense of proportion, and many environmentalists often fail to do this. (Just as the pseudo-skeptics fail to do it, for a different reason.) Global warming is not ecosystem collapse comparable to the destruction of the Aral Sea. It is much worse than that, because it is involves the whole planet, even if it is not a full collapse. Or, perhaps, a more systematic collapse will take centuries to unfold.

  145. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Compare two very likely things:

    1. Carbon dioxide emissions will lead to dangerous global warming.

    2. Any possible remediations proposed above or anywhere else will have zero impact.

    Which is more likely?

    Once you figure this out, then ask what is the point of Greg’s parable?

    The real issue is that modern civilization turns out to not be a sustainable proposition. How should we respond?

    The Raoul Ohio theory is: “Bummer! But, not my fault. I am going to keep trying to prove some theorems while the proving is still good.”.

    The Greg K theory is: “Bummer! But, here is a plan!!! Let’s all punish ourselves so we feel we are doing something. Pain is good.”.

    Whatever works for you. Anyone out there in Opus Dei? Does
    self-flagellation actually get you any closer to God?

  146. John Sidles Says:

    Aaron Sheldon wonders “What ‘back of the envelope’ calculation [of AGW] was Scott talking about?”

    The simplest such fundamental-principles AGW calculation (known to me) follows the same physical reasoning as another celebrated (among physicists) Fermi-style question “Why does the sun’s disc look sharp instead of fuzzy?”

    The answer is a rich blend of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and quantum radiation transport theory.

    Claim  The back of a envelope is sufficient room to outline the main physical ideas … provided that it’s a large-size envelope.

    In this instance, I will supply no BibTeX references … regular Shtetl Optimized readers and AGW skeptics alike are invited to self-assess their back-of-the-envelope computational skills.

  147. Scott Says:

    Raoul #145:

      The Raoul Ohio theory is: “Bummer! But, not my fault. I am going to keep trying to prove some theorems while the proving is still good.”.

      The Greg K theory is: “Bummer! But, here is a plan!!! Let’s all punish ourselves so we feel we are doing something. Pain is good.”

      … Anyone out there in Opus Dei? Does self-flagellation actually get you any closer to God?

    I think you’ve completely misread this. Greg isn’t flagellating himself; he’s flagellating other people: specifically, the patient, and anyone who thinks like him.

    Also, if you haven’t noticed, Greg does prove theorems—probably more theorems than you, me, or anyone else on this thread. But what kind of life is it to only prove theorems? A full, satisfying life should also include criticizing and parodying people who are wrong. Which I don’t think you can credibly disagree with—since if I’m not mistaken, it’s what you were trying to do just now as well.

  148. John Sidles Says:

    Greg Kuperberg presents a one-sided analysis: “The environmentalist movement has a scientific side and it has a philosophical/emotional side. It is very important to keep a correct sense of proportion, and many environmentalists often fail to do this.”

    The dual perspective has of course the same ontic status:

    The Kuperberg-dual view  “The STEM community’s norms have a scientific side and a philosophical\(\ \)/ emotional side. It is very important to keep a correct sense of proportion, and many STEM professionals often fail to do this.”

    Without myself offering any personal view regarding the relative weight of these two apposed views, it is well for STEM students to be aware of eloquent voices for the second point-of-view; these voices include evolutionary biologist Ed Wilson, primatologist Jane Goodall, planetary scientist James Hansen, historian Naomi Oreskes, novelist Ursula Le Guin, and essayist Wendell Berry.

    Particularly commended (by me) is the muscular testimony of Wendell Berry’s 2012 Jefferson Lecture It all turns on affection, to which a well-matched introduction is last week’s short-but-punchy National Book Award for Lifetime Achievement speech by Ursula Le Guin

    These two workers articulate some implications of a phenomenon that game-theorists appreciate too: it commonly happens that narrow considerations of market efficiency serve us individually well (particularly in the short term), while serving us collectively ill (particularly in the long term). And climate-change is of course a realm in which these considerations loom large.

    Confection  On her weblog, following her National Book Award speech, Ursula Le Guin expressed dismay that very few listeners appreciated that her speech’s oft-repeated phrase “beautiful reward” was a conscious tribute to a Bruce Springsteen song of the same name.

    So in tribute to Le Guin and Berry, the hope is extended that all Shtetl Optimized readers may seek and find and share and pass to the next generation — in quantum physics and complexity theory particularly — our variously conceived “beautiful rewards.”

    ———-
    Readings

    @unpublished{Berry:2012fk,
    Author = {Wendell Berry},
    Title = {2012 Jefferson Lecture: It all
    turns on affection},
    Note = {The annual Jefferson lecture,
    sponsored by the National Endowment for the
    Humanities (NEH), is the most prestigious
    honor the federal government bestows for
    distinguished intellectual achievement in
    the humanities.},
    Year = {2012}}

  149. Yogi Says:

    Statistically, you sacrifice about a decade of life expectancy by choosing to smoke.

    So, if you are a teenager, the choice is between 60 years of life where you don’t get to smoke and 50 where you get to smoke.
    So, if you really like smoking, it is not obvious that you should stop 🙂

    It is the same with global warming. Sure, spewing out CO2 is bad, but so is a carbon tax… It is by no means obvious that the gain from CO2 reduction is greater than the pain imposed by the carbon tax….

  150. T H Ray Says:

    Scott wrote, “Vitruvius #120: Advocates of action on climate change are often derided as elitists with a sneeringly low opinion of the common folk.”

    Well, they often are, aren’t they? I hardly see how they are different from Christian missionaries or Muslim fanatics, in the respect that they come to do good by imposing their will and values on nonbelievers, and favor punishing them if they don’t submit. It’s all for their own good, of course (and we can prove it, we’ve got science, or at least statistics, or a bible or something).

    As the saying goes, everyone complains about the weather but no one does anything about it. Does one give serious thought to doing away with a system in which we can speak so casually of the difference between “elites and common folk,” so that the ills of growing climate change will take care of themselves? A prosperous society of equals does not pollute and overpopulate, as a quick statistical analysis of the suburbs where the elite dwell, will no doubt inform one.

    By all means, let’s snuff out those festering cities where the common folk smoke cigarettes and produce consumer goods at subsistence wages for the elite to enjoy their superior lifestyle. Bring the poor your gospel of eliteness, teach them to sacrifice for the good of … Who’s kidding whom? These folk are common; they are not stupid.

    “But notice the irony here: I’m not the one who worries that my fellow citizens are going to form a mob to torch my house if, let’s say, their gas taxes go up to the levels common in Europe, with the revenues used to pay down the national debt and do other worthwhile things. I have a higher opinion of my neighbors than that.”

    The threat doesn’t live next door, Scott. Better start organizing a building fund for your neighborhood moat, and brushing up on your boiling oil skills.

    Tom

  151. Jay Says:

    >science, or at least statistics, or a bible

    Yeah, science or statistics or a bible, all the same. Christian missionaries or Muslim fanatics or climate scientists? All the same too. Climate scientists used to start pogrom and marathon bombings, aren’t they?

  152. T H Ray Says:

    Oh, we were talking about climate *scientists*? Not what I heard, Jay.

  153. Jay Says:

    Yeah, climate scientists do not advocates actions on climate change, sorry I forgot that.

  154. Aaron Sheldon Says:

    …and with that I think we can safely assert Godwin’s Law after 153 comments (or less actually).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin%27s_law

  155. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I find very little more annoying than to see scientists, scholars, teachers, and other enlisted experts called “elitists”, just because people don’t want to believe them or hear their advice. It’s part of the job of scientists to inform the public of their research — and then to turn around and be called elitists for it!

    For the record, some of the climate scientists have been intimidated and threatened with real punishment. They have been victims of criminal computer hacking and they have been baselessly investigated for fraud. They have been accused, and muzzled from the inside, by powerful political leaders.

    And for the record, the real elitists are billionaire demagogues, many of them born with silver spoons in their mouths. Some of them even sponsor entire imitation research institutes and conferences to manipulate public opinion. Even otherwise, you have generally middle-class scientists; and then you have business tycoons who are so rich that for them, a man’s private jet is his castle; and then they pay mouthpieces to call the scientists elitists.

  156. T H Ray Says:

    Greg, I agree. The problem is not with scientists and scholars.

    The problem is separating the science from the politics. This climate change/AGW fiasco is not like the fake “debates” over evolution vs. creationism, where one can easily refute crackpot religious arguments by systematically showing that a general theory of common ancestry — Darwin’s, and its extensions into the modern synthesis — is the only theory that makes sense of empirical biological data.

    There is no general theory of climate change. It seems to me that we are in the nascent stages of getting one, by accumulating the data — just as evolution was known to be an empirical phenomenon before we had a theory to explain it. One cannot abandon scientific method by claiming that climate change is explained by data — it isn’t. Concluding by induction is bad science.

    Time and again, scientists are goaded into misdirected arguments over how much carbon is produced by industrial activity without the context that regardless of the anthropogenic contribution, climate change — global warming — is happening. That *should* sound an alarm that the world best cooperate and prepare against the consequences; what it actually does in the misdirected debate, is to give those billionaire corporate interests a weapon that they have found immensely effective for the past 300 years:

    Divide and conquer.

    Being a native U.S. Southerner, I am all too familiar with the demagogic first principle — give the underclass someone to be better than, and its members will be your lapdogs for life. The only reasonable answer to that problem is to find a way to eliminate the underclass, i.e., the idea of an underclass.

    You don’t seem to realize that we “middle class scientists” *are* elites to the overwhelming majority of the world’s population. That we are seen that way is therefore no mistake on the part of detractors who work for the mega-billionaires who can effectively use that wedge. Oh, and they do, don’t they?

    Meanwhile, the global threat from climate change goes unchecked, along with many other dire threats to human survival. Of all the ways to stem these threats, though, punishing the underclass is hardly an effective way to stop mega-billionaires from playing demagogue — in fact, it even elevates their status! I don’t want to appear self-promoting, yet I do want to show that I have devoted more than casual thought to the subject: http://home.comcast.net/~thomasray1209/How Should Humanity Steer the Future.pdf

    In my opinion, climate science (and all science, perhaps) needs a break in the politics, to allow time for a true, testable and falsifiable, scientific theory to be constructed. I see the best chance for that, in the founding of an enlightened global society. We seem to have slipped backward from that noble 18th century goal shared by Spinoza, Locke, Paine, Jefferson et al.

    When we have true equality, we are surely on our way to learning how to be “elite” in less cynical ways.

    Tom

  157. Aaron Sheldon Says:

    Greg #155

    You know I really shouldn’t feed the trolls, but I just have to add to your comment:

    It appears that the latest trendy research topic in the denial-ist community is a Marxist reinterpretation of climate science – climate science as class oppression!

    Orwell is precessing in his grave; having long since passed simply turning.

  158. T H Ray Says:

    ” … Marxist reinterpretation of climate science – climate science as class oppression!”

    Why wouldn’t one find that inevitable, given Greg’s own (correct) interpretation of elitists as billionaire demagogues, along with the perception of climate change activists — (let’s keep science and scholarship independent of the politics) — as elites in the same class as billionaire demagogues?

    Knee jerk analysis and name-calling doesn’t get anything done to correct the problem. And anti-intellectual activism does not serve science, no matter on what side one’s politics may lie.

    Tom

  159. aviti Says:

    Roger#4, so, you want to risk it all, just because of one study? Why not wait until others have reproduced the same results to make your case.

  160. Raoul Ohio Says:

    T H Ray:

    The analogy of the debates over climate change and evolution is an interesting observation.

    In both cases, the complexity is such that there is no chance of ever proving anything, but the big picture appears obvious. I like to regard myself as a clear thinking, no BS scientist, but I would be hard pressed to write up why and how evolution is obviously right.

    While only an idiot would debate evolution, there is a slim opening to debate climate change. I have debated some climate change deniers, and while I concede the existence of dynamic systems that go the opposite way from which they are pushed, I point out that usually when you put a coat on something, it gets warmer.

    On the other hand, I am not enthusiastic about schemes to alleviate climate change that have zero chance of doing any good. All such plans (so far, that I am aware of) are riddled with failure modes, and it is embarrassing to see otherwise smart people pretending they will work.

  161. T H Ray Says:

    Raoul, I think we are in accord.

    The only clear reason that evolution and climate change are obviously right, is the evidence of what we observe and measure. Making conclusions inductively from evidence, however, is why Aristotle’s science was wrong and why we abandoned that method about 300 years ago.

    I prefer Jacob Bronowski’s tacit prescription: “All science is the search for unity in hidden likenesses.”

    Evolution happens. Climate change happens. How we deal with existential threats to our survival due to those facts is up to sociology, medicine and politics — science is how we frame and explain the facts in a testable theory.

    I don’t think it serves science to confuse philosophy and politics with the role of, as you say, ” … clear thinking, no BS …” science. It’s a giant step backward in my opinion, to abuse science by using statistical models to recommend social change. For this same reason, I was incensed over the publication, in 1994, of the Murray-Herrnstein book, *The Bell Curve.* It was one thing for the authors to compare IQ differences among populations; it was quite another for them to recommend the destruction of public education based on their data. The anti-intellectual religious right, though, has effectively accomplished this mission using *The Bell Curve* among other works produced under the dubious cloak of “science.”

    There is no general theory of intelligence. (In fact, those in the late S.J. Gould’s corner may consider the whole idea of statistically comparative intelligence complete nonsense.)

    Likewise, there is no general theory of climate change.

    We can have universal free education, with no more expectation than that everyone possible will be prepared to cope with the individual responsibilities of democracy, so that we grow as a race of humans. We can prepare against climate change, with no more expectation than that as many possible will survive in comfort and good health. We don’t have to cynically abuse or misuse science to achieve those goals.

    Tom

  162. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    There is no general theory of climate change.

    There is no overarching theory of the Earth’s climate, just as there is no overarching theory of the human body. Nonetheless, smoking is bad for you for specific reasons; the benefits are not remotely worth the colossal (if probabilistic) costs. And the same thing is true of carbonization of the atmosphere.

    Of course, it’s yet another classic stance of pseudo-skepticism, to miss an enormous tree that might fall on you, for the sake of an imponderable forest.

    The idea that climate scientists provide an incomplete or ineffectual picture because they don’t talk to economists is also wrong — some of them do talk to economists. As I pointed out in comment #26, a committed smoker could equally trump an oncologist or a cardiologist with alleged separate expertise in sociology.

  163. Rahul Says:

    Out of curiosity what’s the relative existential risk from an asteroid strike, mega-volcano etc. versus the risk from global warming?

    Has anyone done any approximate probability calculations?

  164. T H Ray Says:

    Greg, smoking pollutes the body and smokestacks pollute the Earth — agreed.

    Even heavy smokers like George Burns manage to live into the highest range of human lifespan, though, while others like the Marlboro Man succumb early to lung cancer. Correlation is not causation.

    Questions of runaway global warming or cancer are complex — and I don’t mean just complicated, I mean connected in the way of complex systems. To try and isolate a single cause just seems wrongheaded to me, and worse, treating the one cause may allow other causes to flourish. Anyone who tries to manage an aquarium, for example, knows that over-medicating increases the growth of non-susceptible bacteria; on a larger scale, we used to think that forest fires are bad, and now we know that they are necessary to healthy forests. An important characteristic of dynamic, complex systems is self-limitation; so long as negative feedback is stronger than positive feedback, a system can function in health and well-being without the disastrous consequences of either uncontrolled growth or a relentless trajectory toward equilibrium.

    I don’t say that global warming is not something to be alarmed about — I am saying that unless we have the will to prefer cooperation over competition, such that negative feedback controls predominate, we have very little hope of meeting the challenge to our survival. I’d like to think not — though looking objectively at the larger scheme — we ourselves may be a self-limiting species in an Earthly ecology where over 99.9% of all species that ever lived are extinct.

    We have the ability to survive and participate in our own evolution, for the better. Reducing the energy resources that help power that progress, however, seems to me a losing proposition — while distributing, even increasing, those resources for low impact sustainability also increases individual prosperity and incentivizes populations to hold the line on population growth, which helps control the damaging positive feedback effect of overproduction and underconsumption.

    Tom

  165. Rahul Says:

    I’m inspired by Greg’s doctor-patient analogy to offer another:

    You are an Emergency Room doctor & you get a patient writhing in pain with multiple trauma, possible concussion, compound fractures etc. & instead of trying to stabilize the guy the first thing you do is get started on a long term smoking risk evaluation questionnaire.

    Some of the focus on AGW solution funding is reminiscent of that. There’s a lot more immediate & critical problems crying out for solutions before I think we can reach AGW.

  166. John Sidles Says:

    T H Ray opines “Unless we have the will to prefer cooperation over competition, such that negative feedback controls predominate, we have very little hope of meeting the challenge to our survival.”

    Is “cooperation over competion” always such a good thing?

    Precedent  Organized anti-scientific denialism — as relentlessly practiced by the tobacco industry — nowadays is resurgent as climate-change denialism.

    And it is striking that many of the same institutions and individuals that colluded in tobacco-cancer denialism now collude in organized climate-change denial.

    Why is this?

    The lesson-learned  Gangsters, globalized corporations, plutocracies, and ideological movements all have systematically cultivated the willful ignorance of denialism as a means to foster cooperative conformity.

    And in the sphere of climate-change, they’re still at it.

    ——
    Readings

    @article{cite-key, Title = {Denialism: what is
    it and how should scientists respond?}, Author
    = {Diethelm, Pascal and McKee, Martin}, Journal
    = {Eur J Public Health}, Month = {Jan}, Number
    = {1}, Pages = {2--4}, Volume = {19}, Year =
    {2009}}

  167. T H Ray Says:

    John Sidles #166:

    “Is ‘cooperation over competion’ always such a good thing?”

    No, I wouldn’t say that. And you’re right — organized crime, crony capitalism, human trafficking, are runaway global problems. Do you think those phenomena stem from cooperation, or competition?

    Tom

  168. Riot Nrrrd™ Says:

    This is sadly a dead thread, but I’ll toss it out anyway.

    Early on Scott mentioned that he’d rather be on the side of people trying to do something about AGW now, and give us a chance to stick around awhile as a civilization. A corollary is that it would make the world a more livable place.

    I’m curious to know what the set of people is who have spent time in the following places:

    (1) Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s (or before)
    (2) Los Angeles now
    (3) New Delhi in the 1970s and 1980s (or before)
    (4) New Delhi now

    I moved to LA in 1976. I am still here now. The memories I have of the atmosphere in the ’70s and ’80s was one of grey skies often choked with pollution. Stage I smog alerts were commonplace. I distinctly remember “smog breath” – the best analogy I can make is to if you’ve ever spent a day at the beach and gone swimming and accidentally ingested a bunch of sea water; by the end of the day you’d find that you couldn’t take a full deep breath. That’s what “smog breath” felt like.

    In the 3+ decades since the introduction of the three-way catalytic converter in 1981, I have seen the air in LA get progressively cleaner and clearer, despite an overall rise in automobile traffic since then.

    Most days, the sky is substantially blue – whereas it was rarely if ever blue in the ’70s and ’80s (and usually only after a good cleansing rainstorm). It may never be as good as rural Idaho but it looks a smells a million times better than it used to. Air quality – and quality of life- has improved a significant amount as a result.

    Unfortunately I never went to India in the ’70s or ’80s so I can’t compare it against, but I did go to New Delhi in late 2013 and it was like walking into a Time Machine back to 1980s Los Angeles. The amount of choking pollution was unbelievable. The Sun merely a vague, orangey orb through a grey haze.

    (As a corollary, in 2006 I flew back from Manchester, England to LA and flew over the middle of Greenland. I looked out over this vast, pristine expanse and then looked at the horizon – and saw a layer of smog. It has penetrated to the far ends of the Earth.)

    I don’t see why we don’t view reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere as a similar analog to removing pollutants from car and truck exhausts – something that ultimately benefits us all, the effects of which we might see in as little as several decades. As a bonus, it may even save our hides.