## 97% environmentalist

I decided to add my name to a petition by, as of this writing, 81 MIT faculty, calling on MIT to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies.  (My co-signatories include Noam Chomsky, so I guess there’s something we agree about!)  There’s also a wider petition signed by nearly 3500 MIT students, faculty, and staff, mirroring similar petitions all over the world.

When the organizers asked me for a brief statement about why I signed, I sent them the following:

Signing this petition wasn’t an obvious choice for me, since I’m sensitive to the charge that divestment petitions are just meaningless sanctimony, a way for activists to feel morally pure without either making serious sacrifices or engaging the real complexities of an issue.  In the end, though, that kind of meta-level judgment can’t absolve us of the need to consider each petition on its merits: if we think of a previous crisis for civilization (say, in the late 1930s), then it seems obvious that even symbolic divestment gestures were better than nothing.  What made up my mind was reading the arguments pro and con, and seeing that the organizers of this petition had a clear-eyed understanding of what they were trying to accomplish and why: they know that divestment can’t directly drive down oil companies’ stock prices, but it can powerfully signal to the world a scientific consensus that, if global catastrophe is to be averted, most of the known fossil-fuel reserves need to be left in the ground, and that current valuations of oil, gas, and coal companies fail to reflect that reality.

For some recent prognoses of the climate situation, see (for example) this or this from Vox.  My own sense is that the threat has been systematically understated even by environmentalists, because of the human impulse to shoehorn all news into a hopeful narrative (“but there’s still time!  if we just buy locally-grown produce, everything can be OK!”).  Logically, there’s an obvious tension between the statements:

(a) there was already an urgent need to act decades ago, and

(b) having failed to act then, we can still feasibly avert a disaster now.

And indeed, (b) appears false to me.  We’re probably well into the era where, regardless of what we do or don’t do, some of us will live to see a climate dramatically different from the one in which human civilization developed for the past 10,000 years, at least as different as the last Ice Ages were.

And yet that fact still doesn’t relieve us of moral responsibility.  We can buy more time to prepare, hoping for technological advances in the interim; we can try to bend the curve of CO2 concentration away from the worst futures and toward the merely terrible ones.  Alas, even those steps will require political will that’s unprecedented outside of major wars.  For the capitalist free market (which I’m a big fan of) to work its magic, actual costs first need to get reflected in prices—which probably means massively taxing fossil fuels, to the point where it’s generally cheaper to leave them in the ground and switch to alternatives.  (Lest anyone call me a doctrinaire treehugger, I also support way less regulation of the nuclear industry, to drive down the cost of building the hundreds of new nuclear plants that we’ll probably need.)

These realities have a counterintuitive practical implication that I wish both sides understood better.  Namely, if you share my desperation and terror about this crisis, the urgent desire to do something, then limiting your personal carbon footprint should be very far from your main concern.  Like, it’s great if you can bike to work, and you should keep it up (fresh air and exercise and all).  But I’d say the anti-environmentalists are right that such voluntary steps are luxuries of the privileged, and will accordingly never add up to a hill of beans.  Let me go further: even to conceptualize this problem in terms of personal virtue and blame seems to me like a tragic mistake, one on which the environmentalists and their opponents colluded.  Given the choice, I’d much rather that the readers of this blog flew to all the faraway conferences they wanted, drove gas-guzzling minivans, ate steaks every night, and had ten kids, but then also took some steps that made serious political action to leave most remaining fossil fuels in the ground even ε more likely, ε closer to the middle of our Overton window.  I signed the MIT divestment petition because it seemed to me like such a step, admittedly with an emphasis on the ε.

### 276 Responses to “97% environmentalist”

1. a Says:

It only requires about 600,000 wind turbines of 8MW capacity to power entire US including providing enough power to charge type tesla batteries for every car (assuming cars will be battery powered in future) in US. These require about $10 to$15 trillion in investment. Just about 20 years of committed investment. Or about 40-60 trillion in China. Just about 40 year goal starting in 2020. I am leaving out India since India neither has the 20% landmass available (US needs about 2% of its land mass) to allocate to solar power nor has wind power potential since being near equator. 2. roystgnr Says: I’d say the anti-environmentalists are right that such voluntary steps are luxuries of the privileged If the underprivileged can’t afford to cut their carbon footprint voluntarily, making it involuntary will not be an improvement. I’d much rather that the readers of this blog flew to all the faraway conferences they wanted, drove gas-guzzling minivans, ate steaks every night, and had ten kids, but then also took some steps that made serious political action to leave most remaining fossil fuels in the ground even ε more likely But for a contrary viewpoint, “I got into effective altruism after seeing a lot of my friends go down the “the truly important thing is to destroy capitalism” road, and then have their sole contribution to the cause be discussing which characters in popular movies should have different genders or races. It seemed obvious to me they were deluding themselves: talking about fun stuff they wanted to talk about anyway and claiming that was helping.” I suspect that talking about what good people you all are for talking is even more fun when you get to fly around the world to fancy conferences to do it. And as for the epsilon of political effect, are you sure it’s positive? Preaching to the choir doesn’t change the mind of the median voter, who may be more easily swayed “to believe it’s a crisis when the people who keep telling me it’s a crisis start acting like it’s a crisis”. 3. Rahul Says: Closer to home for CS, in the light of what we know about NSA’s activities why not sign / formulate some sort of petition boycotting NSA and all NSA related work, funding, conferences, speakers, recruitment etc.? Speaking of sacrifices, that sort of move might carry with it some “real” sacrifice for CS departments / students / faculty? My point is that, most of us find it easier to take a moral stand when it doesn’t pinch so much. 4. Scott Says: roystgnr #2: I suspect that talking about what good people you all are for talking is even more fun when you get to fly around the world to fancy conferences to do it. Whenever I hear this style of argument, I’m reminded of Marcia Clark’s closing argument in the OJ Simpson trial: “We have proved that OJ Simpson is a murderer. The defense has proved that Mark Fuhrman is a racist.” Likewise, in this case: “We have proved that climate change is a grave threat to the survival of human civilization. You have proved that rich, do-gooder liberals can come off as annoying hypocrites.” Unfortunately, the human mind is wired in such a way that, just as “Mark Fuhrman is a racist” actually worked to get OJ acquitted for murder, so “Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio are smug elitists, flying around in their private jets” is considered by millions to be a strong argument for climate inaction. 5. Rahul Says: Another mistake is to think of a “fossil fuel company” as some entity that is bound by law or its charter to only strictly participate in activities related to fossil fuels. Do we really think that if, tomorrow, there was a really promising technological advance, say, in cold fusion, then a company like Exxon or Shell is going to take a hardline and say, “No, let us not enter that market because cold fusion is not a fossil fuel”? As a company, they invest money where it pays off (subject to their technical skills, understanding etc.). Their investors and management are more or less agnostic to whether a project involves fossil fuels or not so long as it generates a good return and is technologically sound. If we think environmental damage is not reflected in prices the solution is taxes not boycotts or divestment. There is a good, pragmatic, technological reason for why most of us are pumping fossil fuels into our cars today, and it isn’t some Exxon-BP funded conspiracy that is forcing us to. 6. Scott Says: Rahul #3: If anyone wants to organize such a petition, I will read it and consider signing it. In any case, I’ve never worked with NSA or taken money from them, and have no plans to. I won’t categorically rule out ever doing so (what if World War III starts tomorrow, and the intelligence community desperately needs quantum complexity theorists to help save the free world? 🙂 ). But I’ve already blogged about my opposition to many of the practices revealed by Snowden (backdooring of crypto standards, ultra-broad collection of metadata, etc.), and would happily sign a statement to the same effect. 7. Nigel S Says: Liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTR) convert thorium, a fairly abundant element in the earth’s core, with around 98% efficiency. That means for every kg of thorium you get around 90 million billion joules of energy (E=mc^2) which provides an average of 2.9GW over a year. The fuel is molten so meltdown is impossible. The system can be safeguarded using a sort of thermal fuse that drains the fuel and halts the reaction in the event of power failure. No CO2, no soot, and less leaked radiation than a coal plant. 24 hour power generation; no wind or sun required. 8. Scott Says: Rahul #5: If it’s true that Shell, ExxonMobil, etc. can fundamentally change their business model, then that seems like a strong argument for divestment. If those companies are locked into fossil fuels forever, then divestment can only send a signal to the public; it can’t influence the companies for the better. But if they’re not locked in, then it can influence them (as some companies were influenced by 1980s divestment campaigns to stop doing business in South Africa). 9. I saw the cities overflow. I’m that generation | /var/tmp/ : Junk that Endures Says: […] I found this in my twitter — 97% environmentalist. Nice […] 10. Yawner Says: I still don’t understand why it matters. If the world is 6 degrees warmer in 2100, what’s the problem with that? People will have better technologies, including agricultural ones, and we wouldn’t need so many people anymore anyway since algorithms and cheap computing can substitute for human labor. Is the problem perhaps too many people? In that case, all we have to do is reduce reproduction numbers (I guess those demographics who refuse will be faced with a harsher “correction” later on). 11. James Cross Says: You wrote: “We’re probably well into the era where, regardless of what we do or don’t do, some of us will live to see a climate dramatically different from the one in which human civilization developed for the past 10,000 years, at least as different as the last Ice Ages were.” You might want to check out the Holocene Climatic Optimum http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocene_climatic_optimum 12. Rahul Says: I’d much rather that the readers of this blog flew to all the faraway conferences they wanted, drove gas-guzzling minivans, ate steaks every night, and had ten kids, but then also took some steps that made serious political action to leave most remaining fossil fuels in the ground How are those two scenarios practically consistent? Say, you suddenly placed a total moratorium tomorrow on extracting any more fossil fuels. Could your blog readers still support their gas-guzzling, conference-flying lifestyles? How? The problem is this magic view prevalent in which we can have political action and the environmental problem disappears without requiring the commensurate serious sacrifice on our own part. i.e. “I won’t fly to any fewer conferences but let us get the rest of the world to use less fuels” Some variant of NIMBYism. e.g. We guzzle 10x the per capita oil consumption of a developing nation, but still are outraged when said developing nation continues to build coal fired power plants. How can there be any practical, meaningful political action that does not also necessarily bring along with it a painful pinch point on personal scale? 13. Scott Says: Rahul #12: No, if serious political action ever happens, there certainly will be a pinch—at least until we reorganize how we live to adapt to the new reality. E.g., the cost of air travel will shoot up, and so will the price of gas, causing many people to cut back on travel, live closer to work, etc., purely out of economic self-interest. But crucially, this pinch will be shared by everyone, not just by those who unilaterally decided to cut their carbon footprint. As such, it will be an equilibrium, which pure do-gooderism (with no capacity to punish defectors) never is. And yes, it should go without saying that the developed countries would have to sacrifice much, much more (at least on an absolute scale) than the developing ones, much like with a progressive income tax. Here, as usual with this issue, I’m not talking about what’s geopolitically feasible, but only about what’s necessary. Or to give that a more optimistic spin, what’s politically feasible can change remarkably quickly: who would’ve predicted in 1990 that, 25 years hence, opposing gay marriage could get you fired from your job? Likewise, in 2040, maybe there will be the global political will to establish a new equilibrium—one where the “pinch” gets distributed fairly, with a little for the poor and a lot for the rich. Or maybe not. All I’m confident about, is that the same laws of physics and chemistry and economics that determine the basic contours of the issue today will still be in place then. 14. Marc Says: While I agree with nearly everything you wrote, it is important for people to make appropriate changes in their personal lives, especially Americans, even if their personal footprints are individually insignificant. “Do as I say not do as I do” isn’t going to work. Western culture (television, movies, etc.) is exported and emulated throughout the world, increasingly so as standards-of-living improve [1]. Moreover many people simply emulate the behaviors of their friends and peers [2], or of the people they aspire to be. The Overton Window on gay marriage shifted dramatically in recent decades because of prominent roles for gay characters in television and media. While we need action on climate change now, it is unlikely that politicians and corporations are going make changes out of concern for human-kind, or act because of any number of petitions [3]. If people demanded e.g. less meat for primarily environmental concerns to the point that it affected profits, other industries would respond accordingly. This aligns averting climate change with business incentives, but it requires changing opinions and habits of actual people. The planet cannot support everyone eating steak every night or anywhere even close to that rate. It cannot support everyone commuting to work individually in cars. People will not change their eating or transportation habits based on government mandates or scientific consensus — if that worked people would already be responding accordingly to FDA guidelines and the scientific consensus on climate change. The reality for eating habits is different [4]. People will change their lifestyles and political opinions when the people they respect and eat with make similar changes. Being a role model to others is important and many people (most?) are social learners rather than evidence-based decision makers. Right now lifestyle change for the purpose of climate change is outside of the Overton window. We have to move it and raise a generation in it. Finally, the footprints of the less-privileged are often a lot lower than the privileged. The less-privileged have to use public transportation, often live in greater population density, take far fewer flights, buy fewer electronics, and in the case of the very poor, eat less meat, do not have air-conditioning, and so on. 15. Rahul Says: Scott: Since you mentioned that you are a fan of the capitalist free market, I find the position we put these firms in rather ironic. We tell them, look we very much need this “thingy” what you produce but we still think it is bad for us. But we, as a nation, don’t have the balls to outlaw it or impose a consumption limit or a tax or quotas to get us, as individuals, to actively consume less of this thingy. But yet, we’d like you, as a firm, to not try to produce more of this. In fact, we won’t even put any mandatory legal limits on how much gets produced, we just want you to voluntarily produce less of it. So, put aside the natural interests of a capitalist firm to maximize your profits or production, and try voluntarily selling less of your product, even though there’s no law or rule requiring you to do so. Essentially, we ask of you some form of organizational apoptosis. I think that’s a very weird demand for a free market to be making of a capitalist firm. 16. Scott Says: Rahul #15: But that’s emphatically not the message I think we ought to be sending to energy companies! Rather, we should be sending them the message: “produce all the oil you want, but we will tax the hell out of it, effectively forcing you to reimburse future generations for the reduction you’re causing to their quality of life. If you don’t like that, you can switch to renewables—but whatever, it’s your bottom line, not ours.” Likewise, the purpose of divestment is not to tell the energy companies that they should produce less oil. Rather, it’s to tell society that we think it’s crazy that there’s not a steep carbon tax, and such a tax would surely drive down the value of the oil companies. So even though there’s not such a tax now, we’re going to invest our money as if there were one—both in the expectation that there might be such a tax in the future, and in the hope that enough people making this public declaration will help turn the expectation into reality. 17. Andrew Clough Says: What makes useless gestures dangerous is that people seem to have a satiable desire to do good in the world. At least according to the studies I’ve seen giving people an opportunity to act altruistically makes them less likely to act altruistically later on. 18. Taymon A. Beal Says: The thing that makes this frustrating is that the marginal person writing a blog post advocating for political action is not so different from the marginal person buying locally-grown produce: it seems to them like the right thing to do, and it has signaling value, and if everyone did it the problem would solve itself, but the actual amount of impact that that person is having is indistinguishable from zero. The human brain isn’t adapted to dealing with this kind of situation—it’s adapted to monkey tribal politics where the entire world is no more than 150 people—and so we all end up beating our heads against the wall trying to change a world that’s much bigger than ourselves. I have no idea how to fix this. 19. Scott Says: Taymon #18: I agree, of course, about the frustratingness! My point is that an ε reduction in the world’s CO2 output (as you might get by buying local produce, even though it’s more expensive) seems much less important than an ε increase in the probability of a massive CO2 reduction (as you might get by encouraging a few friends to take political action, toward a tax that would make local produce cheaper). Of course, these two things need not be mutually exclusive! Maybe buying local produce is a good way to get your friends to understand the seriousness of the problem or the feasibility of solving it. If so, then I’d consider that to be the strongest argument against the view I suggested in the post. 20. Rahul Says: “….even though there’s not such a tax now, we’re going to invest our money as if there were one—….in the expectation that there might be such a tax in the future……” If X is a great investment now, but won’t be at a future date due to a tax policy change, isn’t the right time to divest when you sincerely think that there is an imminent likelihood of such a tax being imposed? (…and just before other investors realize this and start dumping ) Do we really think there is an imminent risk of a large tax that materially impacts the profitability of our investments in fossil fuel companies? If there was such a fear, I’m sure I’d see a rapid dumping of open market investors in fossil fuel stocks. My point is that such a decision should be driven by a sincere assessment of actual tax risk. Not some wishful thinking based on our desire for this tax. I say, fair enough to your signalling argument (though I think it is misguided; you’d do better lobbying and signalling your lawmakers to impose a tax). But the expectation argument does not seem right. 21. Daniel Simmons Says: One thing that is strangely left out of this conversation is the impact of divestment on products made from natural gas, oil, and coal. For example, coal is an important component to making steel through the coking process. Natural gas and oil are used to make pharmaceutical, plastics, fertilizers, and other chemicals. Divestment, if it achieves its goals, will have an impact on this products as well. 22. Bristol Says: Anthropogenic global warming is practically proof that there is a God and that he is a just and loving God, although perhaps a bit too Old Testament-y for some. AGW is a beautiful, intelligently designed, negative-feedback loop that will prevent the human race from destroying the planet for itself and for all the other species of life with whom we share the planet. The proposition it puts to humanity is this: there are too many people on the planet and they are squeezing out too many other species and habitats, and if humanity doesn’t deal with the problem of overpopulation and the fuel burning that facilitates it, then that burning and the heating produced thereby, will, in and of itself, make it harder and harder to grow the food needed to feed the excess human population. And therefore, one way or another, the overpopulation problem will be solved and the planet will be saved. So when people complain about all the fossil-fuel combustion that’s pumping all that CO2 into the atmosphere, my response is: Burn, baby, burn! 23. JimV Says: Re: Yawner @#10 The “so what if is 6F warmer in 2100” has answers available on the Internet to those who search. Things I have heard off the top of my head include: it takes a long time to develop good top soil, so shifting growing regions from Kansas (becoming a desert) to Canada (melting the tundra) will result in catastrophic food shortages; the supporting ecology of bees, worms, etc. have never had to adapt to such changes in so short a time; as it is states like Florida and Arizona are semi-uninhabitable in the summer without air-conditioning, and (from personal experience) New York State has gotten much closer to that condition over my lifetime (starting in 1946). The scariest thing I read, on Brad DeLong’s blog about six months ago, is that currently the world’s population is using up renewable resources (oxygen, fresh water, wood, food) faster than they can renew themselves, so the ability of the planet to support us is less every day. I forget the exact numbers, but the USA averages something like a 1.5 factor, and Europe 1.4, with the overall average above 1 (where 1 is using up resources exactly as fast as new resources are produced). So yes, we all need to start car-pooling if we aren’t already. I won’t you with the details but I’m doing my part. 24. Ross Says: However, from a nationstate perspective, the incentives are all messed up. To a nation state – and to a superpower – whose military and industry run on something so cheap and that has an infrastructure in place… It’s hard to switch from a military that used carbon fuels (1/3 of all US energy expenditure) to one that uses batteries and wind turbines. And if you try to make the switch while other nations do not, its your power projection that suffers. There’s a sort of tragedy of the commons. The nations that will continue to burn oil share the cost of climate change with their adversaries. The nations that don’t eat the cost from others and are hit by the additional cost of sustainable methods. That doesn’t justify state behavior – but it does go to show how state incentives are aschew. 25. Hugo Osvaldo Barrera Says: I can’t believe that educated people at MIT take stuff like global warming seriously. Please watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wuj_tlRRQdQ Christopher Monckton has several other presentations with lots of verifiable, objective data that I greatly suggest you have a good look at. 26. Scott Says: Hugo #25: So, your proposal is that we do nothing about a problem that the vast majority of hardheaded chemists and physicists around the world regard as a serious, urgent threat (differing only about how serious and how urgent), on the off chance that a guy named Christopher Monckton on YouTube turns out to be right? Like, set aside all the specifics—do you realize how loony that seems to someone who doesn’t already agree with you? 27. John Says: It’s worth noting that divestment has no economic effect on the companies it targets, due to efficient markets. 28. Scott Says: John #27: I fully acknowledge that point. Indeed, if you read the OP, one reason why I signed the petition was that I saw that the petition organizers acknowledged it too—but had convincing (to me) arguments about why it doesn’t matter, since the direct economic effects on the targeted companies were never the point. 29. jbay Says: Scott, I wholeheartedly agree with this post, but as far as the effectiveness of individual action goes, I wonder if you are familiar with Douglas Hofstadter’s thinking on this topic? Here is an excerpt from Metamagical Themas: http://www.gwern.net/docs/1985-hofstadter I agree that personal virtue is the wrong way to characterize it; nonetheless, in my personal opinion, when I turn out the lights to save power, I’m doing it not in the interests of turning out 1 light bulb, but in the interests of choosing a decision theory that will result in 100,000 light bulbs being turned out, as long as 100,000 people think in the same way that I do. (I came to this conclusion before reading Hofstader, although I framed it differently: I’d hate for 100,000 people to choose to leave the lights on just because they all thought the other 99,999 people wouldn’t bother, so why should they). Even after that it might still add up to a small pile of beans compared with a massive change like deregulating nuclear power, which I agree is a good idea. Anyway, I mostly just thought you might find this perspective interesting, if you hadn’t already read of it. BTW, thanks for signing the petition! I’ve graduated now, but when I was at MIT I went to some of their early meetings and was very impressed with the campaign and its organizers. 30. Scott Says: jbay #29: I have serious difficulties with Hofstadter’s ‘superrationality,’ preferring my decision theory a bit more straightforwardly causal. But in any case, it’s probably not relevant to the issue at hand! I, too, reflexively turn off the lights when I’m not using them, but the argument I’d give (if an argument were needed—really it’s just a reflex) is simply that doing so can light a spark—or rather, unlight a spark! ;-)—and that one could hope that, with some tiny but nonzero probability, doing so will have cascading ripple effects on one’s acquaintances that end up making a genuine difference. 31. Henry Says: “For the capitalist free market (which I’m a big fan of) to work its magic, actual costs first need to get reflected in prices—which probably means massively taxing fossil fuels, to the point where it’s generally cheaper to leave them in the ground and switch to alternatives.” I don’t think this description of the costs from climate change is correct. It’s fundamentally based on the work of A. C. Pigou, who said that externalities can be corrected for when governments charge sales taxes such that consumers take externalities into account. The problem is that Pigou’s work was superseded by that of Ronald Coase, who pointed out that all externalities are symmetrical. It could be said that carbon emitters are imposing a cost on, say, owners of beachfront houses (which are no longer available for use after sea levels rise), but it could also be said with equal accuracy that owners of beachfront houses are imposing a cost on carbon emitters. To decide who should bear the burden of an externality is a question that can’t be directly answered by the wisdom of economics Here’s a better explanation of this: http://www.thebigquestions.com/2012/12/10/a-little-knowledge-is-a-dangerous-thing/ (The other thing that Coase pointed out is that externalities can be addressed by individuals acting selfishly and on their own if negotiation costs are low, but negotiation costs are clearly very high with regards to climate change). This is what bothers me about statements on “fossil fuel subsidies”…there are lots of direct subsidies on fossil fuel use in the developing world (although that doesn’t comport with divestment activists’ assertion that climate change is a social justice issue that affects the underprivileged the most – removing these subsidies is always very unpopular within poor countries) but in the Western world, fossil fuels are “subsidized” in that they aren’t taxed to reflect their social costs. It is not possible to come up with an objective measurement of the “actual costs” of fossil fuel usage, and by extension, a measurement of “fossil fuel subsidies” will always reflect a personal value judgment. Therefore, it doesn’t make any more sense to divest from oil companies for climate change than it does to divest from, say, housing developers building in territory that will be destroyed by climate change. One more thing…I’ve never quite understood what it means to “avert catastrophe” with regards to climate change. The Stern Review said that climate change will cost 5-20% of global GDP. This is certainly large, but it is also certainly far less than the amount the global economy will grow in the meantime. Put differently, future generations will feel a larger cost from climate change, but they will in a fundamental sense be *much* richer, in that they will live in a more prosperous world (unless global GDP growth somehow reverses, which would be very odd and unexpected). It is absolutely possible to try *too hard* to solve climate change, if preventing climate change hurts the economy more than climate change itself would! I’m not even an expert on economics — I’m just an undergraduate econ major at a university with a fairly large and obnoxious divestment club. It honestly depresses me that incorrect thinking about economics characterizes so much discussion about climate change :-/ 32. jbay Says: Thanks for replying! =D It probably isn’t relevant, no… (although one of his later essays from that bunch hits very close to home on this issue, even though it probably wasn’t written with climate change in mind). I’m very sorry if this ends up becoming a digression from more important issue. I’d be grateful if you could talk about your difficulties with superrationality in a later blog post sometime! When I read it, I felt that finally someone had put words to explaining a way of thinking that has felt very natural and intuitive to me since as far back as I can remember. 33. Steven Gubkin Says: @Scott Ultimately, politicians will only make the kind of changes you are talking about if the people require it for them to be elected. I cannot imagine a nation of flight taking, daily steak eaters caring enough about climate change to make this a political priority. Thus it makes sense, to me, to live in as environmentally sound way as possible. It contributes to an overall culture of awareness of sustainability issues. When I interact with others, I help to police a new mindframe: I shame others for failing to turn out the lights, and they shame me for my trip to McDonalds. I also praise green action, and am praised for such. I say “Wow, that is really cool” when my friend rigs a chest freezer to act as a super efficient refrigerator, and she might post pictures on facebook of my garden: “Can’t get food any more local than this!”. People participating in social circles where environmental concerns are a part of everyday life are more likely to make them a big ticket item when it comes to elections. So I think it is worthwhile to act locally and globally: I do not think either approach in isolation will achieve victory. 34. Steven Gubkin Says: @Scott I should also link to a great website (if you do not already know about it). http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/ Very illuminating posts about our global energy situation, and posts about his personal journey to reduce energy usage. This combination seems particularly effective for getting his fairly large audience “hooked”. By getting his audience hooked with the personal stories, the global picture stuff has time to sink in. I am sure this has had the effect of bumping fossil fuel divestment hire on the list for many people, myself included. 35. Mark Russell Says: Hugo#25 Don’t close youtube. try this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbW-aHvjOgM for Monckton Bunkum part 1. Monckton rarely gives sources and when he does they are wrong. He is a ridiculous and buffoonish figure who doesn’t take criticism very well, often threatening legal action. See the the long running dispute between professor John Abraham and Monckton when Abraham had the temerity to point out the falsity of Monckton’s claims. No, global warming is real enough. The climate sensitivity of co2 is the only point worth much argument. On the problems of energy production and the economy, without fossil fuels or nuclear power see this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bANPXjN9mOA a talk by Amory Lovins about his book ‘Reinventing Fire’. According to Lovins the prospects for economic growth look better with a combination of renewable technologies, energy efficiency, and distrubuted generation, than running our economy on fossil fuels. Lovins’ organisation The Rocky Mountain Institute, http://www.rmi.org/ is worth a visit. 36. Scott Says: Henry #31: I’m tempted to treat your comment as a (very clear and useful) reductio ad absurdum of a certain style of economic thinking. I.e., if this were the best that economics could say about the climate crisis, then my reply would be: then so much the worse for the entire field of economics! (But I also don’t think it’s the best that economics can say, and I don’t think most economists would think so either.) Let’s start with the argument that—to change your example a bit—the island nation of Tuvalu imposes just as great of a cost on carbon emitters by continuing to exist, as the carbon emitters impose on Tuvalu. Whatever one thinks of that as an abstract proposition, surely one should add that, under our current arrangements, the cost is being borne entirely by Tuvalu, and not at all by emitters? And surely that doesn’t seem fair? Surely the emitters should pay at least part of the cost? (Likewise, one might say that a murder victim imposes just as great a cost on the murderer as the other way around, since, had the victim been kind enough not to take up space in the world, the murderer wouldn’t have needed to murder him and then go to jail. But this doesn’t work if there’s no functioning justice system: in that case, the cost really is borne entirely by the victim.) Secondly, you say it would be “very odd and unexpected” for global GDP growth to “somehow” reverse. But the eventual reversal of global GDP growth is something that I’d submit is not merely a possibility, but a certainty. For straightforward mathematical reasons, no exponential growth can continue for very long before running up against fundamental limits—not of population, not of transistor density, and not of GDP. Global GDP has been growing exponentially for centuries because civilization has been growing exponentially for centuries. Eventually, however, civilization will die out and the global GDP will be zero—as an extremely loose upper bound, at the heat death of the universe, but presumably much sooner than that, whenever and however we kill ourselves out. The kind of environmentalism I subscribe to, you might say, is the kind that cares about keeping global GDP nonzero for as long as possible. Growing it is just a bonus! 37. Silas Barta Says: I wish you would say more to justify your different positions on the two kinds of unilateral disarmament here: the low-carbon lifestyle vs coal divestment. The only distinction I saw you make was that “coal divestment gets attention that can shape policy, lifestyle changes don’t”. But there are other dynamics to worry about in UD: they actually reward and embolden defectors (in the PD sense): by selling coal investments (esp en masse), you increase the effective ROR thereon and enrich the very people that would fight the policy of pricing in carbon exteralities. Is there a reason this effect is smaller than the “encourage good policy” effect of the divestment? Especially given that it encourages inefficient blacklist legislation, just as much as it does pigovian legislation? Regarding Al Gore types, I (obviously) don’t think it’s fair to use them as an argument agains the science or need for action. But it is *majestically* fair to use their actions to argue against the inefficient “blacklist” approach, where they presume to tell me which goods have a negative net utility, rather than giving me a price and letting me decide whether I still want the incandescents. If you don’t like legislation that would mandate a smaller home size (knowing you can pay for the externality), then don’t propose legislation that would mandate types of artificial light! 38. Michael Brazier Says: The natural consequence of one nation enacting a massive tax on fossil fuels is the swift transplanting of lots of factories out of that nation to another nation which has not enacted any such tax. The only way to prevent this from happening is to make every nation on Earth tax fossil fuels at a punitive rate – which is not going to happen short of a global war. How many Chinese are you willing to kill to cool the planet? 39. Scott Says: Steven #33: I cannot imagine a nation of flight taking, daily steak eaters caring enough about climate change to make this a political priority. OK, but the flip side of that is: it’s hard to imagine aggressive action on climate, unless the environmentalists somehow manage to get the flight-taking steak eaters on board with them! And the key to that, I’m arguing, is for the environmentalists to be able to say to the steak-eaters: “Look, you can still fly on planes and eat steak all you want, with no moral condemnation from us. It’s just that, for reasons of planetary survival, you’ll need to pay more for those things—so much more, in fact, that you’ll probably find yourself doing less of them. On the other hand, everyone else will be paying more too, so you won’t need to feel like a chump, like the rare cooperator in a sea of defectors. In fact, you won’t even have to remember what we told you, or keep track of what is or isn’t ‘green’ if you want to be a good person. Just vote for our economic policy, then go and live your life, the invisible hand will take care of everything and the planet will be saved.” I admit that this kind of rhetoric would be a significant departure for the environmental movement, but it seems to me to be worth a try. 40. Scott Says: Silas #37: I wish you would say more to justify your different positions on the two kinds of unilateral disarmament here: the low-carbon lifestyle vs coal divestment. The only distinction I saw you make was that “coal divestment gets attention that can shape policy, lifestyle changes don’t”. From my standpoint, the whole problem of reducing CO2 emissions has gotten tangled up with personal purity and sin to a regrettable and self-defeating extent, with buying local, etc. as a sort of 21st-century analogue of keeping kosher. It’s not that buying local isn’t a good idea, it’s that spreading it beyond a few yuppies will require changing the economic incentives: I don’t see any other way. So, broadly speaking, I’m in favor of any climate activism that shifts the focus from the personal realm to the economic and macro realm where I think it belongs. But it is *majestically* fair to use their actions to argue against the inefficient “blacklist” approach, where they presume to tell me which goods have a negative net utility, rather than giving me a price and letting me decide whether I still want the incandescents. I can’t speak for Gore, but I’ve said many times in this thread that I support levying taxes on polluting goods commensurate with how much damage they do, rather than banning them outright. (In practice, some goods might need to be banned, if they were very damaging and if people skirted the tax with a black market, but I’d want that to be a last resort.) 41. John Sidles Says: Yawner asks “I still don’t understand why it [anthropogenic global warming] matters. If the world is 6 degrees warmer in 2100, what’s the problem with that?” Eric Hand’s survey “Acid oceans cited in Earth’s worst die-off” (Science 2015) is an entré to a vast palaeo literature that holds sobering lessons in regard to CO2, warming, acidification, and mass extinction. Citizen-science organizations like Audubon appreciate these lessons keenly … it’s not just professional scientists who are alarmed. The long view Appreciating the palaeo-literature requires that we look beyond decadal-scale cut-offs like “the year 2100” … multi-millennial institutions like Pope Francis’ Catholic Church routinely embrace the requisite longer views, needless to say. Scientific voices In the class of “talented reasoners who self-admittedly are not good at math” belongs sociobiologist Ed Wilson, whose autobiography Naturalist — search Google Books for the Wilson’s self-admissions “I am a poor mathematician” and “I remain mathematically semiliterate” — speaks to the radicalization that is inherent in multiple themes of recent Shtetl Optimized essays [As a student] I discovered the idea social environment for developing a scientist — or at least one of several possible ideals. It is the same as for a political revolutionary. Start with a circle of ambitious students who talk and work together and conspire against their elders in order to make their way into a particular discipline. They can be as few as two or as many as five; more than five makes the unit unstable. Give them an exciting new idea that can transform the disciplien and with which they can advance their ambitions: let them believe they own a central truth shared by few others, and therefore a piece of the future. Add a distant authority figure, in this case a scientist who has written a revolutionary text, or at least a circle of older revolutionaries to have generated the accepted canon. The farther away these icons are from their acolytes, the better. Bring on a local role model, an older man or woman who who promotes The Idea and embodies in their character and working habits the ideals of the youthful discipline. […] The worst thing that can happen, will happen, is not energy depletion, economic collapse, limited nuclear war, or conquest by a totalitarian government. As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired within a few generations. The one process ongoing in the 1980s that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us. I was, I will confess now, unforgiveably late in arriving [as an environmental activist]. Biodiversity destruction had troubled my mind for decades, but I had made little overt response. In the 1950s, as I worked my way around bare red-clay gullies in Alabama and sought the vanishing rain-forests of Cuba, I knew something was terribly wrong. My apprehension grew as I pored over the list of endangered and extinct animal species in the Red Book of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. As the 1970s passed, I wondered: at what point should scientists become activists? I knew from hard experience that the ground between science and political engagement is treacherous. I was gun-shy from the sociobiology controversy. Speak too forcefully, I thought, and other scientists regard you as an ideologue; speak too softly, and you duck a moral responsibility. I hesitated on the side of caution. I thought “Let the next generation do it.” Conclusion In regard to mitigating anthropogenic global warming, the era is past in which the scientific community could feasibly “let the next generation do it” … and for this reason, increasingly many scientists — both junior and senior, both prominent and obscure — are transitioning from progressives to radicals. 42. Mark Says: It’s rare to see someone who both thinks global warming will be catastrophic and who also supports nuclear power. Kudos to you for that, but it’s suspicious to me that the vast majority of people who supposedly think we’re on the brink of disaster aren’t interested in energy sources proven to work. I highly recommend this book, mainly for its insightful discussion of how to think about energy and environmental issues. 43. Scott Says: Mark #42: I’m for nuclear power if it turns out to be the best option—something that I regard as entirely possible, particularly with the newer reactor designs (see comment #7). If wind or solar turn out to be better—or better in certain parts of the world or for certain applications, or whatever—then I’m for those as well. I’m not religiously for or against any technology; I just want to see the problem solved. 44. Jason Braswell Says: Bad as a symbolic gesture. Everyone you want to convince just thinks you’re an uppity, hypocritical egghead who doesn’t know about life outside academia. When it comes to gestures people respect personal sacrifice, I think. A petition to make all MIT campus parking no less than20/day with proceeds going to green initiatives would garner some positive attention.

45. wolfgang Says:

@Scott

>> climate activism that shifts the focus from the personal realm to the economic and macro realm

From 2000 to 2007 the price of crude oil increased from (below) 20$to above 120$.
The price of most other commodities (including coal) increased in similar fashion.

As far as I know, this 6-fold increase had no measurable effect on the CO2 in the atmosphere (as measured e.g. in Hawaii).

I write this just to make clear what we are talking about; a typical consumption tax, perhaps 10% or even 20%, would most likely make not much difference.

46. Scott Says:

Jason #44: MIT campus parking is $1000/year, and I use it no more, I’d say, than 100 days per year (whenever the weather’s okay I walk), meaning that I am paying within a factor of 2 of your proposal. 🙂 47. Observer Says: If you really want to prevent global warming, it would be better to support nuclear power, oppose Third World development and overpopulation, and oppose immigration. Only nuclear power can feasibly provide large-scale carbon-free power. All the other carbon problems are related to having too many people. 48. John Sidles Says: Jason Braswell asserts (#44) “Everyone you [Scott? scientists in general?] want to convince just thinks you’re an uppity, hypocritical egghead who doesn’t know about life outside academia.” Jason’s comment inspired me to verify (via the arxiv server’s full-text search) that the scientific community essentially never employs the terms “hypocritical”, “uppity”, and “egghead” in their pejorative sense. In contrast, a search (via Advanced Google Search) of the arch-skeptical website WUWT found: “hypocritical” 1130 mainly pejorative uses “uppity” 59 mainly pejorative uses “egghead” 45 mainly pejorative uses First conclusion The scientific community largely eschews pejorative rhetoric, whereas the climate-skeptic community commonly embraces it. My view Scientists need not and should not embrace pejorative rhetoric; the scientific case that anthropogenic climate-change is real, serious, and accelerating is sufficiently strong that rhetorical embellishments are superfluous. Jason Braswell asserts (#44) “When it comes to gestures people respect personal sacrifice […]” This is true, and the arch-environmentalist mathematician Alexander Grothendieck is a good example of it. Also recommended are the “talk-the-talk/walk-the-walk” non-academic/non-pejorative lectures of the much-honored essayist Wendell Berry, and the much-honored primatologist Jane Goodall. Second conclusion There’s no shortage of environmentalists who state their case with dignity and defend their cause at substantial personal sacrifice. 49. a Says: Why do you not agree with Chomsky? 50. quax Says: Mark #42, I think you underestimate the number of people who have a realistic appreciation of nuclear energy, while also recognizing that the CO2 release experiment that we are running on our atmosphere is extremely foolhardy. Frankly, I don’t understand how anybody who cares for the environment cannot support advanced nuclear research. It offers the only avenue to handle nuclear waste responsibly. Burying this stuff that stays dangerous for hundred thousands of years is just the heights of irresponsibility in my mind. Especially since there are reactor designs that allow for the transmutation of this waste and are inherently safe (i.e. do not allow an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction). 51. Rahul Says: Scott #45: The point is, even as a signalling gesture, a petition is weak simply because most people can see that signing it needed close to zero sacrifice, on the part of all the Profs. who signed it. Practically everyone would want to save the world, if it could be done without any pain to himself! If indeed, MIT faculty wanted to send a real strong gesture, do something that pinches. e.g. MIT faculty pledge to fly to no more than 3 conferences each, a year. Or, move to Singapore-sized small apartments from houses. Give up cars. Or no air conditioning at MIT in summer. Or no vacations that need flying. I think you are misunderstanding the role of personal sacrifice in a gesture. 52. Rahul Says: Scott #40: From my standpoint, the whole problem of reducing CO2 emissions has gotten tangled up with personal purity and sin to a regrettable and self-defeating extent……..So, broadly speaking, I’m in favor of any climate activism that shifts the focus from the personal realm to the economic and macro realm where I think it belongs. How do you shift it? Through political action. Political action needs broad voter support. That’s the killer. We agree that political action will raise prices of fuel, food, heating etc.?And these things pinch way more at the bottom than the top of the income bracket. Ergo, the lower income brackets say “It is OK for Scott Aaronson to put on his brave face about a 4x gas price increase, but it doesn’t hurt him as much as it hurts me” Hence no support for political action. That’s why I say, the trick is going to lie in sending out convincing signals, that cohorts like MIT Professors are actually willing to take a personal hit that’s at least as painful to the man on the street. Which is why, personal actions, beyond rhetoric & Carbon tax advocacy, do matter. 53. Piotr Migdał Says: > AGW is a beautiful, intelligently designed, negative-feedback loop that will prevent the human race from destroying the planet The main problem is that virtually all complex species are much more susceptible to climate changes (and, what is the main factor now: habitat change) than we are. We are nowhere near to being extinct – we (or rather: the richer part of us) can well adopt to (say) +30oC (air condition, moving closer to poles, living in underground shelters etc). But by then it will be a desert, with most species and all ecosystems dead. It will be a disaster to all poor, densely-populated regions. But I hate this approach that only human lives matter and other plants and animals are merely to “serve us”. 54. Tom Says: So, broadly speaking, I’m in favor of any climate activism that shifts the focus from the personal realm to the economic and macro realm where I think it belongs. Scott, did you read Naomi Klein’s book on climate change This changes everything? She doesn’t agree with you about the magic of the free market, but does spend a lot of time describing the ways in which energy companies have used their political power to block climate activism in the macro realm. 55. Hugo Osvaldo Barrera Says: #26 Scott: So you’re disregarding the data he exposes in various talks merely because it’s hosted on youtube? Also, stating that it must be right because many people believe it to be is an excelente example of an Argumentum Ad Populum: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argumentum_ad_populum Have you yourself looked at the data exposed? Have you found a fallacy in his arguments, or the information to be untrue? Science is basically about analizing the data and reaching our own conclusions, not following the majorities, or disregarding someone merely because the talks are on youtube. Here one of several interesting talks: https://youtu.be/ppQl6KYyMqA?t=139 56. Scott Says: Tom #54: No, sorry, I haven’t read it, although I’ve read some of her other stuff. 57. Scott Says: Rahul #51: The point is, even as a signalling gesture, a petition is weak simply because most people can see that signing it needed close to zero sacrifice, on the part of all the Profs. who signed it. For whatever it’s worth, one of my colleagues told me that he admired my signing the petition, but felt unable to sign it himself, since a lot of his research is sponsored by oil companies who wouldn’t be happy with it. He said he wasn’t proud of this, and that decades from now it would be obvious that the signers did the right thing. I won’t pretend that the signers made any big sacrifice (and you’re undoubtedly right that they should make bigger sacrifices), but I don’t think it was zero. 58. Rahul Says: Scott #57 If the sacrifice wasn’t exactly zero, it was very close to zero, in my opinion. It would have been a powerful story, had you reported, that this colleague of yours had a pang of conscience, signed the petition, & renounced his oil company funding. Sadly, that is not what we are seeing, are we? It is a rare academic today that will antagonize the hen that lays golden eggs on grounds of morality. What does happen in practice is this: Profs. that get NSA funding denounce oil companies. Profs. that get Exxon funding denounce NSA. 59. Scott Says: a #49: Why do you not agree with Chomsky? You’ll have to look at previous threads, where we discussed some of Chomsky’s foreign policy views, e.g. that for all anyone knows bin Laden was just an innocent victim of American framing and execution, while Hamas is simply a reasonable group seeking a two-state solution—as well as some of his reprehensible past actions, like defending the Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson (not merely his free speech rights, but his character and the quality of his “work”), and denying the genocide in Cambodia while it was happening (since the Khmer Rouge was anti-American, so how bad could they be?). Chomsky has never apologized for being wrong about any of this. But I don’t want to derail this thread by rehashing those debates. As I said, this one’s about something where he and I find ourselves on the same side, though quite possibly for different reasons! 60. Scott Says: Hugo #55: Sorry, Mark Russell #35 linked to some refutations of Monckton, but I was trying (unsuccessfully) to engage you in a more meta-level discussion. Every week I get emails from people claiming to have proved P=NP, or refuted quantum mechanics or the Second Law or Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, or something like that. Sometimes they even have YouTube videos. Should I read every website and watch every video before making up my mind? In fact I did try to engage many of these people, but I found that they had infinite energy to keep inventing perverse loopholes, switching without the slightest acknowledgment of error to a new one as soon as the last one was closed (in that sense only, they’re right that perpetual motion is possible! 🙂 ). I could easily waste my entire life on this. Clearly, then, a different approach to epistemology is needed. While the Argumentum Ad Populum might be a fallacy, the Argumentum Ad Scientific Consensusum has worked better than anyone could’ve imagined (at least in the hard sciences) since the beginning of the scientific revolution. What it says is emphatically not that the scientific consensus is always right: indeed, it draws its strength by saying almost the opposite. It says that the consensus could be wrong, and that if you think it’s wrong, then it’s your privilege and responsibility to change the consensus by convincing most of the relevant experts. Science is an error-correcting system; it exists to respond to new evidence. What you must never do, if you wish to be taken seriously, is attempt an end-run around science’s error-correcting gauntlet. So for example, if you think that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, try to convince the medical research community that you’re right. Until you can do that, you have no business telling governments to abandon anti-retroviral drugs (as Peter Duesberg did, more-or-less directly causing the deaths of 300,000 South Africans). Likewise, if you think global warming doesn’t exist (or has nothing to do with human activity, or whatever), then try to convince the chemistry and physics and atmospheric science communities that you’re right. Until you can do that, you have no business telling the general public and policymakers that the problem they’re trying to solve doesn’t exist. The fact that Monckton attempts just such an “end run,” is enough for me to reasonably conclude that he is a fraud. 61. Scott Says: Rahul #58: What does happen in practice is this: Profs. that get NSA funding denounce oil companies. Profs. that get Exxon funding denounce NSA. What can I say except that’s why I have this blog, to denounce everything I don’t like and antagonize just about everyone? 😉 I agree with you that, if you’re a tenured academic who never says anything in public that “might get you in trouble,” then the privilege of academic freedom has been wasted on you. 62. Rahul Says: Is there a list of how much of the MIT endowment is held in which stocks? Or is that confidential information? I’d be curious to see how much fossil fuel stock they actually hold. 63. Yawner Says: Ok, I won’t eat meat for a month. You’re welcome. Although I don’t have kids, so technically I should get to use up all the resources of all of my decendants combined! 64. Jason Braswell Says: John #48 – Yeah, sorry I was unclear. I was referring to climate denialists or their sympathizers as the people one needs to convince. Scott #46 – Oh, cool to hear! Just revise my specific numbers to something substantial enough to make it true. 🙂 65. Scott Says: Rahul #62: Is there a list of how much of the MIT endowment is held in which stocks? Or is that confidential information? I’d be curious to see how much fossil fuel stock they actually hold. Alas, I don’t think this is publicly known—someone correct me if I’m wrong. 66. roystgnr Says: “We have proved that climate change is a grave threat to the survival of human civilization. You have proved that rich, do-gooder liberals can come off as annoying hypocrites.” Sure. On the other hand, “Sir, (a+b^n)/n = x; hence God exists, answer please!” To enact social change with a proof, you have to be able to convince society that you’re right about it and not mistaken or bluffing. Hypocrisy signals “bluffing”. Perhaps the plan is to teach everyone who votes enough about turbulence modeling that they’ll be able to validate GCMs themselves and skip the middle-men? If not then we’re going to have to rely on persuasion, and even if “we personally do disproportionate damage as a cost of persuading more support” might be forgivable, “we personally do disproportionate damage and thereby dissuade support” is not. 67. jonathan Says: My concern is that the divestment movement perpetuates an anti-capitalist and anti-corporate narrative. Under this narrative, companies that profit from “anti-environment” activities are considered morally culpable, and therefore deserving targets of direct action. I strongly disagree with this narrative. I think that placing moral expectations on companies, while simultaneously giving them incentives to profit by violating these expectations, is a terrible way to conduct policy. It is much better to change the incentives facing companies directly. I think that perpetuating this narrative is dangerous because it risks alienating moderate allies who may be put off by these moralistic and anti-corporate strands. You may argue that this is not YOUR reasoning in signing the petition, but it may be the message you are sending by doing so. And given this is a symbolic action, the message really is the point. 68. Scott Says: roystgnr #66: I’m trying to think out loud about this. On the one hand, I could announce to my class: “I will show you just how seriously I believe the halting problem is unsolvable, by sawing off my arm in front of you, as a signal of my seriousness”—and then commence doing it. That might impress the students with my commitment to teaching, but it should do little to persuade them that the halting problem is really unsolvable, since there’s no means external to me by which the truth or falsehood of the belief can causally influence the action. On the other hand, if I announced: “if someone finds a way to solve the halting problem within the next decade, I’ll pay them a million dollars”—then that should convey something to the students, since I’m setting up a causal link between my money and my mouth. (And indeed, I notoriously made offers of that sort twice on this blog, with mixed results!) Now, what if I decided to move to a mud hut, and stop using any technology that relied in any way on the burning of fossil fuels? That feels to me more like the first case than like the second. Yes, it would credibly show you my sincerity of belief, but rationally, it should do little to convince you that my sincerity was justified. In fact, such a move would sit uneasily with my stated belief that climate change is a macro issue, which can only be solved by coordinated economic and political action, and not by individual do-gooderism. And crucially, the opponents of action might draw exactly the opposite of the intended conclusion—i.e., “if the global warming people think we all need to move to mud huts like they did, then obviously they’re living in cloud cuckoo land! their loony beliefs will never work in the real world.” OK, but suppose I stop short of moving to a mud hut: suppose I merely cut back on travel, etc. In that case, the opponents of action would gleefully accuse me of not doing enough, as they accuse Gore and others (even while the opponents themselves do nothing). As it happens, I have cut back on travel for a combination of reasons, but I’m trying to show you why this is fundamentally a no-win situation. For thousands of years, at least since Christ, the way to establish the truth of your beliefs was to show the world how much you suffered for them (“your cause only has 50 martyrs? oh yeah? mine has 5,000”). To my mind, the scientific revolution started when Galileo broke this “suffering=truth” trend, by essentially saying to the Inquisition: “you know what, I actually prefer not to martyr myself. you want me to say that the sun goes around the earth? sure, whatever, you’re the ones with the torture rack…” 69. Rahul Says: What is interesting but perhaps not entirely surprising is that the anti-oil / coal petition has only one Chemistry Professor signing it & none from Chemical Engineering. To accentuate the contrast I counted on the petition 15 Linguistics Professors, & 16 faculty from Language & Writing Programs. This highly skewed data might admit various explanations. I’d be curious to hear what others think. 70. Scott Says: jonathan #67: Thanks. That’s the strongest argument anyone has offered so far in this thread against signing the petition, and is a good reason why (as I wrote) signing was not an obvious choice for me. But in my defense, probably most of the people who learn that I signed at all, will learn it through this blog post, in which I explain the reasons for my decision. (Also, of course, I read the petition and some associated materials by the organizers, and confirmed that the actual words were things I agreed with! 🙂 ) 71. Nilima Nigam Says: Good for you for signing the petition! I particularly admire the nuance of your reasoning. As long as$\epsilon>0$and is indeed bounded strictly away from zero as a function of T where T=time it takes to arrest/reverse current trends in CO2 levels, this is an excellent rationale. I’m curious about your comment in #65. My own home institution is also not very transparent about the extent of its holdings in fossil fuels, and it’s been a challenge to get information. If these are (as I am told) ‘benign’ investments, why the caginess about how much we’re invested in them? 72. Aaron Says: The idea that political effort should be placed in people avoiding investing in artificially cheap (uncosted externality) energy seems odd. While energy that could be focused on scalable solutions (taxing carbon) is spent on political statements, the oil companies are just doubling down on their lobbying and PR campaigns to rebrand themselves in the eyes of the public. I think things like this could be diluting the message. The carbon tax is politically unpopular for even Democratic politicians because it’s so closely related to a bunch of mishmash of far left environmental activism, when in reality is something even Milton Friedman would support. 73. jonathan Says: As an aside, are there any charities devoted to funding basic research on renewable energy? If we are interested in doing good while making a public statement on this issue, perhaps public donations to such a charity would be an effective means. And this gets around the “no personal sacrifice” objection! 74. Scott Says: Aaron #72: While energy that could be focused on scalable solutions (taxing carbon) is spent on political statements, the oil companies are just doubling down on their lobbying and PR campaigns to rebrand themselves in the eyes of the public. Countering lobbying and PR by the oil companies was listed by the organizers as one of the major reasons for the divestment petition. Basically, academic scientists would be saying to the oil companies: “the PR you guys are putting out is so egregiously false that we no longer even want our institutions holding stock in you, lest the taint of your pseudoscience rub off on us.” No doubt there are other ways to send the same message, but it seems like many of us are trying to row in the same direction here, no? 75. invalid Says: Scott #56 I don’t want to de-rail this into a thread about Chomsky but what you wrote is a gross misrepresentation of what he has actually said. He didn’t say bin Laden was innocent, he said he was executed without a trial (it appears now that bin Laden could have easily been captured and tried). Faurisson, as far as I know, was purely a speech issue, and I suspect the only positive thing he said about the research was that existed (i.e. Faurisson was actually trying to present evidence, even if was wrong). Regarding Cambodia, the issue was mostly about how the reporting on the atrocities there compared to the reporting of the atrocities in East Timor, atrocities which the US approved of. At the time there wasn’t strong evidence (or there was conflicting evidence) about the scale of murder in Cambodia while there was clear evidence of that in East Timor. The relevance of this point is that western media’s standards of evidence are different for western-approved atrocities than they are for western-condemned ones. Chomsky has stated that Hamas has publicly declared that they would accept a two-state solution. Given that is the case, his position is that everyone should try to adopt a two-state solution. He has condemned terrorism by Hamas. There’s probably strong, valid criticism of Chomsky but it is much harder to identify that most believe. 76. Chris Says: Scott #70/74: That reason is all fine and good, but company lobbying isn’t mentioned in the petition either the faculty one or the general one. I’m with Jonathon #67 about having a problem with the petition. At its heart it’s purity based signaling. While the petition does mention the overvalued argument, the thrust of the arguments is more about how getting money from fossil fuel companies is immoral. Three of the five points opening’s sentences focus on that point: “Our integrity is at stake”, “Divestment is the moral course of action, and also the financially prudent one”, and “Divestment is not only right, it is powerful.” The second example does support your reasons, but I would argue that the focus is more on first clause of that sentence than the second. The more general petition supports this even more with “Because it is unconscionable to finance our Institute with investments that will lock us in to catastrophic climate change.” Both petitions don’t really explain the link between divestment and keeping the carbon in the ground. The only way I can see is that it encourages no one to invest in fossil fuels on moral grounds so they can’t get the capital to mine/drill. That seems like a very difficult way to reduce mining unless there’s a follow up plan to punish defectors. Divestment is however a wonderful way to be able to say “we are morally upstanding sorts whereas you are immoral scum.” That’s why I’m reading the petition in general to be “Fossil fuels are bad. Therefore money from investing in fossil fuel companies is tainted money and as that offends us, we must cut it off” which plays very well in the anti-capitalist and anti-corporatist narrative. 77. Cambridge Says: Good post. The reason I didn’t sign this (as a student), and something that I haven’t heard brought up much in the debate around this particular petition, is that many of the companies divestment would target are the biggest donors to MIT’s ongoing alternative energy research. The MIT Energy Initiative and other projects direct tens of millions of dollars to research in renewables like improved solar panels, better batteries, and fusion, and are funded in major part by Shell, BP, etc. There seem to be two possible outcomes for divestment: either the companies don’t react at all, and the gesture is a purely symbolic one, or the companies are wounded enough to take notice, in which case I find it likely that MIT’s research funding would be in jeopardy. I don’t know exact numbers for (a) how much MIT has invested in these companies or (b) how much funding they provide, but I find it hard to believe that divestment on our part could affect these companies’ bottom lines as much as them pulling funding could affect MIT’s. So, while I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said, I think MIT can do the most good by doing what we do best: engineering real solutions to the problem, with the help of whomever will give it to us. 78. Rahul Says: Scott #74: What are some recent examples of egregiously false PR about AGW posted by the big Oil companies? Say, Exxon, Shell, BP. Are they still spewing the egregiously false AGW PR? I’m purely curious to read the primary sources; not denying that they may all be guilty. 79. Sam Hopkins Says: Why are most scientists so pessimistic about our ability to combat climate change by geoengineering? From the perspective of the individual, it seems that both personal responsibility and political agitating are much less impactful actions re: climate change than e.g. working towards technology to partially block out the sun. This is coming from someone who believes wholeheartedly in the need to combat capitalism via political action, not because of what capitalism does the environment but rather because of what it does to people. 80. Cambridge Says: I just noticed that my point above was addressed, a bit, in #57 and #58. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to take funding from oil companies while looking for ways to slow climate change. The idea of dirty money seems kind of silly – funding is funding, and professors can use it however they see fit. I agree with Rahul #5 here. If oil-funded researchers develop some truly economical, clean energy sources, the huge energy companies will have to adopt them or die. 81. Rahul Says: Even if, for arguments sake, signalling were a good motive, I’d rather that the petition writers got a stronger set of people on the petition. With more relevant backgrounds. As it stands, being convinced by this petition would be like switching to elliptic curve cryptography because the Department of Kinesology or the School of Languages wrote a petition against the status quo of commercial encryption. 82. Rahul Says: Sam Hopkins #79: “Why are most scientists so pessimistic about our ability to combat climate change by geoengineering?” Because a credible, viable technology to pull that off just does not exist at the moment! Sure, there are proposals and plans out there and maybe even a prototype or two but I have never read of anything even mildly convincing as a solution. 83. Scott Says: Cambridge #77 and #80: I agree, and I’d say it would be perfectly understandable for students and faculty doing (say) alternative energy research funded by Shell or BP not to sign this petition, even if they agreed with it in principle. That doesn’t apply to me, though. (Incidentally, as you probably know, MIT had huge donations in recent years from the Koch brothers, including the new cancer center and daycare center. And on balance, I agreed with MIT’s decision to take that money—the Kochs were donating as private individuals, and the good of curing cancer and letting female faculty pursue their careers probably outweighs the good that would come from MIT making a public statement that the Koch brothers’ other activities suck. Which, in any case, is a statement that many of us can still happily make in our private capacities, as I’m doing right now. And anyway, better that they should spend on us than on their SuperPACs!) 84. Scott Says: Sam Hopkins #79: My guess is that geo-engineering (huge seawalls, sulfur dioxide cannons, etc.) is something that we’ll eventually be forced to do to maintain our civilization. But even then, it won’t be a sustainable answer. Firstly, it will have nasty side effects, which are unavoidable when you’re trying to re-engineer an entire planet, having never tried anything like it before (!). Secondly, if we also continue emitting more and more CO2, then we’ll need more and more geo-engineering to counteract it, until at some point, the side effects would probably rival or exceed the original warming in their impact. (And all this is assuming the geo-engineering actually works.) For these reasons, I’d say that, in addition to the geo-engineering that we’ll eventually need in any case, there’s also a desperate need to cut fossil fuel emissions as sharply as we can as soon as we can, in order to increase the probability that the geo-engineering, when it does come, is able to tide us over during the painful transition to a more sustainable way of life. 85. yme Says: I don’t understand jonathan’s comment #67. Why is it anti-capitalist to sell your shares of a company that does things which you wish it wouldn’t do? Does capitalism require that everyone base their investment decisions solely on profitability? I don’t think so. Everyone is free to invest based on whatever criteria they choose. A company doesn’t need to “deserve” divestment, in order for shareholders to be allowed to sell their shares. To the extent that a company desires investment, it needs to take into account the wishes of its potential investors, whatever they may be. This is one way to change the incentives facing the company, no? And if, on the other hand, the divestment in fact has little effect on the company, it’s hard to characterize it as anti-corporate. The corporation is just fine in that case. 86. Bram Cohen Says: Scott, do you agree with Chomsky’s modeling of human parsing of language as a stack-based automaton, and if so/not how to account for its failures/successes as an approach for computers to parse language? 87. Scott Says: Bram #86: LOL. I’m very far from an expert, but my outside impression is that Chomskyan formal language theory was a big advance over the status quo in linguistics back in the 50s and 60s (does anyone not agree about that?), but more recently, has had some tendency to get fetishized and used to inhibit progress. When it comes to automated parsing and machine translation, I’m in favor of whatever works the best, and since the 1990’s that’s generally meant statistical approaches. Like Peter Norvig and many others, I’m against abandoning what works best in favor of what someone says is “deeper”—for who’s to say that the formal approaches are “deeper” than the statistical ones anyway? (For godsakes, deep learning’s got the word “deep” right in its name! 😉 ) 88. Douglas Knight Says: I am not convinced that Chomsky was an advance over the prior status quo. What was the prior status quo? How was Chomsky different? 89. Jay Says: Scott #84 >a desperate need to cut fossil fuel emissions as sharply as we can as soon as we can Suppose some giant cabbageanic form of life, from a galaxy far away, believes that there is absolutly no scientific concensus that global warning threatens human civilisation. Suppose her brother (she has a brother) believes that most economic scientists do think we should not tax emission above some reasonable level (higher than now, but not high enough to cut total emission significantly in the long run). Suppose you’d come into contact with those two aliens. They say they won’t argue anything you believe (yes post-modernism impacts cabbageans too) unless you claim as true a claim you can’t back. That, they really don’t like it. And you just claimed as fact that human scientists believes otherwise, didn’t you? So, could you please explain yourself using statements as factuable as possible? Out of random curiosity, you count on their bodies 3.7 appendices (one for each sprout) of a lovely greenredish colour which, you realize now, are green lightsabers tinged with fresh blood. What do you say? 90. invalid Says: Scott #87 I guess I’ll jump in and defend Chomsky again. Chomsky said that statistical approaches don’t lead to understanding of language models. So to the extent that science is about understanding and not merely predicting outcomes, “brute” statistical models don’t help. The analogy he has given is that even if you can take in a bunch of inputs, use some non-domain-specific machine learning and can predict the weather tomorrow (which is useful!), you haven’t learned anything about how the weather works. The counter-argument is that you can somehow use the predictions to gain understanding but I’m not sure to what extent researchers have that as a goal, much less how often they succeed in that approach. 91. Greg Kuperberg Says: Scott – This petition, and the MIT divestment movement associated with it, is an odd mixture of scientific environmentalism, which I completely support, and political environmentalism, which I sometimes support but don’t really trust. The divestment drive has a number of contradictory features, so that I see the likely effect as ε^3, rather than ε, as you put it. Possibly the net effect is negative, if it serves as a distraction from other efforts that are Ω(ε). I probably wouldn’t sign it at my own university; on the other hand, I don’t know that I should object to it either. I can start with two of your own comments in support of signing the petition: Even symbolic divestment gestures [are] better than nothing. The thing is that existing efforts at MIT are not by any means “nothing”. Consider in particular the MIT Energy Initiative, and the fact that its first director, Ernst Moniz, is now Obama’s Energy Secretary. MITEI has done a lot of work, and the new influence of Moniz is easily Ω(ε) even on the world scale. On the other hand, the connection between MITEI and and the divestment petition is oddly thin. It is true that one of the lead organizers, Geoffrey Supran, has an MITEI fellowship. But he’s a graduate student, not a faculty member. For whatever reason, neither Supran’s advisor (who is not at MITEI but whose lab does solar-power-related research), nor any faculty member at MITEI has signed the petition as of today. So, who has signed the petition? Well, there are various clusters of energy and climate expertise at MIT, and some of them are involved while others are not. Climate scientists and energy engineers and economists have some healthy representation in the faculty petition, but they are not all that well represented. On the other hand, the petition has truly swept the linguistics department. As I said, an odd mixture. You also say: limiting your personal carbon footprint should be very far from your main concern I completely agree! But the thing is, MIT’s investment policy is at a mesoscope scale somewhere in between personal virtue and national policy. It is, arguably, having it both ways. It’s certainly not nearly as convincing as sending Ernst Moniz to Washington. The faculty petition does not say what the US or the world should do instead of burning fossil fuels. However, the divestment movement, in typical form for political environmentalism, is uniquely enthusiastic about renewable energy, in particular solar energy. But dressing your roof with solar cells at high subsidy is an insidious blurring of public policy and personal virtue. Finally (for now), I found this statement from the hosted debate in April: Brad Hager, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor in Earth and Planetary Sciences and director of MIT’s Earth Resources Laboratory, arguing against divestment, said that not all fossil fuels are alike, and not all companies in that sector are alike. For example, he said, natural gas is less environmentally damaging than coal, and the shale gas revolution has actually reduced the nation’s carbon footprint. I suspect that this quote is a perfect example of how logic and science are not actually propelled by campus debate. As best I understand it (and have for a few years), Hager is simply correct, and his point is crucial. Now, the debate certainly paid some serious concern to actual expertise. Yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if Hager’s comment largely just sailed by. Now, never mind Hager’s direct point that a broadside against all fossil fuel companies is facile and inefficient. There is more irony and truth to his statement than that. Thanks to both new technology and policy changes (some of them influenced by Moniz), the truth is that the financial markets have already deeply gouged coal companies in the past few years in exactly the way that the petition hopes to do, merely symbolically. Consider for example the coal company Peabody Energy, whose stock exchange symbol is notably “BTU”, and which is listed somewhere among the culprits on the petition’s list of target companies. Peabody lost 95% of its stock value since April, 2011, and is now worth all of$890 million. In other words, Peabody’s stock right now is worth about 1/9 of GoPro; it is a tiny fraction of the company’s tangible assets because investors are spooked by debts and future liabilities. Also, Peabody was delisted from the S&P 500 last year because of its singularly terrible stock performance.

In fact, what has happened to Peabody has happened to all US coal companies to varying degrees. Again, by Hager’s calculation and those of many other experts, coal is enemy #1 of the atmosphere. On the other hand, the valuation of these companies was much lower than that of oil and gas companies even before their stock cratered.

92. Greg Kuperberg Says:

Scott, also this:

I’m for nuclear power if it turns out to be the best option—something that I regard as entirely possible, particularly with the newer reactor designs. If wind or solar turn out to be better…

That’s fine, except that “turn out to be” is the wrong thing to say. Nuclear power provides about 20% of the electricity in the United States; it is the majority source of carbon-free electricity in this country. We can list the four main carbon-free sources of electricity as follows, in order of generated electricity: nuclear, hydro, wind, solar. (I am excluding geothermal, which is very successful but only possible in rare locations.) The fact is that each of these four generates more electricity than everything listed later, put together. Moreover, that’s not going to change for years or decades to come.

Now, I am impressed by wind energy and I also agree with everyone right-minded that solar energy deserves research. However, “turns out to be” is a loaded phrase. It’s a little like saying that ECCC could “turn out to be” more important than arXiv. Of course, you can’t argue against unforseeable developments, but we should acknowledge the present and the forseeable. (As the MIT fossil fuel divestment web site says we should, despite its unique enthusiasm for solar energy.) Otherwise you can get outcomes like those in Germany and California, which have both just about cancelled out their efforts with wind and solar energy by slamming nuclear power. Germany and California do both have better-than-average carbon footprints for rich countries or states, but the real reason for this is energy conservation; and in the case of California from burning natural gas instead of coal.

93. Thomas Says:

previous status quo: Skinner?
How was Chomsky different: made things formal.

But it has been said (here for instance: http://www.webofstories.com/play/marvin.minsky/33

that this formal work was in fact largely due to Marcel-Paul Schützenberger (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcel-Paul_Sch%C3%BCtzenberger)

94. Scott Says:

Greg #91, #92: Thanks for the thoughts.

Of course, when it comes down to a debate not about the explicit messages given by the petition organizers, but about the implicit messages conveyed by who has or hasn’t signed the thing, the truth is that I have no idea—maybe the petition will help, maybe it will hurt, very likely it will have no effect on anything, I hope that on average the expectation is positive, but in any case it doesn’t seem terrible. That’s why, as I said, this wasn’t an obvious decision for me.

Maybe it was simply that, having inadvertently enraged large parts of the online left six months ago, I felt like doing something that could enrage the online right. 😉

95. Greg Kuperberg Says:

Scott –

when it comes down to a debate not about the explicit messages given by the petition organizers, but about the implicit messages conveyed by who has or hasn’t signed the thing

It is true that someone like me can try to interpret this petition by considering who has or hasn’t signed it. However, that is some deep (ha!) inside baseball, compared to the main message of the petition, explicit or implicit. A petition from 80 MIT faculty — which does include physical scientists, economists, and engineers — will be interpreted as expert sentiment no matter what.

My concern is a little different, that it might nonetheless be a knee-jerk reaction, or a mixture of ideology and science, even if it does come from experts of some kind. In particular, I just don’t get the argument that is widely behind the petition, that “it’s only symbolic, but at least it’s not nothing”. MIT didn’t and doesn’t look that way to me at all!

96. Greg Kuperberg Says:

Here are two more odd things about the fossil fuel divestment movement (or web site), not specifically the point about who signed it.

First, the who we are page. It says a lot of things, but it does not actually say who they are! I generally have trouble with petitions with imitation transparency, even if I agree with them. You yourself credited “the organizers of this petition” with “a clear-eyed understanding”, but who were you really crediting? They liked your quote a lot; they put it on the faculty petition web page. But that web site also does not offer a clear-eyed identification of who exactly has a clear-eyed understanding.

Second, the amply referenced FAQ says this:

It is important not to become beguiled by the possibility of revolutionary technology.

Which is then followed by this in the next paragraph:

The challenges ahead of us are great, and technological breakthroughs will be vital

Aren’t they contradicting their own advice here, whoever these clear-eyed people are? In general, their message somehow oscillates between sober and breathless.

Again, MIT usually does better than this, even on the specific question of global warming and its mitigation.

97. Scott Says:

Greg #96: Well, I read a pro-divestment editorial by Charles Harvey (who’s in the Civil Engineering department) in the MIT Faculty Newsletter (see also his exchange with Alex Slocum, who opposes divestment). And I decided that on balance, I agreed with Harvey that one could support MIT trying to send a strong message about the urgency of political action, while also strongly supporting alternative energy research like Slocum’s.

I don’t actually see a contradiction between the two sentences you quoted; they both seem like reasonable sentiments to me. (If you prefer: yes, technological breakthroughs will be necessary; but no, they won’t be sufficient.)

And yes, I hesitated while writing “turns out to be,” since obviously nuclear, solar, and wind (and hydroelectric and geothermal) are all technologies that exist. But surely you agree that there are large unknowns that influence which combination of these will turn out to be best for a post-carbon future? To take two examples: just how much can the cost of manufacturing high-efficiency solar cells be brought down, and how practical will thorium reactors and other new (or more often, old and resuscitated) reactor designs turn out to be?

98. Douglas Knight Says:

Scott, even if solar power is fucking FREE and thorium plants never work out, it’s still worth building more nuclear power plants on actually existing designs because they’re cheaper than batteries.

The real question is whether the cost of batteries can be brought down by orders of magnitude. If you believe Musk’s promises, then nuclear plants will be largely obsolete in sixty years. That’s not a reason not to build them today.

99. John Sidles Says:

So far, none of the discourse here on Shtetl Optimized has presented arguments in the economic terms deployed by researchers at forums such as Carbon Tracker. These terms include:

• Unburnable Carbon,
• Carbon Budgets,
• Carbon Bubble, and
• Stranded Assets

Question  Is it historically and economically plausible that the world’s carbon-wealthy oligarchs and corporate shareholders will remain passive while science-grounded economic reforms work to substantially diminish — even strand entirely — the present 20T$-50T$ book-value of in-ground carbon assets?

Lessons from history and Hollywood  As Resources Development Administration executive Parker Selfridge memorably says (in the film AvatarJust look at all that cheddar!” So will Big Carbon and its agents really stand idle, while the “greenies” (as arch-skeptics dismissively call them) throw away money that doesn’t even belong to them?

The world wonders … climate-scientists especially!

100. Greg Kuperberg Says:

Scott — Here is more complete context:

As another highly recognized peer-review report explains, “It is important not to become beguiled by the possibility of revolutionary technology. Humanity can solve the carbon and climate problem in the first half of this century simply by scaling up what we already know how to do.” Politics and economics – and not technology – are now the bottlenecks to mitigating climate change.

The challenges ahead of us are great, and technological breakthroughs will be vital, for example, in energy storage. But an energy revolution is within our technological grasp. What is missing is leadership to effect this change.

I can how this can be construed as technically consistent. At the same time, it smacks of having it both ways: We don’t need anything as wild as a revolution, so therefore, let’s bring on the revolution. Also your questions:

But surely you agree that there are large unknowns that influence which combination of these will turn out to be best for a post-carbon future?

I think that the wiser path is to discuss immediate policy changes that could do a lot of good over the next 20 years, before discussing a somewhat unforseeable post-carbon future that could only begin in 50 to 100 years.

To take two examples: just how much can the cost of manufacturing high-efficiency solar cells be brought down

The driving political interest in solar electricity is that it can be residential. For that purpose, even solar thermal is not interesting; it has to be PV. Now, solar PV could be competitive one day, even though it’s in a distant fourth place right now in the US. However, residential solar electricity will never make sense. It will always be more expensive than utility solar if nothing else; the price ratio between those two only gets worse as the cells get cheaper. Even if residential solar modules were outright free, I am not sure that they would be cheaper than centralized methods to generate electricity, because of the overhead from filtering the electricity, installing it one rooftop at a time, cleaning each one separately, and a more complex electricity grid.

On the other hand, for the people who want a personal low-carbon footprint despite your advice, residential solar is the ideal solution. There is another school of thought here, that global warming is only the latest crime of the real enemy, “big energy”, along with oil spills, acid rain, flooded valleys, scarred landscapes, nuclear meltdowns, dishonest political influence, and larcenous profits. Residential solar is also the ideal answer to that. In reality, “big energy” is unavoidable. If we take it as the problem, what we get is a combination of the most palatable part of the status quo — which is often coal — and endless experiments with alternatives.

how practical will thorium reactors and other new (or more often, old and resuscitated) reactor designs turn out to be?

A technology that provides 20% of electricity in the US and sometimes more than 100% of consumed electricity in France has to be called practical already. (What happens in some years is that France exports more electricity than it produces by non-nuclear technology.) I have nothing against thorium reactor research, but these questions about inventing something else that’s “practical” come from adamant opposition to nuclear electricity. That is, you personally might be open-minded about this, but the opposition exists. Political environmentalism has never gotten rid of it, and even the political mainstream is very ambivalent about nuclear power.

The bottom line is one that I think you’d recognize: hard choices. Not necessarily economically ruinous choices, since protecting the long-term economy is part of the point. However, we do need hard political choices. This petition represents a funny coalition of hard-choice realists and — to use their own word — revolutionaries. Revolutionaries don’t actually believe that choices are hard; they rather see choices that are easy for the revolution and hard for l’ancien regime. In this case, the revolutionaries themselves are a mixture of technological revolutionaries, and more traditional leftist economic revolutionaries.

You’ve always made it clear that you are more realist than revolutionary. If you are wondering how you ended up on the same petition as Chomsky, this is how I think it happened.

101. John Sidles Says:

Greg Kuperberg asserts [without reason or evidence] “Revolutionaries don’t actually believe that choices are hard; they rather see choices that are easy for the revolution and hard for l’ancien regime.”

This surprising blanket-assertion makes sense (as it seems to me) only if one believes that activists like Martin Luther King, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sinclair Lewis, Susan B. Anthony, Abraham Lincoln, Tom Jefferson, Tom Paine (and hundreds more!) either did not catalyze revolutionary reforms (which is implausible), or alternatively did not foresee that their reforms would entail hard choices (also implausible).

Conclusion  There’s no shortage of contemporary scientists and economists who advocate radical changes in the global energy economy without understating hard choices.

102. Amy Says:

On the less argumentative, and more “actually not that difficult, so why not” side: as a native NYer who’s retained the use of her legs, I’ve nearly always made a point of living in places where I don’t have to have a car (expensive, dangerous things anyway). These days I live very far from anything resembling a subway, but can (and often do) still walk or bike or bus to work, shopping, coffeeshops, banks, doctors, etc. Interesting thing: my daughter, who’s never set foot in NYC, considers this a perfectly normal and sensible way of life, leaving her profoundly out of step with the local three-car-garage world. The main thing is the influential example: this is how we live. And of course it’s possible to do this on a larger, non-mom scale. The anti-littering campaigns of my childhood have actually resulted in less disgusting city streets and sidewalks. Anti-smoking campaigns have changed the ways entire cities smell. Is it easy socially, no, but things can change.

Last fall I thought I’d see how much conservation we could do here before seriously considering solar panels, and the answer turned out to be “a lot”. I got one of those whole-house electricity monitors, the portable display for which sits here on my kitchen counter, and started finding out what was expensive. We’ve sinced halved the electricity use and trimmed the NG use by about 10%, so not too bad. In spring and fall we could knock off the rest of the draw with a small PV array, if I wanted to spend the money.

The main thing, though, is that it’s been easy, particularly for a child of the 1970s. Has not involved suffering or deprivation. Or purchases, beyond a replacement for the 15-year-old enormofridge (needed anyway), some clothespins, and some styrofoam panels for the massive windows. I might do some more with insulation, but the main problem seems to be that the house is built wrong for the climate, also situated poorly; not much to do about that.

I also started working with the City on a project to help people insulate their old and leaky houses better, the idea being that even when people know what to do, if they haven’t much money or time or handy skills, they likely won’t — but that many will let you and some high school kids in to do the job for them, especially if it doesn’t cost them anything. The City’s goal is a 20% reduction in residential carbon emissions, and even though the measurements are dubious at best, well, why the hell not.

I agree that it’s probably too late, and that it was probably too late before anyone noticed Antarctic ice melting. But this isn’t difficult to do, or terribly expensive, so the downside is, as they say, trivial.

The next bit, “maybe stop buying so much stuff,” — well, that’s a little more complicated.

103. Darryl Williams Says:

This comment thread, if I dare say, constitutes the quibbliest series of quibbles I have ever seen. I’ve seen maybe two posts that actually at least vaguely suggest the possibility that your choice to sign isn’t more helpful than harmful, many of the rest are rehashings of the usual criticisms of environmentalism based on ‘once, I met this one environmentalist…’

104. jane Says:

Consider signing this as well :

https://populationspeakout.org/

The elephant-in-the-room .

Climate change;fossil fuels; consumption;overpopulation : the latter still off the radar but it’s not goingto go away.

105. Scott Says:

Incidentally, Mark #42: The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels seems like a very interesting book to try to write, as part of a series that also includes The Moral Case for Slavery and The Moral Case for Pushing Old Ladies into Traffic. 😉

Anyhow, I read the book’s description on Amazon, and noticed telltale Randroid phrases like “human life is the measure of value.” And indeed the author, Alex Epstein, turns out to be a former fellow of the Ayn Rand Institute who cites Atlas Shrugged as his greatest inspiration. I dunno … I feel like at 1100 pages, Atlas was already long enough for me to have gotten the main idea, without my needing to read the fossil fuel addendum!

106. John Sidles Says:

Breaking news …

G7 leaders agree to phase out
fossil fuels by end of century

“It is the first time that G7 leaders speak of decarbonisation – reducing to zero the carbon emissions from fossil fuels – of the global economy.”

“The G7 also endorsed for the first time a global target of a 40 to 70 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, compared to 2010 levels.”

“This long-term decarbonisation goal will make evident to corporations and financial markets that the most lucrative investments will stem from low-carbon technologies.”

History buffs will recall that back in the 1950s, John von Neumann systematically sought (very successfully) to “mathematize” the urgent problems of that era … with computers as a new-fangled yet transformational mathematizing agent.

Now in our century, the STEM community similarly has an opportunity to mathematize the urgent challenges of our era. What new-fangled yet transformational mathematizing agents does our generation possess, that von Neumann’s generation didn’t?

Postulate  Among our generation’s most potent mathematizing agents is the systematic deconstruction/reconstruction of thermodynamics — both classical and quantum, both physical and simulated — in terms of categories of universal objects linked by natural transformations

The article “An interview with F. William Lawvere” )Bulletin of the International Center for Mathematics, 2007) is an accessible introduction to these categoric-theoretic mathematical ideas. Lawvere’s interview concludes:

“One should not get drunk on the idea that everything is general. Category theorists should get back to the original goal: applying general results to particularities and to making connections between different areas of mathematics.”

Social and economic context  The local reduction of entropy — realized variously as concentration, purification, distillation, activation — is a central objective of technological activity. Entropy-reduction processes are characteristic too of universally valued human activities like reproduction, healing, and learning. Upon reflection, we appreciate too that measurement processes in general, including “cat-destroying wave-function collapse”, crucially require local entropy reduction.

Conclusion  Younger quantum information theorists — who have been suffering through a “QIT winter” in the past few years (as it seems to me) — will discover in coming decades that the technological challenges associated to a non-carbon energy economy provide fertile grounds for universal, natural mathematical concepts rooted in QIT to flourish as the enabling grounds for transformational 21st century enterprises.

That’s why carbon neutrality is a terrific topic for quantum information blogs.

107. jane Says:

“Social and economic context The local reduction of entropy — realized variously as concentration, purification, distillation, activation — is a central objective of technological activity. Entropy-reduction processes are characteristic too of universally valued human activities like reproduction, healing, and learning.”
John -comment 106 Your quote intrigues me : if we manage to achieve ,say, an entropy-lite state(-is such a thing possible in the long term)-how will this pan out if our numbers hit the 11 billion mark,as many forecasts now suggest they will?
Even if technological advances manage to fix the various messier consequences of our current activities,what will the sheer pressure of numbers mean for the environment?
As Tom Lehrer wrote: ‘fish gotta swim,birds gotta fly’ :

yes ,he was writing about pollution in one of his best
of his songs,but if we keep expanding the way we are now,and falling back on ‘it’ll be alright on the night’,there won’t be anywhere left for them to fly,swim,crawl,burrow,climb etc because we will have occupied everything.
Population campaigners still have a tough time trying to link the message to climate change,pollution,inequality,consumption and we are frequently denounced as eco-fascists,racists,bigots,supremacists etc but the message is too important to be ignored.

I hope that some of the leading scientists who use and write blogs such as this will consider and then add their names to the campaign.
Joined up thinking urgently needed.

108. fred Says:

In the 60’s, Jacques Cousteau’s conclusion was that the real issue is humanity’s explosive growth. Until we tackle this, we’re really just trying to deal with the symptoms.

109. jonathan Says:

Scott #105:

Fossil fuels have done a lot of good in the larger scope of history. They enabled the industrial revolution, and thus living standards above subsistence for the first time in human history. Without them, most of us would be on the farm, or the shtetl, walking behind our oxen.

Ironic that an inert byproduct of combustion could be the agent of society’s destruction.

110. JimV Says:

Notice: I have copied comment #60 by Dr. Aaronson and will be quoting it all over the Internet for the rest of my life. I am so tired of trying to bring readily-available information to the attention of creationists and other denialists, when most of them will not listen, acknowledge factual errors, nor concede logical fallacies. (I try to do those things myself when I am wrong.) I think some of them have actual mental problems that compel their behavior, but can’t be sure in any individual case. Anyway, using #60 will save me a lot of time and make me a better person (fewer arguments), so thanks a lot!

111. Rahul Says:

Scott:

Have you read any of Vaclav Smil’s work on Energy? I think the Physicsts & Earth Scientists & Atomosphere Science guys have done a great job modelling AGW but sadly they seem ill equipped to comment on the practicality of what a solution ought to look like.

This needs first a deep analysis of the status quo of energy markets, sources & pricing. And then an appreciation of the pros & cons of various alternatives without being biased by the rosy thinking that pervades the evangelists behind each alternative e.g. Elon Musk. And a historical appreciation of how and why technical solutions can fail.

What is needed is a pragmatic and holistic view of what is the best strategy forward and not some quixotic fantasy. And even in the best of projections I see fossil fuels play a major role in our energy requirements at least 20 years ahead, barring some fantastic technical advance.

I wish we had more of this sort of practical energy analysis and such people signing on your petition too.

112. Scott Says:

JimV #110: You’re welcome! 🙂

113. Scott Says:

Rahul #111: Sorry, I haven’t read it.

114. Scott Says:

jonathan #109: 100% agreed! But as you’d expect, this book’s title doesn’t appear to mean “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels Having Played An Important Role in Civilization’s Development,” but “The Moral Case for Continuing to Burn As Much Fossil Fuel As Possible.”

(By analogy, “The Case for the Newtonian Cosmos” could be the title of a great book about the physics of the 1600s, or of a worthless crackpot book about modern physics.)

115. Scott Says:

jane #104: Yes, you’re right, overpopulation is part of the picture too. But as commenters on past threads have pointed out, population (unlike CO2 concentration) does seem to have an effective brake, in that the same modernizing forces that are causing more and more people to emit massive amounts of CO2, are also drastically reducing those same people’s birthrates—so much so that many of the advanced countries (e.g., Japan, the Western European countries…) are now facing precisely the opposite problem, of how to prevent their populations from dwindling away without massive immigration. The projections for 2100 seem to center around 11 billion people, way less than the 27 billion (!!) we’d get if fertility remained constant. So, one way or another, we’re probably nearing the peak of the exponential population curve. But, yes, keeping this century’s population growth on the lower end of the projections will surely be one factor that affects whether, when the population does turn around and decrease, it will be just because of the continuing declines in fertility that go with modernity, or because of an involuntary hard crash.

116. Greg Kuperberg Says:

Scott –

Rather, it’s to tell society that we think it’s crazy that there’s not a steep carbon tax, and such a tax would surely drive down the value of the oil companies.

For all practical purposes, this is not really true. As far as I know, the highest serious carbon tax in the world is in Sweden, and it is $150 per tonne of CO2. This tax is barely in the Overton window even in Sweden, which exempts electricity generation and gives a half exemption to industrial use of fuels. (So, it could be construed as a disguised transportation or import tax for gasoline, rather than a carbon tax.) It goes well beyond what is discussed in most European countries, much less in the US or in China. It is also, if not really out of range, at the high end of recommendations as a Pigovian tax. Anyway, using the table at Wikipedia, a carbon tax this high would be$1.375 per gallon of gasoline. That is a significant gasoline tax, but it is less than discrepancies in gasoline taxes around the world and it would probably not drive down the price of oil companies all that much. Demand for oil is quite inelastic and oil companies would survive and still profit.

On the other hand, one reason that Sweden doesn’t apply this tax to electricity generation is that it would be overkill. It would be 15 cents per kWh for coal-generated electricity, which would quickly bankrupt every domestic coal company and put it into public receivership. For comparison, the production tax credit for wind power is 2.2 cents per kWh, while the nuclear power industry would celebrate mightily if they could have the same tax credit as wind. The typical aggregate residential solar subsidy (it has several parts) is about at this level, but that just shows you how big of a boondoggle residential solar really is.

A more realistic tax might be $50 per tonne of CO2. This would be a gasoline tax of less than 50 cents, but it would still easily be enough to price coal out of the market for generating electricity. You might be thinking, whether it’s coal or oil, it’s the same point. But there is a reason that the discussion around this fossil fuel divestment initiative keeps coming back to oil. The divestment initiative is at least as much anti-corporate as it is anti-global-warming. Oil companies are among the largest and most profitable companies in the world, while coal companies are not. Indeed, even before global warming was a slam-dunk case, both environmentalists and economic leftists already had a hundred reasons to hate oil companies. (One of those resentments in the latter case is high prices.) Divestment would be dominated by divestment from oil companies. Another way to look at it is that oil companies are far more “big energy” than coal companies per unit of CO2 released, partly because of the higher carbon content of coal, but mainly because oil is a lot more expensive than coal per unit of energy. In other words, targeting oil companies more than coal companies is scientifically backwards. 117. gasarch Says: (I just read the post and EVERY SINGLE COMMENT. Not recommended- not because of the content which is fine and I’ll get to that, but because my eyes are now bleary.) Thoughtful post, many thoughtful comments. Very much appreciate that Scott realizes the limits of the petition— I’ve heard the term ecology theatre’ applied to petitions like this, and Scott IS aware of that problem. But here is what I find depressing: most of the comments assume (quite correctly) that global warming IS a problem and they are having a (mostly) intelligent debate about what do to about it (laws? regulations? Use capitalism for good ? Cap and Trade? Carbon Tax? Stop eating steak? Nuclear power? Wind? Solar? whatever works? Get rid of the Iowa Caucus so we can stop claiming that ethanol isn’t crap?) And that is a fine debate to have. But here is the problem: In America we have not gotten past the first step in AA- admitting we have a problem! The climate change deniers are NOT some obscure lunatic fringe of he republican party the way the Obama-born-in-Kenya folks were, or , the anti-evolution people, or the voter Id people (big government solution to a nonexistant problem which is why conservatives hate those laws), or the torture regime (out of control unchecked government program, which is why conservatives hate it). Almost all of the people running in he Republican party for Prez nomination are climate change deniers. CORRECTION: I’ve been told that all the examples I have of fringe parts of the Rep party are actually mainstream. Sorry about that. 118. Greg Kuperberg Says: Scott – as Peter Duesberg did, more-or-less directly causing the deaths of 300,000 South Africans I totally agree with the larger point and I agree that Duesberg has much to apologize for, but assigning him direct blame is going too far. The real culrprit here was not Duesberg, but Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki is clearly motivated by sexual shame, not just on the issue of HIV, but also on the issue of rape in South Africa. Mbeki was not all bad as the prime minister of South Africa, but he slides easily into denialism, typically using anti-racist jargon. If he had not found Duesberg, he probably would have found someone else. 119. Jay Says: JimV #110, I doubt you’ll convince anyone using this line. It’s not a bad line, it’s just too obvious we’re not using it ourselves. Scott once aknowledge that his war-on-GW-at-all-cost position was “ahead of the scientific concensus”. Why not applying the same medicine then? If you think that you’re ahead of the scientific concensus on GW, try to convince the IPCC that you’re right. Until you can do that, you have no business telling the general public and policymakers that the problem they’re trying to solve is several order of magnitude worse than they think. (of course Hugo #55 was so in bad faith my eyes were stinging, so I’d understand if you consider my rant as nitpick on Scott. Still, weren’t we trying to be the ones using the best standards?) 120. John Sidles Says: To speak also in praise of Scott’s comment #60 “What you must never do, if you wish to be taken seriously, is attempt an end-run around science’s error-correcting gauntlet. So for example, if you think that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, try to convince the medical research community that you’re right. […]” Remarkably, arch-skeptic “Lord” Chris Monckton has directed a company, Resurrexi Pharmaceutical, that purveyed treatments by which Monckton has upon occasion claimed “Patients have been cured of various infectious diseases, including Graves’ disease, multiple sclerosis, influenza, food poisoning, and HIV.” What a coincidence! On the other hand, Scott’s comment #60 indisputably does provide ammunition for Monckton to defend his reputation along the lines … Critiques that mistake a ‘gantlet’ for a ‘gauntlet’ need not be taken seriously … Such a quibble would be characteristic of Monckton’s sardonically arch-skeptical essays. Background Monckton holds the title “Chief Policy Advisor, Science and Public Policy” at the Heartland Institute, the skeptical community’s self-proclaimed — albeit secretively funded — “world’s most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change”. The Heartland Institute is an invaluable resource for people who ardently believe (or wish to believe) that second-hand tobacco smoke is largely harmless, ozone-destroying chemicals are largely harmless, persistent pesticides are largely harmless … whereas “green” voters are spiritual brethren to Ted Kaczynski. Recommendation Admirers of the style of climate-change journalism that Mark Twain called “peppery and to the point” will enjoy the essays about Monckton, Heartland, and climate-change arch-skepticism in general, that are hosted by “Sou” on her weblog Hotwhopper. Sou’s Hotwhopper seeks to “shine a spotlight on misogyny and the rejection of climate science” and does so very effectively and delightfully (as it seems to me). 121. Rahul Says: Greg Kuperberg #118: A politician being stupid, malicious, misinformed, or even plain evil doesn’t surprise people. But when a UC-Berkeley Prof. does what Duesberg did, it upsets people’s priors. 122. jane Says: Scott #115 I hope you’re right,but,I have to say,writing as I am from the UK,that here our population is increasing at its fastest rate for many years-driven by a number of factors : steady rise in immigration;longevity;rising birthrate. Mass migration is now occurring across most of western Europe,as you will no doubt have read in your NYT and seen on CNN. Worrying about population decline,is,in my view and many others’ fundamentally misguided since it predicts that we must ,in effect ,keep adding to the numbers: a Ponzi scheme. Advanced societies should be able to adapt to the benefits that smaller populations would bring: higher wages; less competition for resources;increased opportunities for young people,to name but a few. We are so used to ‘big is best’. My worry is that the involuntary hard crash which you rightly allude to,will wipe out the rest of the world’s inhabitants: plants,animals,birds,reptiles etc and leave them with no real hope of recovery: the anthropocene era many biologists now describe. This is veering into politically incorrect territory but I’m trying to say that we could,and should,have the maturity and foresight as the occupiers of the top of the biological heap to try and manage our numbers in such a way as to avert serious social unrest,mass extinction of other species and heavy duty environmental degradation. I’m presently coming to the end of Deutsch’s fine book ‘The Beginning of Infinity’ which you have recommended in another post.(I’ve emailed him as well! Needed some answers to questions which he obligingly provided.) Deutsch advocates problem solving,explanation and free discussion,learning from error and consensus as a means to foster lasting progress doesn’t he? I’m saying that we should put this into practice and try to establish a consensus on stabilising and reducing our population rather than hoping that technological progress will do the job for us,which I see as something of a cop-out . Another comment here stresses the need for hard choices and I’m saying that influential scientists like you could help lead the way. But don’t give up the day job! 123. John Says: “Given the choice, I’d much rather that the readers of this blog flew to all the faraway conferences they wanted…” Political movements start small. A meaningful letter you could sign would be to commit to stop flying to faraway conferences. Get 1000s of computer scientists to sign on, convince the organizing committees to move the conferences online, and you have made a real difference. 124. Yawner Says: Scott #115: This seems like wishful thinking to me. When fertility rates decline, they don’t decline uniformly. Some minorities (think Quiverfull) actually increase their reproduction. Unless you think the cultural factors that make them reproduce more erode away as their movements become larger – which is far from clear to me – you will end up with a world that is filled with Quiverfulls. Whatever happens next, will certainly not be voluntary. 125. Rahul Says: @gasarch #117: What I wish people conceded is that it is an entirely reasonable & defensible position to acknowledge AGW, and accept that AGW has a good chance to be an existential crisis for some future generation remote in time and yet to conclude that the right (pragmatic?) action for now is no action, at least no drastic action. 126. jane Says: Yawner#124 : quite correct. See this : http://www.takepart.com/article/2015/06/09/europe-braces-nearly-half-million-migrants http://www.takepart.com/article/2013/07/11/world-population-day-2013-booming-human-population-exacerbates-impacts-climate-change https://firstforwildlife.wordpress.com/2015/03/31/issue-of-the-week-how-population-growth-effects-wildlife-conservation/ A couple of years ago,some colleagues and I tried to set up a population campaign with Avaaz,thinking that their wide reach would help us get the message across. No such luck;they wouldn’t touch it,preferring to concentrate on climate change,poverty,human rights etc. One of the biggest obstacles is in trying to convince the liberal left and large charities like Oxfam of the importance of this message. 127. jonathan Says: Rahul #125: That depends what you mean by “drastic”. I think that any reasonable cost-benefit analysis implies we should be doing a lot more than we currently are. 128. Mark Russell Says: Hugo #55 What in particular does Monckton say about the data that you think so interesting? 129. Amy Says: I agree with John #123. How often do you really want to get on a plane and physically go to conferences, anyway? Particularly if you already work in a significant hub for your field, geographically? Scott, when you say that conservation is for the privileged, who are you counting among the privileged? 130. Darrell Burgan Says: “… I’m sensitive to the charge that divestment petitions are just meaningless sanctimony … ” Exercising one’s right to free speech is never sanctimonious, in my view. I’ve never subscribed to the notion that I must establish some kind of liberal street cred before I can raise my voice in support of a liberal cause. Or any other cause for that matter. If I’m not the kind of liberal some prefer, so be it. 131. Scott Says: Amy #129: By “privileged” I meant, “having enough spare brain cycles, leisure time, education, etc. to think hard about the impact of your life choices on the future of human civilization, were your choices to become universal, and to adjust them accordingly.” I think it’s easy for people who fit that description to get a distorted sense of how common it is (“but the people I know talk constantly about working off their carbon credits!”) I doubt this could ever describe more than, say, 15-20% of the US population. And even that 15-20% will vary in commitment level, and extremely often be mistaken about where and how they’re wasting resources, and which of their options are actually best for the environment (paper or plastic??). But environmentalism has the massively inconvenient property that you need the vast majority following the protocol, or else you barely make a dent in whatever problem you were trying to solve. And that makes environmentalism fundamentally harder than many other ways of trying to do good in the world. If, for example, you founded a math enrichment program that only 0.1% of kids ever cared about, it could still have an unboundedly large impact, if even a few of those 0.1% were inspired by your program to make world-changing discoveries. If, on the other hand, conservation advocacy only ever persuades a few percent to cut back on their consumption, then the advocates might as well have saved their breath. So then I come back to the view that the only way to solve these problems is with systems of taxation (or cap-and-trade, or whatever) with the property that, after people agree to the system once, all the hard choices are from that point forward placed in the straightforward arena of pocketbooks and wallets, rather than the rarefied realms of intellectual debate and moral exhortation about the distant future of civilization. 132. fred Says: Luckily humans can be lusting as much for virtual goods than for real ones: http://www.wired.com/2015/03/fans-dropped-77m-guys-buggy-half-built-game/ And instead of building egalitarian utopias, we tend to create those digital worlds to mimic real life social pyramids (ah, competition…). This could be our planet’s salvation though – in the long term the only natural resources needed will be to run those infinite virtual worlds, feeding on high fructose corn syrup. 133. Sniffnoy Says: Yawner #124: I can’t find a source at the moment, but I seem to recall reading that Quiverfull has terrible retention rates, so that the movement’s growth is considerably less than the high fertitlity rates of its members. Unfortunately like I said I can’t find an actual source for this at the moment, so take this with a grain of salt. Anyone know where one could find statistics on this? 134. Rahul Says: Amy #129: As I recall, my grad school advisor took approximately 3 domestic trips every month & a transatlantic flight every other month. He was on quite a few NSF / DoE committees & had a EU PhD so kept going to seminars & collaborations over there too. Maybe a contributory factor was that he was a single, workaholic. He already had his tenure though. 135. Alex A Says: If anything is going to turn climate change into a major problem as opposed to a gigantic one, it will probably be the development of nuclear fusion. There is a fantastic book called “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air” http://www.withouthotair.com/ which elegantly cuts through all the crap around green energy and its role in the future with easy-to-follow engineering and physics calculations about how much energy is used, and on what things, and how much energy various sustainable power sources can provide, and at what cost. A highly recommended read. Anyways, one thing that really jumped out from reading the book was the enormous amount of energy nuclear fusion could provide, since the raw materials for it are so plentiful. Thinking about it more, though, reaching the levels of energy production detailed in the book would require an awful lot of nuclear fusion plants…. 136. Rahul Says: jonathan #127: That depends what you mean by “drastic”. I think that any reasonable cost-benefit analysis implies we should be doing a lot more than we currently are. I think that depends on who you mean by “we”. If I was a policymaker looking at the best interests of, say, Indians it might not be an obvious conclusion that “we” should not go ahead with the hundreds of coal fired power plants that have been planned for the next decade. (I use Indian coal power plants as an example, since it is a favorite target of the GW environmentalists) I think it is pleasant to discuss AGW solutions in the abstract but it is when specific difficult decisions are to be made that the thorny aspects arise. 137. jane Says: http://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/discussion-fate-earth/ worth reading 138. jane Says: http://www.resilience.org/articles/General/2015/05_May/A-Degrowth-Response-to-An-Ecomodernist-Manifesto.pdf Food for thought 139. Cubee Says: I disagree on that setting the right example is a meaningless thing to do. The reasons are : 1. The one you stated. It’s hard for people to follow hyprocritical leaders. If pop culture goes green, the whole earth will be going green much faster than if some highly educated nerd tries to convince politicians of what policies they should enact. It’s simple pragmatics. 2. It changes your viewpoint and has beneficial results for your own psyche. Give up your car, you will be a better person. Try it 🙂 All of this speaking as a true hypocrite of course, because besides eliminating yourself from existence, you will always create make entropy rise faster than if you were not here. 140. jonathan Says: Rahul #136: If I was a policymaker looking at the best interests of, say, Indians it might not be an obvious conclusion that “we” should not go ahead with the hundreds of coal fired power plants that have been planned for the next decade. But this is exactly the point! If a nation only considers its own interests, then it will take into account only a fraction of the global effects of its actions. This is the same problem as at the individual level, but now applied to nations. This is why we need global coordination, just as we need national policy to coordinate individual actions. Each country would benefit by not participating. It’s quite a collective action problem! I think it is pleasant to discuss AGW solutions in the abstract but it is when specific difficult decisions are to be made that the thorny aspects arise. One nice thing about market-based solutions, like a carbon tax, is that we don’t need to make the decision in particular cases. We just need to put the right price on carbon, and let individuals, and individual nations, decide how to proceed. In this case, I think that India should consider all the costs of building the plants, including the global costs of the GHG emissions. If it still thinks it worthwhile to build them, then it should do so, and pay the appropriate tax; if not, it should pursue alternatives. 141. Scott Says: Cubee #139: besides eliminating yourself from existence, you will always create make entropy rise faster than if you were not here. Not necessarily the case! Consider, for example, a mass murderer, who causes the universe’s entropy to rise more slowly, by eliminating a whole bunch of people who would’ve raised it by more. 😉 142. Rahul Says: “Consider, for example, a mass murderer, who causes the universe’s entropy to rise more slowly, by eliminating a whole bunch of people who would’ve raised it by more. “ A less morbid example might be a successful geoengineering project designer? The entropy addition by natural processes must be huge as compared to one single human’s contribution? It might be possible to live & compensate your entropic contribution by a large debit in a geo-atmospheric process (stopping a volcano?)? 143. jane Says: Scott # 141 : What about the copycat killers,who would no doubt try to emulate the mass murdering master mind? Having recently watched ‘Hannibal’ I wonder how Dr Lecter would figure in the entropy -reducing league? If one wants to take this rather gruesome suggestion further, how would entropy reduction fit with the policies of Hitler,Stalin,Pol Pot ,IS? 144. Raoul Ohio Says: Population growth will destroy civilization one way or another before long. Global warming is but one of the ways this will happen. Thus the only thing worth trying to do anything about is population growth. Fossil fuel issues are insignificant. The fact that so few have figured out these obvious facts is astounding. 145. Scott Says: Raoul #144: I’m thinking of instituting a blanket ban on comments of the form, “it’s astounding that you people haven’t figured out the obvious truth that [then you go on to state your position]”; this strikes me as the discursive equivalent of peeing in a swimming pool. Yes, sure, you can defend the position that population growth is the main thing that matters, but then you should at least respond to what I pointed in comment 115: that all over the world, in every culture and demographic, population growth seems to be slowing down, halting, or even reversing as urbanization and birth control and women’s education and all that other stuff takes hold, whereas CO2 emissions show no such trend. Of course, the obvious counterargument would be that, if there are even a few cultures anywhere that resist the modernizing, birthrate-lowering trends (third-world villagers? Mormons? Orthodox Jews?), those cultures will increase their population exponentially and eventually swamp everyone else. But then maybe modernization is an inevitability as those cultures expand—we don’t know; it might be some complicated differential equation. And, in any case, there are many exponentials that should worry us eventually if they continue for long enough, but probably not now, because a different exponential (e.g., of CO2 concentration) seems likely to get us first… 146. jane Says: Raoul Ohio #144 I’ve been trying to stress the importance of population growth here-see previous comments. See these links : http://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/discussion-fate-earth/ https://populationspeakout.org/ In the 70s the impetus to develop a population policy was going well,but then it got buried in the 90s or thereabouts and has been deemed ‘too sensitive’ ever since. It’s so frustrating trying to get the message across,since it so often meets with silence or hostility or denial. Another good site : http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/population_and_sustainability/ Their campaigns across are some of the best I’ve seen. 147. jonathan Says: Raoul Ohio #144: Suppose we stabilized the population at its current level, but per-capita economic growth continued apace. Wouldn’t we then still run into hard limits on growth? I would say that stabilizing population (at SOME point) is a necessary but not sufficient condition for avoiding ecological catastrophe. And given current trends, I wouldn’t say it’s our most pressing challenge. 148. Greg Kuperberg Says: Scott – Yes, sure, you can defend the position that population growth is the main thing that matters, but then you should at least respond to what I pointed in comment 115: that all over the world, in every culture and demographic, population growth seems to be slowing down, halting, or even reversing as urbanization and birth control and women’s education and all that other stuff takes hold, whereas CO2 emissions show no such trend. No, actually CO2 emissions do show such a trend, but it comes too late. Annual US greenhouse gas emissions and US CO2 emissions have both fallen about 10% since 2007, and have fallen more than that per capita, due to a combination of three factors: (1) replacement of coal by natural gas, (2) economic recession, and (3) high oil prices. But even before then, annual emissions in the US increased slightly more slowly than the national population. The bad news is, first, that US greenhouse gas emissions per capita stabilized at a very high level in the 1970s, at a level about 4.5 times the current world average. That ratio has slid back now to about 4. Emissions in the EU also stabilized at a little less than half the US level (and has fallen thanks to their recession and some due to policy); the main difference between the two has been energy conservation. The other bad news is that, whereas people do not live forever, 1/4 of carbon dioxide lives in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years. So, while CO2 emissions in developed countries do indeed plateau, they plateau at a high level which is largely the first derivative of the real problem. It also does not help that China chose coal as its dominant method of electricity production. As a result, China’s CO2 emissions per capita crossed places with the EU in 2014, even though China is still much poorer, per capita. Global warming denialism began in the US as an instinct among conservatives (people who in other countries would be called nationalists) who didn’t want the US to be blamed. Now we have natural gas hitting coal hard (mainly because of fracking, but also because of environmental policy) and we have a modest decline in the US car culture, while China modernizes and its emissions crash through the roof. As a result, denialism is turning into something else, namely the US squandering some of its diplomatic leverage with China. 149. jane Says: jonathan #147 I think the point is that population growth and per capita economic growth ,pollution,resource shortage , rampant inequality and species loss are equally important and that they are indeed equally pressing challenges. I=PxAxT has been dismissed by many since Ehrlich’s predictions were not borne out at the time;however,it still seems all too likely that the 3 components are of equal importance-provided you accept the premise of the formula-and that no real progress will be made if we chop and choose which we act on. At present it seems that tweaking T is the route on which we are all relying to steer us into a more viable future. 150. Greg Kuperberg Says: Collected responses to “roystgnr”: If the underprivileged can’t afford to cut their carbon footprint voluntarily, making it involuntary will not be an improvement. The nominal point of your comment is defend capitalism, yet you begin the argument with a nearly Marxist interpretation of lower incomes. It is not actually the case that the “underprivileged” have a fixed set of needs, which they either “can afford” or “can’t afford”. Poor people respond to economic incentives and disincentives just like everyone else does. In US states with wise energy policies, poor people emit less CO2 along with everyone else. These states do not have more poverty or more income inequality. Actually, many of them have less poverty, because states that care more about the environment also tend to care more about poverty. Perhaps the plan is to teach everyone who votes enough about turbulence modeling that they’ll be able to validate GCMs themselves and skip the middle-men? Ostensibly the point here is about how to persuade people, but you slip in one of the tell-tale red herrings of global warming pseudo-skepticism. Namely, you talk as if global warming is a scientific deus ex machina that rests only on fancy computer models. Of course, yes, scientists make computer models, because why shouldn’t they, if they have computers? However, you do not need any very fancy models to interpret infrared absorption by CO2, directly measured by satellites; nor the summer collapse of the Arctic ice sheet; nor the fact that Glacier National Park is losing its glaciers and Alaska’s snow season has shortened. These things aren’t hard to understand even when they are explained by hypocrites. Preaching to the choir doesn’t change the mind of the median voter, who may be more easily swayed “to believe it’s a crisis when the people who keep telling me it’s a crisis start acting like it’s a crisis”. On the other hand, despite Scott’s hyperbole, the accusation of hypocrisy is also a complete red herring. If you consider CO2 emissions per capita by US state, you can see a clear pattern that state politics is correlated with greenhouse gas emissions. Californians and New Yorkers believe in global warming, and they aren’t hypocrites. But the thing about accusations of hypocrisy is that it is routine to argue by anecdote, rather than comprehensive statistics. Citing travel to “faraway conferences” is just a smart-aleck remark; it’s not data. Besides, even when smart-alecks don’t find any shred of hypocrisy, they turn smug instead of changing their minds. A typical reaction is: “Sucker! Masochist! You may enjoy wearing a hair shirt, but I’m glad I’m not you.” 151. Devil's Advocate Says: Jane, you should consider that animals in nature suffer even more than poor humans, on average. Life predation is terrible and most environmentalists have a view that is too rosy in this regard. So a reduction of population should also aim at reducing the number of individuals per non-human animal species, both in the wild and domesticated, without necessarily reducing biodiversity too much, and without destroying sustainability of human civilization. Another factor to consider are economies of scale. For every useful human talent, we should expect a certain small percentage of people born with it. Networking these people may have a disproportionate influence on innovation and problem solving. A higher population is more effective in this regard, simply due to the large numbers. If, out of 1000 additional people, we get one additional genius and 300 medium-talented people, we can surely afford 300 more net-neutral, 250 slightly costly people and 50 petty criminals. Economies of scale also mean that every invention, innovation, cultural product, and so on, can be shared by more people: The ratio of fixed costs to marginal costs of any product goes down. 152. Rahul Says: Greg Kuperberg #150: “Citing travel to “faraway conferences” is just a smart-aleck remark; it’s not data.” Are you denying that academics travel to “far away” conferences, whatever “far away” means? Or are you saying that they do but that activity is not a significant contributor to Global Warming on a personal footprint basis? In any case, that is a comment about the “average” academic. Does not mean there aren’t exceptions. Here’s another way to look at it: The US CO2 emission was approx 17 tons per capita (2012 data). The world average was 5 tons per capita. Obviously there’s something “you” are doing wrong? Let’s say it isn’t flying to “far away” conferences it is something else? 153. Greg Kuperberg Says: Collected responses to “jonathan”: My concern is that the divestment movement perpetuates an anti-capitalist and anti-corporate narrative. I don’t think that a divestment movement is necessarily intrinsically anti-corporate. The South African divestment movement eventually succeeded; the turning point came when it was backed by powerful national governments. However, almost anyone who is anti-corporate would naturally support divestment; the movement has to have more to it than that, or else it will be entirely futile. On the other hand, it would not be futile because it might “alienate moderates”. It would be futile because, as you say, denouncing companies as evil without changing fundamental incentives doesn’t solve anything. I also note that the South African divestment movement asked companies to do something relatively simple for them. Despite talk about Exxon changing its business model, it would have to change so much that it would afterwards be Exxon in name only. This particular divestment movement has the rather grandiose goal of expecting Exxon to curl up and die. Which in fact is what is happening to US coal companies to some extent, thanks to the natural gas boom and to new environmental policies. But it’s not happening to Exxon, and I’m not sure that it’s really possible. As an aside, are there any charities devoted to funding basic research on renewable energy? It’s a noble question, and one answer is that some of the best such charities are universities themselves, MIT notably among them. You can make earmarked donations to universities. However, another answer is that it’s not really the point. The countries that emit the most CO2 have vast opportunities to emit less with existing technologies, and endorsing research as the one thing that everyone likes amounts to procrastination. Fossil fuels have done a lot of good in the larger scope of history. They enabled the industrial revolution, and thus living standards above subsistence for the first time in human history. There is a lot more to the industrial revolution than just fossil fuels. Moreover, most of world’s anthropogenic CO2 comes from the second stage of industrialization in the 20th century, and not the primitive industrial revolution in the 19th century. In this second stage, we have had plenty of chances to emit less carbon dioxide, if only we had understood global warming earlier, and if only more people would take it seriously. In fact, we have punished ourselves with various regrettable externalities of coal combustion all along, including COPD, acid rain, and environmental mercury. Now you could always wax philosophical about this with abstract statements such as, “every technology comes with side effects”. But the truth is that coal is a very primitive technology that has always been a dirty way to generate energy. We’ve had hydroelectric power for 130 years, natural gas for about a century, and nuclear power for 60 years. We’ve had a lot of time to switch to better choices than coal. What has happened with transportation fuel is more complicated, but it’s been clear since the 1970s that the US has been a short-sighted pig with oil consumption. Ironic that an inert byproduct of combustion could be the agent of society’s destruction. Okay, yes, I have talked about hard choices, but I really did mean politically hard choices more than economically hard choices. The choice in front of us is not actually, “do we sacrifice now or destroy ourselves later”. Rather, it’s “do we as the human race cooperate now, or do we sorely regret it later”. One nice thing about market-based solutions, like a carbon tax, is that we don’t need to make the decision in particular cases. We just need to put the right price on carbon, and let individuals, and individual nations, decide how to proceed. For sure, carbon taxes (or greenhouse taxes) are by far the best economic approach to this problem. Yet at another level, they aren’t any solution at all. In between an overarching government and individuals, you have an array of large public and private institutions. They have to respond to a carbon tax (or similar) with specific choices. When a state opens or closes a power plant of any given kind, that’s not actually an individual choice or even a free-market choice. It’s a hybrid of market forces and public policy. It’s easy to fall into the trap of supposing that no one has to worry about a problem, if there is an abstract framework to encourage someone to worry about it. All of the free-market axiomatics in the world won’t get you to a hospital after a car crash, if for whatever reason the only nearby hospital closed. 154. James Cross Says: #150 Actually if you look here http://environment.yale.edu/poe/v2014/ The people in Texas, Alaska, and Wyoming believe in global warming too although perhaps not so much as the people of New York and California. The states with high per capita CO2 tend to rural and agricultural. 155. Greg Kuperberg Says: James Cross – First of all, if many people in Texas, Alaska, and Wyoming also believe in global warming, more specifically in anthropogenic global warming and its consequences, then so much the better as far as politics is concerned. It shows you that Republican ideology on this issue is not very representative. To some extent, what voters admire in the Republican camp is simply sounding resolute and ideological, even when the specifics aren’t all that convincing. The fact remains that liberal states whose leaders profess to care about global warming, sure enough, sometimes do something about it. There is a difference between the kind of hypocrisy that actually defeats a cause, and the kind that is only fodder for smart-alecks. I agree that if a state is rural or agricultural, then its greenhouse gas emissions per capita are likely to be higher. The oil industry itself also has high greenhouse emissions, which is a reason to partially excuse North Dakota, for example. However, these attributes are not the whole story by any means. Coal electricity is a major correlate. To a large extent, you can think of the state government itself as the market agent that selects the mode of electricity production. There really is a dichotomy between state governments that say that coal is crud that should be left in the ground, vs state governments that say that coal is a marvelous way to generate electricity. That in turn is increasingly connected to the red-blue divide in American politics. 156. James Cross Says: There are some odd stats on that Yale page. For people in Texas 63% think GW is happening 49% think it is caused by humans 40% think scientists believe GW is happening 73% think we should regulate CO2 as a pollutant (huh?) As a matter of fact in every state people by a majority think we should regulate CO2 but only two states by a majority think scientists believe GW is happening. Ultimately, however, believing something in the abstract and becoming convinced to take a concrete action (especially if the dreaded word “tax” is raised) are two different things. I think the fear-mongering, even if it has any basis in science, is counter productive. The problem is that the negatives of climate change are likely to accumulate subtly, slowly, and inconsistently. Take hurricanes, for example. How many years since a major category 4 or 5 hit the U.S.? In this sort of scenario is hard to convince anybody to take drastic immediate action. It is also easy to point out that scientists have been wrong before and the track record on long-term predictions of any sort has not been good. 157. Joshua Zelinsky Says: roystgnr #2, If the underprivileged can’t afford to cut their carbon footprint voluntarily, making it involuntary will not be an improvement. The plan isn’t to force involuntary cuts int he same way as voluntary cuts would go. For example, funding research for better solar cells or more funding for public transit will help decrease carbon footprints without the same problems that changes by individuals would incur on themselves. 158. jane Says: Devil’s Advocate #151 So a reduction of population should also aim at reducing the number of individuals per non-human animal species, both in the wild and domesticated, without necessarily reducing biodiversity too much, and without destroying sustainability of human civilization. Interesting : many non-human species are already in steep decline,while others-both domesticated and those we consider pests -are proliferating. Here I will confess to some typically human double standards,since in my vicinity we have problems with urban gulls and feral pigeons; we treat them as pests and neighbours and I are trying to solve what we see as an mounting problem. All this while I worry about species loss! Another factor to consider are economies of scale. For every useful human talent, we should expect a certain small percentage of people born with it. Networking these people may have a disproportionate influence on innovation and problem solving. A higher population is more effective in this regard, simply due to the large numbers. If, out of 1000 additional people, we get one additional genius and 300 medium-talented people, we can surely afford 300 more net-neutral, 250 slightly costly people and 50 petty criminals. THis amounts to the more people means more progress argument,if I understand you correctly. However,is it not likely that in a smaller population, geniuses and lesser talents would still appear,given human variablity and adaptability? Look at the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution ; admittedly the latter did lead to the rapid development and consequent pollution which we now have to deal with,but it also saw significant progress and innovation,as did the Renaissance. All this with a much smaller human presence. Newtons and Einsteins will continue to appear won’t they? Isn’t it also true that if we provided more opportunities in terms of education, and investment in training by committing the funds that a smaller stable population could still progress and develop? Isn’t a better standard of living for more people likely to be achieved if there are fewer of us? I would say that human and non-human viablity would be better served by gradual reduction and stabilisation in a healthier and less stressed environment. BTW I’m not a tree hugger nor do I envisage an agrarian ‘golden age’ ; I just think we should accept some limits and proceed accordingly,with all the ingenuity of which are capable. 159. Greg Kuperberg Says: James – I think the fear-mongering, even if it has any basis in science, is counter productive. Uh sure, that’s what Harry R. Truman could have said when they told him to evacuate from Mount St. Helens. The problem is that the negatives of climate change are likely to accumulate subtly, slowly, and inconsistently. There is nothing subtle or inconsistent about sea level rise from global warming, although yes it is slow. It is also easy to point out that scientists have been wrong before and the track record on long-term predictions of any sort has not been good. No, actually the long-term predictions for various comets have been excellent. 160. Devil's Advocate Says: Jane #158: Yes, in a smaller human population, genuises and lesser talents would still appear, but in smaller numbers. If it were true that no innovation can deal with the consequences of climate change, or make more resources available to humanity in general, then this would not matter much. But under the model that innovation can make a huge difference and more networked talents from the extreme upper ends of the bell curves are disproportionately more conductive to innovation, this effect can more than outweigh the resource costs of a larger population. I don’t know which effect dominates. 161. John Sidles Says: James Cross states [without evidence]: “the track record [of scientists] on long-term predictions of any sort has not been good.” Scientific disciplines vary in predictive power. In the case at hand, namely anthropogenic climate change, the main line of scientific reasoning is grounded: (1) primarily in thermodynamics, (2) secondarily in the palaeo evidence, and (3) tertiarily in computer models and recent observations. Question How long has it been since a major scientific prediction that was grounded in primarily in thermodynamics has failed? Answer One hundred fifty+ years. The failed prediction was Kelvin’s 1862 estimate that the age of the Earth was 98 million years, based on a thermodynamic model of the rate of cooling of the earth’s core. Kelvin’s earth-age prediction was wrong because energy-release associated to radioactive decay had not then been discovered. In the ensuing century-and-a-half no major scientific prediction that was solidly grounded in thermodynamics has ever failed (to my knowledge). In particular, despite enormous economic incentives, precisely zero of the thousands of claimed perpetual motion machines have ever disproved the fundamental thermodynamic principle — the so-called Second Law — that no such machine can exist. Conclusion The historical record, together with the threefold grounding of our present climate-change understanding in thermodynamics, in observations, and in computational simulations, provides ample reason for the scientific community to be confident that anthropogenic climate-change is real, serious, and accelerating. Question Do arch-skeptics, similarly to perpetual-motion inventors, question the accepted principles of thermodynamics, and propose vastly different laws? You bet they do! 162. jane Says: Devil’s Advocate # 160 http://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/discussion-fate-earth/ Read the link and see what you think I would say that’ the more is best’ model would not provide the benefits predicted if human pressure on the world continues at its present rate,regardless of how many very clever and talented people appear. The discussion at the link goes into some depth; there is also plenty of other compelling material available on the MAHB site. 163. Devil's Advocate Says: Jane #162: I followed your link and searched for terms like “economy/economies”, “scale”, “talent”, “efficiency”, “prosperity”, “population” and “margin” and found nothing of value. What I did find were gems like, “You ask why habitat loss and species extinction matters? Which is like, in my mind, the equivalent of wondering whether or not we should care about Hitler or Stalin.” And much more related language. The pattern is, humans are reckless, selfish and our hubris is a sin against Mother Gaia for which we should be punished. In other words, moralizing without scientific analysis. I suggest you use better sources in the future. 164. JimV Says: John Sidles @#120, re mistaking gantlet for gauntlet: First, thanks for your comments on this thread. which I have appreciated. However, I was going to correct my copy of #60 based on your remark, but checked first. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary gives the meaning used on #60 as a secondary definition, and says this about gantlet: variant of gauntlet. So I won’t be correcting my copy. Of course, meanings, usage, and spelling of English words varies among English-speaking countries, and this may annoy some people, but this is not a good basis for critiquing an argument, in my view. While I’m wasting electrons, in response to another commenter on #60 whose name and number I am too lazy to verify (for which I sincerely apologize), I don’t hold the IPCC in quite the same light as, for example, the scientific consensus on evolution, because it seems to me it is partly political. However, I agree a) that the IPCC should be supported and b) that standards cut both ways. I guess the issue is whether a public dissent of any degree with the IPCC is trying to affect public policy without changing the scientific consensus, or trying to change the scientific consensus. 165. jane Says: Devil’s Advocate #162 The PMC is a well established organisation and its various programmes are all positive in terms of human well being. I cannot find anything in their website which blames or makes punitive statements about humanity but their message is clear. http://www.unfpa.org/publications/population-matters-sustainable-development UN reports at this link 166. Jay Says: JimV #164, I guess my point is that many environnementalists do not realise there own position is not according to the scientific concensus. Best example are the several rants we could read here about overpopulation. “Hello Malthusian fearers, could you please realise this concern was, in the 90s or thereabout, postponed to some distant future by the demographs themself?” But that apply to the petition also. IPCC ask for a 40% cut in greenhouse emission by 2050. For USA this wouldn’t implicate any grand technological shift: France emits 5, Germany 9, USA 17. Just put the same tax on oil as europeans, or construt as much nuk as France or Japan, and voilà. (last one seems the way China is taking) That said, the petition also included “fossil fuel companies have a proven record (…) of actively working to obscure the scientific consensus around climate change.” Imho this would be enough to justify divesting MIT’s endowment from fossil fuel compagnies. But is it true that all fossil fuel compagnies behave the same? 167. Amy Says: Scott #131 – I’m not sure a majority, or even a very large plurality, need buy in, so long as they’re well-placed. Again, I think of differences 1975-2015 in ordinary civic life. Fewer of us smoke – why? Because of taxes, yes, but taxes don’t often deter addicts. It’s simply much harder to smoke now than it was in 1975, or 1985. When I first worked in a city room, people smoked there (and were furious when the “go outside” edict finally came down). People smoked in college classrooms. People smoked everywhere. Ashtrays were everywhere, cigarette butts were all over the floor, the street. Everybody knows that smoking ain’t allowed in school — unless it’s lunchtime and you’re out in Cancer Court. Cigarette vending machines were everywhere. Cigarette *ads* were everywhere. Now? Yesterday my daughter told me she’d just realized the name of the cigarette “behind the cashier” wasn’t “Malibu” but (and here she mangled “Marlboro” in a way I can’t reproduce). She has no idea who the Marlboro Man is. Has never seen anyone smoking in a restaurant. Never been in a car or a house with a smoker. Has never picked up a butt off the sidewalk to peel it apart and see what the filter’s made of. Never seen a cigarette vending machine. Does not know any adults who smoke. Does not recognize ashtrays. Would not recognize the veracity of the scene in My Name is Asher Lev where the very young Asher used ash from his mother’s ashtray as charcoal, to make the shadow of her cheek in a drawing. The change in the world was piecemeal — first you couldn’t smoke in college classrooms, then at work, then on buses and airplanes, then in theatres and official public buildings, then the vending machines disappeared (sorry, kids), then, then, then. The last to go has been smoking in bars (ending a 10-year run of unsociability for asthmatic me). The current battles are over smoking around children in child-custody cases. If it were up to the public we’d still be going around wreathed in smoke. Along the way, though, as the piecemeal social changes were worked for a multitude of reasons, it became rude to smoke. It simply isn’t done, if you’re above a certain social class — and it’s done less than it was, even if you aren’t. And even if you were furious at the nanny state for interfering with your right to give yourself and your kids lung cancer. I think this, rather than the wallet, is what really cements the social changes. Much of conservation is about “don’t”. Don’t run the furnace or the a/c. Don’t leave that on. Don’t leave the door hanging open. Don’t fly to Canberra, don’t buy the enormous house, don’t have a third child you can’t afford anyway. One of the civic don’ts I’ve seen lately is “don’t idle” — you’re sitting outside the school waiting for your kid; please turn off the car. A sign reminds you; you have to be a bit obstinate, socially antagonistic, to keep running the engine after that. If “don’t” is not only easy and relatively palatable but standing right in front of you, then it becomes your way of life, meaning you don’t have to be a conservation nerd to do it, and high-emission living begins to look a bit filthy, antisocial. So I think this is, like the anti-smoking campaigns, a slow thing, and one pushed by multiple interests, but probably not ineffectual. Apropos of Joshua Zelinsky’s #157, there are many ways of makaing what are effectively involuntary changes that do allow the underprivileged, brains-or-moneywise, to participate. For instance: My house is poorly insulated for my climate, and poorly situated, with no southern exposure at all, windows facing east and west. Change building codes, and, if necessary, go on subsidizing mortgages (as we already do), and the better-insulated, more passively-solar-heated house requires, say, 30% less natural gas to heat and some large chunk less in air-conditioning and furnace-blower electricity. And we’ve seen this before. The underprivileged here mostly do drive cars, but now the cars get 26 mpg, not 11 mpg. (Too bad we’ve done our urban planning so that they drive many more miles annually than they used to.) 168. jane Says: Devil’s Advocate #162 and anyone else who might be interested. How about this : http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/people/semmott/ I have his book,which needless to say,attracted much publicity/discussion/dispute and which has since been revised. Details of the revisions on the website. He is a leading scientist in C ambridge and has a number of research interests. I’ve got his book. 169. Stephen V Says: @jane and Devil’s Advocate (various #s): I’m not so sure the math on talented and clever people works out so well if such traits are, as they seem to be, (1) correlated with longer generations, and (2) partially hereditary. On the other hand, there’s also a lot which is culture- and income-based when it comes to the length of generations (and the number of kids per), and those fronts do look promising overall. The question is whether they’re enough, or if we’ll have to resort to brain hacking. 170. Shmi Nux Says: Scott, You’ve previously repeatedly expressed your skepticism toward the urgency of the AI safety research (because a potential human-level AI is too far in the future to worry about it now, if I recall correctly). I wonder if the new MIRI executive director Nate Soares’s AMA http://effective-altruism.com/ea/ju/i_am_nate_soares_ama/ has any insights that might cause you re-evaluate your stance? 171. quax Says: Douglas Knight & Greg Kuperberg earlier argued with the marginal cost of nuclear power. While I am not opposed to this source of energy I really are allergic against this rather poor argument. Current nuclear designs massively offload externalities to the government. No private insurance would ever underwrite the risk of current nuclear plants, and the cost of long term nuclear waste storage is not shouldered by the utilities operating these power plants. 172. Anonymous85 Says: Shmi Nux #170: As another skeptic, could you point me to what part of that AMA is supposed to change my mind? I don’t see many new arguments there. 173. jane Says: Stephen V # 169 Interesting comment;could you elaborate? On heritability,some mysterious talents do seem to spring out of nowhere: Newton and Ramanujan for instance. I guess they are the exception though. As to brain hacking-won’t we need to wait for the advent of AI? What are the implications ? 174. James Cross Says: #161 Let’s see. David Viner from the University of East Anglia saying in 2000 that snow would become a rare and exciting event in a few years. Professor Wieslaw Maslowski’s prediction of an ice-free Arctic by 2012. Paul Ehrlich’s predictions of millions of deaths from starvation. Thermodynamics and greenhouse effect only go so far in predicting future climate. Even the IPCC models are based on various scenarios of CO2 emissions which is why they have multiple outcomes but there is a lot of uncertainty in those scenarios. What would be the impact of the development of cheap, feasible hydrogen fusion? Or a big breakthrough in photovoltaic cells? Or how about the eruption of supervolcano? 175. John Sidles Says: The themes of Amy’s comment #167 are sufficiently illuminating (as they seem to me) to be worth extending. Amy observes “Much of conservation is about ‘don’t’” […] This is true, yet a considerable portion of conservationism’s influence — perhaps the most enduringly effective portion — concerns the “do”. E.g., “do respect the integrity of the commons” … “do respect the integrity of communities” … “do respect the integrity of the individual.” The conservationist Wendell Berry speaks eloquently to these respectful themes in his Jefferson Lecture “It All Turns On Affection” (2012) and in his public speech at “I Love Mountains Day” in Frankfort KY (2008; Google finds free-as-in-freedom videos of both lectures). The latter begins: In 1996, when Ellen Davis, a scholar of the Bible at Duke Divinity School, was taken to a mountaintop removal site in Kentucky, she remembered Jeremiah: I have seen the mountains, and here, they are wavering, and all the hills palpitate. I have seen, and here, there is no human being, and all the birds of the heavens have fled. I have seen, and here, the garden-land is now the wasteland. If you take seriously the knowledge that humans are capable of neighborliness and caretaking, are capable of caring well for the earth for the earth’s own sake and for the sake of their neighbors now and yet to come, and if you know that according to our greatest teachers this neighborliness is expected of us, then you will grieve in knowing that we humans are destroying the earth. You will be offended in knowing that we are doing so with governmental approval and with governmental encouragement. If you are at all a normal human, you will find that hard to swallow. You may find it, in fact, a putrid lump that will gag you somewhat before you can get it down. And yet to Kentucky state government, a wholly owned subsidiary of the coal corporations and of any other corporations that bid high enough, earth destruction is a normal economic enterprise. Earth destruction by strip mining has been an officially accepted practice in the eastern Kentucky coal fields for nearly half a century. In the Knott County Court room on the night of July, 15, 1965, confronting, as he had and would, the already catastrophic damage of strip mining that was going to get worse, Harry Caudill spoke of “the gleeful yahoos who are destroying the world, and the mindless oafs who abet them.” Forty-three years later, bad has come to worse, and worse has come to worst, the gleeful yahoos still reign supreme in the coal fields, and the mindless oafs who abet them still hold dominion in Frankfort. This is not because money talks, as Sen. Mitch McConnell seems to think. It is because money votes, and money buys people who vote. It is because might, with enough money, does not have to worry about right. It is because, in the magnetic field of money, the flags and crosses on certain political lapels turn into price tags. Berry’s much-honored speeches and essays exert all the more influence because Berry is not affiliated with any large corporation, any great fortune, any government agency, any political party, or any university. Rather, he has chosen to live his life as a farmer and independent scholar. Conclusions (1) Plain citizens like Wendell Berry show us the cumulative power of thoughtful individualism expressed respectfully and persistently, in standing against “the gleeful yahoos who are destroying the world, and the mindless oafs who abet them.” (2) As individuals, the signers of divestment petitions are acting in the tradition that Berry helped to establish. 176. Greg Kuperberg Says: Paul Ehrlich’s predictions of millions of deaths from starvation. The difference between Paul Ehrlich and IPCC, is like the difference between one flamboyant doctor predicting another Black Death pandemic, and the American Medical Association advising you to quit smoking. What would be the impact of the development of cheap, feasible hydrogen fusion? Or a big breakthrough in photovoltaic cells? The consequences could be excellent! They could be exactly what everyone is proposing that we should do to mitigate global warming. Right here you’ve completely lost track of the real question, global warming, in favor of winning a debate just for its own sake. 177. Isaac Says: Couldn’t the climate change be due to other factors besides human interference? I mean, of course human pollution and waste in the environment can impact the micro climate, but what about the macro climate? Some known facts are the recurring ice ages; the solar flares; the fact that a Chilean vulcan expelled in an eruption more carbon dioxide than humanity in five years; the fact that the ozone hole exists before air conditioning due to chlorine in the atmosphere (caused again by vulcan eruption); and so on. I don’t think we have too much control at the macro climate on Earth at our current techonology. 178. Shmi Nux Says: Anonymous85 #72: I don’t know what parts you are skeptical about, so I don’t know what you’d find convincing. My personal position is that MIRI’s research is interesting from the foundational point of view (e.g. formalizing morality and counterfactual logic), but that we know way too little about human-level reasoning to make any high-probability claims of AI danger at this point. And any low-probability argument is Pascal’s Mugging. But it seems like actual AI/CS experts are slowly moving toward taking it seriously. Hence my question to Scott. 179. Greg Kuperberg Says: Couldn’t the climate change be due to other factors besides human interference? Hey, if a heavy smoker gets lung cancer, it could have been radon. the fact that a Chilean vulcan expelled in an eruption more carbon dioxide than humanity in five years The falsehood, rather. Climate scientists carefully track all of these possibilities and these obvious what-ifs are all either outright bogus or at best grasping at straws. If you look at business records of fossil cumbustion, you get about twice the CO2 emissions as the actual increase that we see in the atmosphere. The other half dissolved into the ocean. Volcano activity hasn’t been particularly high in the same period. http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2011/06/28/3255476.htm 180. Jay Says: >the fact (…) Isaac, these two points you call fact, actually it’s well known bullshit. 181. Scott Says: Shmi #170, #178: Yes, Stuart Russell (of the Russell-Norvig textbook, and one of my former professors at Berkeley) is now giving talks about the danger of AI taking over the world, which I guess represents a new development in how seriously the leading figures of AI take this stuff! On the whole, though, I’d say there’s exactly one thing that will make most CS academics want to pay attention to you, and it’s not speculative arguments about the future: rather, it’s you producing high-quality technical work today. In general, CS people can happily discuss human-level AI, superintelligent oracles and wizards, quantum computers, black-hole computers, and all sorts of other remote possibilities. The relevant constraint is not “present-day practicality” per se, but just that there’s nontrivial meat to what you’re saying—meaning not just words and blog-debates, but actual theorems you proved or systems you built or simulations you ran. And my outside impression is that MIRI, to its credit, now understands this. It will be interesting to watch over the next decade. 182. Stephen V Says: jane #173: Brain-hacking is already here, in a sense – though via chemical (temporary) means rather than surgical or genetic (long-term) means – coffee, anyone? Note that brain surgery isn’t quite the same thing – it’s maintenance rather than upgrading/optimization, for both ethical and technological reasons. As for the generational math – mea culpa. I internally conflated generational length and generational breadth (number of kids per generation) – and while I suspect the latter is still correlated with the former, it’s not to nearly the same degree. 183. Jorge Says: My acid test for whether to continue listening to anyone’s thoughts about climate change is whether they’re willing to declare without equivocation that someone with Y chromosomes in their cells can’t become a woman through drugging and/or mutilation. Almost nothing in science is as obviously binary, dichotomous, and black and white. If due to ignorance, conformity, or cowardice they can’t even get that one right then why should I care what they have to say about more complex systems? 184. Amy Says: John Sidles #175 – Berry is persistently influential, isn’t he. I last taught _The Memory of Old Jack_ 20 years ago, almost…although the book that taught me to appreciate that one was another prose beauty, Bill and Vera Cleaver’s _Where the Lilies Bloom_. I am very often surprised by how influential one person can be. I’m sure those of you who teach see it regularly, the student who turns up and tells you (alarmingly) how something you did or said — long forgotten, of course — changed their lives. But often it’s simply one person doing a thing, and others noticing and thinking, “I want to do that, too.” Several years ago, when I was writing for a textbook publisher about the thermohaline circulation, I looked up the paper that had gotten journalists all excited about The Coming Ice Age in Europe. I can’t remember the author’s name, but in trying to douse the journalistic hysteria he said something I thought worth keeping in mind, to the effect of “no, we can’t predict that, but it’s not an impossibility, and perhaps — given the stakes — that ought to make us more careful.” One of the things I learned in my conservation year was something I knew, but had forgotten, because even I’ve been trained so well as a consumer. To conserve, you don’t need to buy things, usually; you don’t need to know about degree-days and electron holes; you don’t need to suffer. But you do need either imagination or examples, and you need to know why you’re doing something that most people don’t. I’ve watched conservationists attempt to hook this to money, saving money, and I think that’s probably of limited use; unless you live wildly wastefully, even for us, you’re probably not going to save much money. The backpacker’s ethic is probably a stronger draw — walk lightly, pack it in, pack it out — but it’s not enough people. I have very little to do with religion, so I don’t know its themes these days, but I don’t hear any of that old Yankee or German devotion to thrift and stewardship anymore, either. I think we’ve got the wrong stories for the job. I was reading several months ago about the beginnings of the EPA, too, and the senator from Maine who was largely responsible for making the legislation go (however much the activists liked to take credit). Older fellow by then who’d grown up with paper-mill despoilation. It sometimes only takes a few well-placed people with eyes, and timing. 185. Amy Says: re quax #171 – it’s not just the cost of long-term storage; it’s the current impossibility of long-term storage. The only word you need is “Hanford”. We don’t know how to do it. Don’t even have a sane working definition of “long-term storage”. And once the stuff leaks we’re at sea. Only just now getting around to studying the chemistry of the radioisotopes as they move through soil and water, don’t really know how they go or how to pick them up. The Keystone Kopsness of it would be hilarious if not for the lethality. If we could figure all that, you know, then we could have a reasonable conversation about costs and externalities. 186. Amy Says: Oh, also – re rural/ag states’ approach breaking down along blue/red lines. I live in such a state, more conservative than it used to be and currently R, and I’m taking a break from writing up a summary of biomass/coal mixture testing for a large local coal consumer. The behaviors turn out to be not that simple to describe. In my state, for instance, changing climate patterns have already been quite expensive for farmers, who’ve bought new equipment to handle shorter planting windows, heavier rainfalls, longer growing seasons, exaggerated seasonality in precipitation. There are plenty who want nothing to do with talk about anthropogenic anything or climate projections, but they still have businesses to run, and they can’t live off drowned seedlings and blown-away or washed-away topsoil. They’re also well aware of changes in the pests they see. So to some extent they have to be responsive to the changes, and while they can interpret those changes as they please, they’re very much aware of the interpretations that show high/medium/low-emission outlooks. It’s unavoidably part of the conversation. It’s worth pointing out that those decisions are individual, not governmental, decisions. If enough farmers decide this stuff is for real and that they need state backing, that’s another story. But yeah, things are bubbling at the individual level. That’s what I hear from the ag profs who talk to these guys, anyway. 187. Scott Says: Amy #185: Even if engineers could figure out no way to store nuclear waste so that it wouldn’t leak after (say) 500 years, that would still be eternity compared to the timescale over which fossil fuels seem likely to do us in. And when they did leak, they might contaminate one small part of the earth, but not the whole thing. So the two problems are of such different magnitude that I don’t think people should even discuss them in the same breath. 188. Scott Says: Jorge #183: My acid test for whether to continue listening to anyone’s thoughts about climate change is whether they’re willing to declare without equivocation that someone with Y chromosomes in their cells can’t become a woman through drugging and/or mutilation. Did it occur to you that, in this case, people don’t actually disagree with you about any empirical fact? E.g., they agree that the person in question still has Y chromosomes in its cells. What they disagree about is merely the social decision of when to call someone a woman: only when the person was born female, or also when the person felt like a “woman trapped in a man’s body” its entire life, wants to be a woman, and underwent surgery to look like a woman? (Actually knowing people in this situation might be a relevant factor.) By contrast, the question of global warming is not (purely) a question of definitions: presumably we all agree about what it would mean for there to be higher temperatures, higher sea levels, more severe storms and flooding, droughts, disruption of the gulf stream, etc.; the issue is just that the vast majority of scientists say firmly that these things will happen (or in many cases, are happening) as a result of human activity, and some people don’t believe them. Thus, while your “acid test” might sound original, it’s actually an excellent general example of the psychology of climate denialism: people are so wrapped up in the human world, in fighting with rival coalitions over who gets the power to define words, that they can’t admit the climate has an autonomous reality to it—that it doesn’t care what we call things or whose coalition is more virtuous; it just responds to greenhouse gas concentrations in a way that Arrhenius already understood in the 19th century. 189. John Sidles Says: To speak in praise of Scott’s remark … Scott remakrs (#181) “There’s exactly one thing that will make most CS [computer science] academics want to pay attention to you, […] it’s you producing high-quality technical work.” Non-CS readers of Shtetl Optimized may benefit from an instance in which Scott himself (and Greg Kuperberg too) commendably “walk their talk”. Namely, Gil Kalai’s work on the fundamental infeasibility of scalable quantum computation receives an attentive and respectful hearing from the CS community — respectful even from researchers like Scott and Greg who hold opposing views — in large measure because Gil is a sufficiently accomplished mathematician to be (deservedly) honored as one of the ten plenary speakers at the upcoming quadrennial meeting of the European Mathematical Society at the 7th European Congress of Mathematics (7ECM) (Berlin, July 18–22, 2016). It’s worth mentioning too, that later this week the Hebrew University of Jerusalem will host a two-day MathFest in Honor of Gil Kalai’s 60th Birthday. Conclusion The reasoned and respectful, yet lively and marvelously simulating discourse among researchers like Gil, Scott, and Greg (and many more names need to mentioned too … John Preskill, Steve Flammia, Aram Harrow, etc.) is of tremendous benefit to engineering researchers (like me) … no matter who proves to be right. Long may this discourse continue in its full respectful vigor, with Nature and Reason as the joint arbiters. Would that climate-change arch-skeptics appreciated the virtues of this ancient and enlightened scholarly tradition. Appreciation, congratulations, and thanks especially are extended to Gil Kalai! 190. jonathan Says: Isaac #177: I’ve always thought that evidence of large past natural climate fluctuations are actually an argument for being *worried* about global warming! The reason is that we have a pretty good idea of the direct effects of “forcings” (CO2, sunspots, volcanoes, etc), but there is a lot of uncertainty about the magnitude of feedback effects (ice albedo, clouds, currents, greening, etc). Some skeptics have posited the existence of large negative feedbacks. These would tend to make the climate a more stable system, and lower CO2 sensitivity. Under this scenario, we shouldn’t expect much warming. But evidence of large-scale HISTORICAL fluctuations in the macro climate are very strong evidence that the economy is NOT stable! So unless you want to argue that the ice ages were caused by variation in sunshine into an otherwise highly stable system, we should be very worried about massively changing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. 191. jane Says: Stephen V #182 Temporary brain hacks: cocaine or similarly speedy chemicals? Cons outweigh the pros I think. Do you think that Greg Egan’s sci-fi predictions of neuro-implants will provide the brain hacks of the future? I’ve read a couple of his novels-liked ‘Distress’ the best- and noted his use of various nano-implants for human enhancement. Even if this does come to pass-and if it can be done,it almost certainly will be done-there is no guarantee,is there,that such optimisation might necessarily be beneficial for society as a whole,much less the rest of the environment. All this is quite new to me,but I know that transhumanists envisage an enhanced future,albeit via a number of different routes. As to getting us out of the environmental hole into which we seem to be digging ourselves,do you think that cognitive enhancement of this kind will provide the solutions needed? Safe storage of nuclear waste perhaps? (A big concern here in the UK.) Alteration of human behaviour : more concern for fellow creatures,altruism; changes in reproductive norms; more need,less greed. What about the ethics? What are the implications for human redundancy,as with AI ? For those like me,who are worried about the present rate of population growth,as well as all the other environmental stuff,how would this play out do you think? 192. jane Says: John Sidles #189 As may be gathered from my posts,I’m definitely a non-CS reader. “Long may this discourse continue in its full respectful vigor, with Nature and Reason as the joint arbiters. Would that climate-change arch-skeptics appreciated the virtues of this ancient and enlightened scholarly tradition.” Your comment brings to mind the disgraceful decision by the UK’s NUS; ( National Union of Students),to pass a recent motion boycotting all future contact with Israel. In this regard,there is little hope of discourse with Nature and reason as the joint arbiters continuing in any meaningful sense where the NUS is concerned. I’m thankful that my university days weren’t blighted by this particular form of agit-prop stupidity. 193. Amy Says: Scott #187 – given that we actually don’t know how radioactive materials migrate (it’s an active research area) or what becomes of them as they do, it seems premature to say that any of it will stay local. Certainly Fukushima would seem to argue against “don’t worry”. There’s no particular reason to think about 500 years, either, rather than 50; certainly the *plans* are for long-term storage, but the reality is that neither the material nor the site upkeep’s been tested over any kind of span like that. Also troublesome’s that when things go wrong we often don’t have the radiochemical knowledge at hand to know how to fix them. 194. Greg Kuperberg Says: Some skeptics have posited the existence of large negative feedbacks. Yes, but they haven’t proposed this in response to any serious evidence or trustworthy theory that there are overlooked, negative feedbacks; rather the motivation has been to score debate points. If the pull negative feedbacks out of a hat, then it looks like something new that needs to be disproven; and even if it doesn’t fly, it makes it easier to talk as if positive feedbacks are also just pulled out of a hat. It also makes it easier to exaggerate the significance of positive feedbacks. Yes, positive feedbacks will make global warming worse, but they aren’t needed to explain any of the warming that we’ve seen so far. Besides, the collapse of the summer Arctic ice sheet and the shortened snow season in higher latitudes is an obvious and established positive feedback, and it happens to be the largest one. It is true though that there are some known negative feedbacks, and some uncertainty in both positive and negative feedbacks. It so happens that the sum total of known foodbacks is positive, with one outer exception that is actually more part of the whole question. Namely, if the earth hotter, it radiates more heat to space according to the Stefan-Boltzmann law. This indeed a negative feedback, but what it means is that the Earth’s temperature has an equilibrium instead of escaping to infinity! 195. Tony Says: Overall, how would the petition, such as this, influence possible future cases like: https://theclimatefix.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/i-am-under-investigation/ 196. John Sidles Says: In regard to the well-reasoned science-respecting points made by Greg Kuperberg (#194) and “jonathan” (#190), Shtetl Optimized readers may wish verify for themselves that the scientific literature multiply supports their views:. Thermodynamic support Hansen et al., “Earth’s energy imbalance and implications” (arXiv:1105.1140, 2011) Palaeo-data support Hansen and Sato, “Paleoclimate implications for human-made climate change” (arXiv:1105.0968, 2011) Dynamic-model support Nazarenko and Hansen et al. “Future climate change under RCP emission scenarios with GISS ModelE2” (Advances in Modeling Earth Systems, 2015) It’s nice to see how the scientific pieces fit together. Conclusion Common-sense reasons — like Hansen’s “The energy to fight injustice” (Chemistry World, 2014) — and cutting-edge science alike support the view that anthropogenic climate-change is real, serious, and accelerating. This aggregate evidence composes more-than-sufficient scientific reason to soberly support divestiture petitions like MIT’s. 197. Greg Kuperberg Says: Amy – In my state, for instance, changing climate patterns have already been quite expensive for farmers But to hear you tell it, we shouldn’t worry about it until after we denuclearize. An outright majority of carbon-free electricity in the US comes from nuclear power, and that’s not going to change for many years to come. 198. John Sidles Says: Amy reminds us “The Keystone Kopsness of [nuclear clean-up] would be hilarious if not for the lethality. If we could figure all that, you know, then we could have a reasonable conversation about costs and externalities.” Kayaking down the Hanford Reach — the last free-running stretch of the Columbia River — past the silent monoliths of entombed plutonium-producing reactors and tanks of nuclear waste, under the surveillance of never-ending armed patrols, leads people (me and my kayaking family for instance) to sobering reflections of the immense human capacity for lethality that is so strikingly evident in this small area: the lethal harm of nuclear weapons and the still-simmering tanks of radioactive waste, and the lethal destruction of the Columbia’s once-rich salmon-runs by hydropower dams, and the lethal decimation of native American cultures by disease, forced resettlement, and war, and the lethal extinction of Pleistocene fauna, coincident with the arrival of humans, and plausibly caused by them. Yes, these past lethal harms can be remediated, and future (potentially far larger) lethal harms like them avoided … provided that we are willing to contemplate transformations to human society that perforce are truly radical. Conclusion The serious contemplation, advocacy, and even implementation of radical transformations is one of the great pleasures, privileges, and responsibilities of free societies and free inquiry by free individuals. 199. Amy Says: Greg #197, only if by “to hear you tell it” you mean, “here, let me shove words and a position into your mouth.” I would actually suggest that we worry about it to the point of concerted public action on conservation, urbanization, and, yes, population growth reduction. The first of which, at least, is a much easier job than finding repositories for nuclear waste, and if done well remarkably effective. There isn’t any point, incidentally, to pretending we’re better at handling nuclear waste than we are, or that we know more radiochem than we do, or that it’s not a wall blocking what would otherwise be an attractive escape. The problem of the waste — and there’s a lot of it — is unfortunately not trivial. I don’t understand the dismissiveness about conservation, and I wind up in the most ridiculous debates with guys — almost always men, actually — who’ve decided that it’s not possible to use substantially less energy even on an individual level. Transcripts of these things would look insane. Essentially the guy will tell me that there’s no point in doing it, then will tell me that it’s not possible to do, and then when I tell him about the results we’ve had here, he’ll shift ground and talk about how it’s something nobody *else* would do. And then when I say well no, actually friends have asked what I’ve done and started doing that too, he starts talking about his right to be comfortable, or some such, or goes off on some other tangent, usually involving the foolishness of making changes that only save a little money, and wraps up with a re-assertion that it’ll never work. And meanwhile I’m here using less than half the electricity I used a year ago. Wasn’t hard or complicated or expensive. And while it wasn’t the point, my power bill’s down by about$70/mo. Anyway — this is the sort of thing that can actually be made to happen on a large scale: part of it through public education, part of it through an accretion of executive regulations that require manufacturers of new products to jump green hoops in some way, so that we don’t reduce use only to have 6kW toys suddenly pop up and become the Christmas bestseller. Changes like that don’t happen overnight, but they don’t happen glacially, either.

The conversation about urbanization is, I think, one we aren’t ready for yet in this country, even though we’re already far more urban than we were a generation ago. Again, as a native NYer and an apartment-dweller most of my adult life, these things seem obvious to me, but this business of big houses on big lawns far away from centers of anything is an extremely expensive way to live, not least energywise. But it’s a very tough sell for those who haven’t grown up in cities.

As I’m thinking about it, actually, young couples might be the ones most ready for that message. When you’re young-partnered and not in a town with sky-high housing, there’s this romance of the house with garden and children frolicking in the yard. The reality is that in general US children do not frolick in yards much (mine won’t go into ours at all; is afraid of bugs), that houses and yards are expensive and timeconsuming to maintain, and that you wind up spending a lot of time in cars. You’re not going to have all your friends over for a lovely big garden party or wonderful barbeque every other weekend, either, because half of them have other plans and besides it’s too muggy and buggy outdoors. A townhouse near a park or a large flat with a deck or garden will probably make you and your family happier. But it’s not presented as a desirable option; we’re still selling 1967.

And actually, as I’m thinking about it, I realize I haven’t done enough, either. Small city, am friendly enough with the city planners. No reason not to go talk with them about things to put before developers so that more houses in new developments have both broad southern exposures and effective summer sunshade.

Well. On my list now.

200. Scott Says:

Amy #199: New blog policy. From now on, all commenters on Shtetl-Optimized are forbidden from derailing intellectual discussions with stereotypes about the other side (e.g., “that figures; the people who make the argument you’re making are so often men / women / gays / whites / blacks / etc”). This applies not only when the stereotype is irrelevant to the topic under discussion (as in this case), but even when it’s relevant. There’s a very narrow humor exemption; otherwise, comments violating the policy will be left in my moderation queue.

While I know the appeal to the other side’s race / gender / etc. is de rigeur in certain circles, I view it as the argumentative equivalent of a mustard gas attack, so much so that (if I remember correctly 🙂 ) a previous time you did this precipitated a permanent change in the conditions of my life!

I’ll strive to apply this policy consistently; anyone is welcome to tell me if they think I failed. This is just one part of a general effort to make my comment section welcoming to anyone, of any background, who comes here in a spirit of transcending backgrounds, and “building a global shtetl.”

201. Greg Kuperberg Says:

Amy –

I don’t understand the dismissiveness about conservation.

I’m not dismissive about conservation. It’s huge; in fact, it’s at least as important as deciding how to generate energy.

However, if the goal is to BOTH solve global warming AND denuclearize, then it’s just not enough. The unavoidable truth is that it would kick the legs out of carbon-free electricity if we ended nuclear power.

202. Tony Says:

jonathan #190:

“I’ve always thought that evidence of large past natural climate fluctuations are actually an argument for being *worried* about global warming!”

Wow! What about the meteorites and asteroids then?

And how about the supernova blasting in the neighborhood? Shouldn’t we be developing space technology like crazy, while still there is time?

Anyway, my impression is that Scott’s intentions for this post were not to discuss the proofs of ill effects of climate change, but, rather, the possible effects of the petition that he signed, *assuming* his conviction that these ill effects are real, and preventable.

203. John Sidles Says:

Scott announces a more stringent Shtetl Optimized editorial policy: “There’s a very narrow humor exemption [for stereotyping rhetoric]”

Shtetl Optimized readers may wish to reflect that Randall Munroe’s comic xkcd is an existence proof that first-rate STEAM-centric humor can entirely dispense with stereotyping rhetoric. Examples relevant to climate-science include:

Beliefs (xkcd #154)
Cold (xkcd #1321)
Land Mammals (xkcd #1338)
4.5 Degrees (xkcd #1379)

Background  Randall’s humor qualifies as “friendly” in the most literal sense; xkcd readers who click on footnote [2] of Randall’s “What if? Catch!” (#81) learn:

“I [Randall Munroe] would like to remind everyone that while I write sometimes about the interesting physics of bullets, I’m not an authority on firearms safety. I was raised Quaker; I’ve never held a gun, much less fired one.”

Quaker practice knows no dogma, yet among Friends, certain testimonies are traditionally regarded as weighty, and among the weightiest is that stereotyping and/or belittling rhetoric too-readily initiates a distancing process that culminates culturally in tolerance for exile, torture, war, and genocide.

Needless to say, modern cognitive science, neuroscience, and even primatology have strikingly affirmed this traditional Friendly testimony.

That is why Randall’s Quaker upbringing goes far to explain xkcd‘s remarkable freedom — which is wholly praiseworthy as it seems to me — from stereotyping and/or belittling rhetoric.

Conclusion  Consistently for many years, the most admirably thought-provoking and laugh-provoking works on Shtetl Optimized and on xkcd have *NOT* depended upon stereotyping and/or belittling rhetoric, whether humorous or otherwise, for their enlivening and enlightening effect.

204. Jay Says:

About nuclear wastes and externalities, readers may be interested to notice that most externalities are actually created by the legislation, especially in the USA.

The problem is that only the once through cycle is currently allowed in america, a process by which >90% of the waste is actually fuel that you’re not allowed to reprocess. This is also why the resulting “wastes” would remain radioactive for hundred thousands years (except it’s hard to imagine that so much fuel would be left unused for centuries).

If a closed fuel cycle was allowed, that would divide the amount of waste by >10, lower the amount of U235 needed, and reduce the half life of the remaining waste to hundreds of years rather than hundred of thousands.

Besides this technical choice (Japan and France do reprocess already, although only one or two times), we’ll likely see a much more interesting plant in the future: ADS. That would incinerate almost all nuclear wastes, allows using the abondant fertile fuels (Th 232 and U238) rather than rare fissile fuels (U235), for a price that is expected to be a little above the one-through cycle (using current technology) and maybe far below (if laser-driven ion acceleration hold the promise depicted below). As a bonus, it’s safer (subcritical, easier cooling).

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S016890021301663X

205. quax Says:

Rhetoric aside Amy #199 makes a good point. Never understood why American households use three times more energy on average than German ones.

The creature comforts are on the same 1st world level.

206. quax Says:

Scott #187, while I think Amy’s point stands that the magnitude in terms of impact may indeed be comparable but simply on a magnitudes different time scale, I think it is important to differ between arguments based on the moral necessity to avoid fossil fuels, versus the cost structure in doing so.

Amy raised the question of how to properly account for the cost of nuclear waste disposal, and I think rather than to base this on the assumption that we have to burry it all, it makes much more sense to try to estimate how expansive it would be to create the necessary spallation reactor infrastructure to transmute most of the stuff.

To my knowledge there is absolute no research occurring in the US on this kind of technology.

207. jane Says:

http://populationgrowth.org/is-word-getting-out-that-population-and-climate-change-are-connected/

Please look at this and the other material on the site.

“I would actually suggest that we worry about it to the point of concerted public action on conservation, urbanization, and, yes, population growth reduction”

Amy said this # 199;

” past lethal harms can be remediated, and future (potentially far larger) lethal harms like them avoided … provided that we are willing to contemplate transformations to human society that perforce are truly radical.

Conclusion The serious contemplation, advocacy, and even implementation of radical transformations is one of the great pleasures, privileges, and responsibilities of free societies and free inquiry by free individuals.”

John Sidles #198 said this

I’ve been saying the same,in effect ,while concentrating on population growth and species loss : we surely must tackle climate change-and yes I do believe that global warming is occurring,and that human activities play a significant role-and population pressure,resource shortage and environmental degradation as essential components of a cohesive,coherent policy for change.

Dr Jane Goodall and Professor Stephen Emmott are 2 British scientists,among many others, who are advocating a joined-up approach.

Radical transformations are what’s needed-right across the board- and we need influential, well educated and especially gifted individuals to take the lead.

208. Anonymous85 Says:

Amy, you said “Certainly Fukushima would seem to argue against ‘don’t worry’.”

But if you actually looked at what happened at Fukushima, it seems to argue in *favor* of “don’t worry”.

I mean, after an earthquake and tsunami that killed 15,000+ people, there was a problem at the Fukushima plant that killed no people (some people died from panic-caused evacuation, but none from radiation poisoning). There was some environmental contamination, but the damage seems quite minor relative to (e.g.) oil spills.

Also, Amy 199, your gender stereotyping is so ridiculously offensive (mostly due to its irrelevance) that it’s a wonder Scott didn’t ban you.

209. Haelfix Says:

The problem with conservationism with respect to CO2 is that it massively misses the crux of the problem. This is why it is never taken seriously in debates amongst people who study this thing for a living.

In short, you cannot beat an exponentially growing problem with efficiency gains. Whether its finding a better filter for coal, or reducing your home footprint, or changing the electric bulb in your house. These things change the problem by epsilon corrections.

The real problem with CO2 is that we have an exponentially growing population, a large portion of which is developing. Developing countries energy use per capita grows exponentially until it tails off.

So while there will be a cutoff at some point for both functions, a ‘solution’ of the global warming problem needs a counteracting idea to be at the very least something that scales like a power law.

An example of a viable idea that does just that, would be finding a better condom. For each birth we prevent, we prevent ~ (2.3)^N descendants, which as one might expect completely dominates Net CO2 gains in the counterfactual future.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t try some conservation. Little bits help and might delay things a few years, but let’s not delude ourselves that it actually solves anything, or could even in principle..

210. Devil's Advocate Says:

I read about a Japanese project to build an underwater city. Once we have this sort of technology, assuming it becomes cost-effective, I really don’t see how AGW could pose a high probability extinction risk.

211. Scott Says:

Once we have this sort of technology, assuming it becomes cost-effective…

Not to rain on the underwater parade, but I may have pinpointed a couple issues right there.

212. JollyJoker Says:

Greg, Amy –

It feels like you’re having a 1990s discussion here. More than half of new energy production in the US is already renewables with almost two thirds of that being photovoltaics. No one is building nuclear and PV is still halving in price every three years. Sure, some 19% of current production capacity is still nuclear compared with 13% for renewables but what counts is what’s being built.

213. John Sidles Says:

Haelfix (#209) proclaims [correctly yet short-sightedly]: “Let’s not delude ourselves that it [conservationism] actually solves anything, or could even in principle.”

Claim  When Haelfix’s rationalist arguments (of #209) are pursued to their logical conclusion, they amply justify multiple key elements of progressivism:

support social justice activism, and concomitantly

support female reproductive choice, together with

environmental protectionism, by imposing

high carbon taxes, that help fund

eliminate student debt by free public education, to

sustain vibrant enterprises that create family-supporting jobs

The point is that evolutionary socio-economic theory predicts, and global experience strongly affirms, that the above social-justice measures act strongly and in synergy to stabilize reproductive rates at sustainable levels, by motivating women and men alike to invest relatively greater personal resources in relatively fewer children.

Evidence  Articles like Jokela et al., “Serial monogamy increases reproductive success in men but not in women” (Behavioral Ecology, 2010) remind us of the “60/30 rule”: sixty percent of children are born of thirty percent of women and sired by thirty percent of men (per Table 1: Descriptive statistics).

In effect, present-day human genetic evolution, social evolution, and population growth alike are driven largely by a relatively small minority (about 30%) of women and men whose reproductive contribution is disproportionately large (about 60%). This cohort responds strongly to progressive social measures, by investing relatively greater personal resources in relatively fewer children.

And in terms of practical politics, the long-term viability of any political movement (conservative, progressive, or otherwise) depends upon addressing the demands of this reproductive and social cohort. And it’s fair to say (as it seems to many folks, including me) that the ideologies of the far-left and the far-right alike have been performing mighty poorly by this measure.

Conclusion  As William Falkner said: “The [human social and evolutionary] past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

This is a good thing, right?

214. Greg Kuperberg Says:

Never understood why American households use three times more energy on average than German ones.

If you just casually throw out a “never understood”, you make it sound like there is no explanation. But the reasons are actually pretty clear:

1. Electricity in Germany is three times as expensive as the US on average. This gives consumers a massive incentive to use less electricity, not just with more energy efficiency, but also with making do with less, e.g., small washing machines.

2. A larger fraction of Germans live in small apartment units.

3. Postwar reconstruction allowed construction of more modern, more energy-efficient buildings.

4. Germany is a cold-weather country. Air conditioning is 100% electric, while heating can be electric, or heating oil, or natural gas.

5. Per capita would be a fairer comparison than per household, whence the ratio is 2.6 rather than 3.

Each of these factors either doesn’t apply to the US, or is at an extreme level that goes beyond what you could realistically do in the US. To be sure, the US certainly could use a lot less electricity, with only better energy efficiency codes and maybe moderately higher electricity prices. But Germany is an extreme case where, actually, electricity generation is a complete mess, which leads to a lot of energy conservation by default.

A more teachable example for the US is France. France does have more electricity consumption per household than Germany, but still much less than the US, and with electricity prices that are high for the US but closer to our range. And, France has less CO2 emissions per capita than Germany, because nearly all of its electricity is nuclear. In fact, only three countries in traditional Western Europe have a smaller CO2 footprint than France, all of them much smaller countries with special circumstances that are not possible or less possible for France itself. In fact, France exports electricity to neighboring countries (including Germany), thus lowering their CO2 footprints.

215. Greg Kuperberg Says:

Also, to connect the question of nuclear power back to part of the original topic, the MIT peititon: It is only fair to allows that the petition can be viewed in isolation and doesn’t restrict the possible solutions. Nonetheless, the MIT movement behind the petition really is suffused with political environmentalism, and not just because divestment effectively singles out oil and natural gas companies and is almost completely disjoint from coal.

As the web site explains, the MIT group was initially mobilized by a local talk by Bill McKibben. Then, for a period they had a speaker series, where two of the five (?) speakers were Joe Romm and Bob Massie. All three of these guys think of nuclear energy and fossil fuels as twin evils of Big Energy. Moreover, Romm has a singular enthusiasm for residential solar, and to some extent McKibben does too. Then as well, one of the big events of MIT Fossil Free last year was, “60 Students Switch Cellphones to Solar!

Ultimately, then, MIT Fossil Free in its present form has nowhere to go but symbolism. It’s not like MITEI and some other groups at MIT that are actually accomplishing things.

216. Tony Says:

It seems some folks are worried about the carbon in general.

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/ikeas-not-so-secret-ingredient-swedish-meatballs-2015-06-12

“The recent veggie- and chicken-ball introductions are not solely about meeting consumers’ dietary preferences, Ho said; they fit into a companywide drive to reduce its carbon footprint.”

217. jane Says:

Haelfix #209

The Centre For Biological Diversity is doing this very thing:

http://www.endangeredspeciescondoms.com/

One of the best,most innovative campaigns in the entire environmental movement.

And Stephen Emmott makes your point about the disconnect between efficiency gains and exponential population growth ; he calls it rational optimism in his book ’10 Billion’.

218. Greg Kuperberg Says:

It feels like you’re having a 1990s discussion here. More than half of new energy production in the US is already renewables with almost two thirds of that being photovoltaics. No one is building nuclear and PV is still halving in price every three years. Sure, some 19% of current production capacity is still nuclear compared with 13% for renewables but what counts is what’s being built.

This is just such a tendentious, wrong way of discussing the whole issue. Yes, some 19% of current electricity in the US nuclear — so what is that, chopped liver? It’s wrong to dismiss this vast amount of electricity production as somehow old hat, because the nuclear reactors have along the way gotten a lot of uprating, a big increase in their capacity factor, and license extensions. They’re running almost 24×7 at higher power rates than their original certification, at a time when according to original certification they would already be retired.

Then you turn around and talk as if renewable and photovoltaic are sort-of the same thing. But they’re anything but the same thing. Of this 13% renewable, only about 1% was solar, counting both residential and utility solar. (I.e., about 1/13 of renewable electricity is solar.) A majority is hydroelectric, which is more fundamentally topped out than nuclear; a majority of the remainder is wind power. You say that “two-thirds of new renewable energy” is PV. But what does “new” mean here — just last week?

I guess my biggest pet peeve about such propaganda is the way that people often conflate a function with its derivative. (Politics meets calculus, with poor results.) “New production” should be the electricity produced this year, while “new installation” is the change in production. E.g. a country that used to produce 100% of its electricity from coal, and then adds a little residential PV while changing nothing else, can say “100% of our new energy is solar!”

219. Radford Neal Says:

Scott says: “presumably we all agree about what it would mean for there to be higher temperatures, higher sea levels, more severe storms and flooding, droughts, disruption of the gulf stream, etc.; the issue is just that the vast majority of scientists say firmly that these things will happen (or in many cases, are happening) as a result of human activity, and some people don’t believe them.”

Scott, your comments on this issue seem rather strange to me. I think they fundamentally come from simply not knowing what the “scientific consensus” on climate change is. There is no consensus that continued emission of CO2 will lead to “more severe storms and flooding, droughts, disruption of the gulf stream”. There just isn’t, despite what some propagandists might like you to believe. There is consensus that CO2 emissions will lead to higher temperatures and higher sea levels – that’s accepted by “skeptics” as well. The point under dispute is HOW MUCH higher.

It seems very odd to me. You don’t seem to be claiming any personal knowledge of climate science that would permit your having an independent opinion – instead you appeal to the idea that the scientific consensus is likely to be right, presumably because you think the scientists are competent and honest. But then you immediately jump to the conclusion that things are actually WORSE than the scientific concensus, because you think the scientists are biased towards a rosey view of life. But if they aren’t competent to draw conclusions without any big influence of their emotions, why think that their bias is in that direction? You must really not have had much contact with some of these sorts of peope if you don’t know that many of them are ABSOLUTELY DELIGHTED by any story of imminent catastrophe caused by humans.

220. Douglas Knight Says:

Greg, your items (2) and (3) are contradictory. If Germans are not using electricity to heat or cool their homes, insulation will not affect electricity use.

But the main point is that Quax was (tw: stereotype) wrong to conflate energy and electricity.

221. Greg Kuperberg Says:

Douglas –

Greg, your items (2) and (3) are contradictory. If Germans are not using electricity to heat or cool their homes, insulation will not affect electricity use.

I agree that these points are subadditive, but they do not contradict each other outright. There is some air conditioning in Germany and some electrical heating as well. That would generally be reduced by better building codes and by living in apartment buildings rather than free-standing homes.

Besides, as you suggest, you should really combine residential electricity with other (non-transportation) energy use, and then (2) and (3) contribute to the overall picture that German residential energy consumption is generally low.

Anyway, the point stands that Germany is a model of letting political environmentalism take over electricity generation policy; and then using energy conservation to make up for everything that doesn’t make sense. Well, their record on energy conservation is fantastic, but they’ve painted themselves into a corner if they want to make further progress.

222. quax Says:

Greg Kuperberg #214,

Per capita would be a fairer comparison than per household, whence the ratio is 2.6 rather than 3.

Apparently you didn’t look at the article I linked, there are three graphs, reporting on the average, per household and per capita. The latter numbers are 1,731 in Germany versus 4,517. No idea where you get your numbers since you didn’t include a link.

As to the AC versus cold climate argument, that is obviously bogus, since Canada is doing even worse than the US.

The other arguments are better. But you misread my rhetoric. The ‘never understood’ part, was meant to convey my incredulity that this gap has been allowed to stand like this for so long.

It goes without saying that a detailed analysis will reveal exactly why this gap exists. So my new incredulity is directed at why you would possibly believe anybody posting here would resort to magical “nobody can know” thinking, about a question that can obviously be empirically settled.

223. quax Says:

Douglas Knight #220, if you read this in context you will notice that I chimed in because Amy steered the discussion towards what an individual can do to minimize their own energy consumption, obviously there seems to be a lot of room to improvement when it comes to power consumption, hence my comment in restricting this to electricity.

Another major thread was of course nuclear energy, which obviously is also only contributing to power supply, and then only to base load, as it is no good for peek supply.

My apologize if you found this conflated issues and you had trouble to untangle them.

To tie it back to the original post, the question was how effective is a signature under such a petition (since I don’t know what kind of impact this petition may have, I don’t have an opinion either way).

What seems clear to me though is that most Americans have the option to save energy in in their own households, the numbers speak for themselves. And there can be little doubt about the cumulative effectiveness that such measures will have over time.

224. quax Says:

There is consensus that CO2 emissions will lead to higher temperatures and higher sea levels – that’s accepted by “skeptics” as well. The point under dispute is HOW MUCH higher.

You only need to have rudimentary understanding of thermodynamics, to grasp that higher temperatures in a system far from the thermodynamic equilibrium will make things much more lively.

So what you are saying is that most sceptics are not very scientifically versed, which I can certainly agree on.

225. Greg Kuperberg Says:

There is no consensus that continued emission of CO2 will lead to “more severe storms and flooding, droughts, disruption of the gulf stream”. There just isn’t, despite what some propagandists might like you to believe. There is consensus that CO2 emissions will lead to higher temperatures and higher sea levels – that’s accepted by “skeptics” as well. The point under dispute is HOW MUCH higher.

Well, you have it about half right. I agree with you that the “disruptive weather” concept is a propagandistic interpretation of global warming, unfortunately espoused by people such as the governor of California. The slam-dunk effects of global warming will indeed be higher temperatures and sea-level rise. However, third on the list, maybe not slam dunk but close to it and likely enough in many regions, is an expansion of the dry Horse Latitudes. California will probably see more drought, because more water will evaporate, the snow will melt earlier, and generally the Hadley cell will expand and transport equatorial moisture further north. Because of virtually certain temperature increase and likely drought, California Wine Country is expected to become California Tomato Country.

Predictions about disruption of ocean or air circulation patterns are more speculative.

The other way that you have it about right is that you can’t really say anything about what is accepted by “skeptics”, or I would say, pseudo-skeptics. The real motivation of pseudo-skepticism is to avoid blame, so naturally different people are all over the map in their beliefs; it’s also reasonably standard to argue in the alternative.

On Monday you point out that the rise in atmospheric CO2 really is caused by humans. On Tuesday you point out that global warming isn’t just a deus ex machina from computer models, that infrared absorption is witnessed every day by satellites. On Wednesday you point out that positive feedbacks aren’t an ideological exaggeration, but rather witnessed already and based on solid science. On Thursday you point out that the costs of sea level rise and drought will be very big. On Friday you explain why geoengineering can only be more expensive than not polluting in the first place.

Then the next Monday, some new pseudo-skeptic, or one of the old ones, claims that volcanoes emit more CO2 than people do. Back to square one.

226. Greg Kuperberg Says:

Apparently you didn’t look at the article I linked, there are three graphs, reporting on the average, per household and per capita. The latter numbers are 1,731 in Germany versus 4,517. No idea where you get your numbers since you didn’t include a link.

I used a tool called a “calculator”, to obtain that 4.517/1.731 ~ 2.6.

However, you maybe right or partly right about the effect of climate on electricity consumption. I cut corners when I wrote down that point. Certainly electricity consumption, or energy consumption in general, is going to be high if there are a lot of hot days or if there are a lot of cold days. I don’t know where Germany’s climate stands on this spectrum.

227. Greg Kuperberg Says:

You only need to have rudimentary understanding of thermodynamics, to grasp that higher temperatures in a system far from the thermodynamic equilibrium will make things much more lively.

When I was small, I tested this experimentally by heating an ant with a magnifying glass. The ant got much less lively. The point isn’t this simple. It is believable that hurricanes will intensify, as they are clearly powered by the sun. But this is not the slam-dunk established stuff like sea level rise.

What you are saying is that most sceptics are not very scientifically versed, which I can certainly agree on.

“A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.” — one of my favorite quotes

I have heard of opinion studies that among non-scientists skeptics are actually better versed in climate scientists than believers. (After Mann, I call them pseudo-skeptics; and maybe they should be called pseudo-believers?) Skeptics feel obliged to learn something about climate science so that they can feel expert and know what not to believe. Believers sense an intellectual freedom to believe just about anything in support of the overall point. At least, that’s the thinking about these survey conclusions, which I have not seen first-hand.

But certainly the world is full of wrong-minded people who have learned a little about some important topic, but only enough to have totally untrustworthy opinions. Or in some cases, they’ve learned loads of correct details, superficially; but they just don’t get it, because they never wanted to in the first place.

228. James Gallagher Says:

We’ll get better science and tech to easily combat any effects of global warming, however it is caused.

Stop being silly people.

229. Tony Says:

quax #224

Rudimentary understanding of thermodynamics, eh?

Changes in mean temperature are part of any global warming signal, whereas changes in temperature gradients are primarily associated with El Ninjo.

In fact, global warming lowers the temperature gradients between the equator and the North Pole and slows the jet stream. Whether this may cause more severe storms in mid-latitude is not clear.

Droughts and especially increasing rainfall (and its consequences) are the main examples of potential increase in extreme weather.

230. John Sidles Says:

James Gallagher professes the optimist’s creed:  “We’ll get better science and tech to easily combat any effects of global warming, however it is caused.”

Older Shtetl Optimized readers will marvel at the persistence of this optimism. Don Steiner’s IEEE Spectrum review “Nuclear fusion: focus on tokomak” (1977) confidently foresaw:

US engineers and physicists
will team to attempt commercial fusion
demonstration by the year 2000

A central pulsed electric plant will mark the third phase [of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory fusion research program]—that of a commercial prototype demonstration. A single site might be producing 1500-2000 MWe.

It is estimated that the facility cost for this entire demonstration program is between $2 and$3 billion (in 1976 dollars), and the entire program, including engineering, contingency, and development, and excluding escalation, would be \$10-15 billion, an acceptable price for demonstrating the feasibility of a new energy source.

On the basis of these confidently optimistic technological predictions, roadmaps were laid down, funds were appropriated (in enviable abundance), and the best scientific minds of the latter half of the 20th century set to work.

Meanwhile in the Soviet Union, the (justly) renowned plasma physicist Lev Artsimovich was similarly predicting: “Fusion will be there when society needs it”.

But these predictions were wrong, weren’t they?

Conclusion  Today’s technological optimists share the faith of Robert Heinlein’s young-adult novel Tunnel in the Sky (1955)

“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.”

Open questions  Can technologically viable “fifth ways” be found, sufficient to create a carbon-neutral global energy economy? Will feasible, scalable quantum computing similarly require “fifth way” ideas?

The world wonders. No one knows for sure, because getting the engineering to work commonly is far harder, and takes far longer, than getting the math-and-science to work.

231. Amy Says:

JollyJoker #212 – well, I agree, it does sound oldfashioned — but there’s good reason for it. If we were Portugal, maybe not. But most of our energy is still coming from fossil fuels. And, frankly, I remain skeptical about the wisdom of pulling as much energy as we already pull from a thin slice of the lower atmosphere in wind energy. Ain’t nothing fo’ free, and we have a bad habit, as a species, of deciding that the earth is very very big and whatever we’re doing can’t possibly make any consequential difference. And being seriously wrong.

Scott #200 – my apologies, sorry about the drive-by. Which I hadn’t actually meant as one. (Sorry.) It just occurred to me, as I was thinking about the conversations, that only one of the “don’t be silly, conservation is meaningless” conversations I’d had was with a woman. But it’s also men who’ve also been more interested in talking with me about nuts/bolts of what I’ve been doing to reduce energy use here. And that by itself may be an issue, if we’re talking domestic energy consumption. If women tune out and say “I don’t want to deal with that, my husband handles (or insists on handling) all thermostat/energy issues”, then that’s a lot of people not involved. I hadn’t actually thought about that before.

It matters, too. I’ve got this little efergy whole-house electricity monitor on my kitchen counter, updating every six seconds, which means that when I work in the kitchen, as I’m doing now (I’m short enough for the counter to make a nice stand-up desk), I can watch the numbers jump. Which has made me very much aware of my house as a collection of systems. The number just changed — what turned on? I hadn’t thought, before last winter, much about the fact that there’s a blower fan on the furnace, much less about how much electrical energy it consumes. (A lot, as it turns out.)

I don’t mind imagining house infrastructure — the ducts, furnace, pipes, wires — or thinking about how appliances work (or fixing them, for that matter); but I think in most households that’s still the husband’s domain. Meaning that as we develop STEM ed materials for girls, it might be a very good idea to use home systems in writing modules and materials.

Which I can do.

This is being a useful conversation. Gender is everywhere, aargh! O.o

232. Amy Says:

Greg #203 –

However, if the goal is to BOTH solve global warming AND denuclearize, then it’s just not enough. The unavoidable truth is that it would kick the legs out of carbon-free electricity if we ended nuclear power.

I agree, and I also agree with Lovelock that at least in the short term we have no choice. The problem is that if you start building new plants, you’re talking about a half-century commitment at least — we don’t decommission those things for nothing.

Jay #204 mentions the reprocessing issue and I…well, I think he’ll find plenty of agreement in what radiochemical circles exist. But they’re not the ones regulating this stuff. As for the transmutation issue, which someone else brought up, yes, there’s research going on. In fact I just edited a related paper. Suppertime, more on that in a bit.

233. Amy Says:

I want to thank John Sidles for the reminder of Wendell Berry, whom I’d better read again. I’d forgotten. (And tokomak, heh. I remember doing a report on tokomak in grade school a very long time ago. Introduced me to the word “toroidal”.)

About a year ago I dug out my mother’s corduroy-covered Intermediate Girl Scout Handbook – this was from before the days of Daisies and Cadettes and the like, let alone constant excursions for the girls in minivan fleets. I was struck by how civic the presumptions were — some of the badge and activity requirements involved things like going hunting through the neighborhoods for shut-ins and then rather charmingly and insistently helping out, making cards, baking cookies, bringing groceries by, keeping company. In remarkable contrast are the sentiments expressed by a conservative radio host in California about tiered water pricing.

I said something upthread about how smoking had become rude; it occurs to me that there are positive things that have become markers of community participation, the opposite of rudeness. In general they have to do with giving: canned food to the pantry, winter clothes to the shelter, blood to the blood bank, that sort of thing. But we don’t have a community sensibility related to conservation, maybe in part because it’s been politicized — here come the jackbooted thugs to take away your nice showerhead and force you to use low-flow, or to recycle or compost. It seems to me, though, that the resentment about these things winds up collecting in a relatively small corner, and that most people wind up accepting them as part of normal life. Still, though, there isn’t really a civic spirit about it.

I’m guessing there’s much to be learned from food and blood banks on this score. I bet it helps that you always hear about these drives from the stodgiest community institutions around: schools, banks, hospitals.

Just noodling.

On the topic of lower pop growth, btw – I’ve finally gotten around to Piketty’s doorstop, and he very pointedly points to lower population growth as a kick in the pants to economic growth and its consequence, which is that capital becomes far more economically and socially important. Not done reading it, though.

About divestment: I get wincy-face about this, recalling earlier divestment movements, in particular the apartheid one in the 80s. I find it difficult to believe that divestment is an effective means of dealing with the problem, particularly in a time of desperate yield-chasing. As a part of broadcasting overall opprobrium from the powerful, a sort of super-twitterstorm (!), though, maybe it has some value. Maybe. Can it hurt, probably not. Can it leave you looking silly, probably. I guess it depends then on whether or not you care about that.

234. quax Says:

Tony #229, sorry I am not buying it, higher mean temp will mean more thermal energy is in the system, and it’s absurd to think that this will go hand in hand with a push towards more of an equilibrium.

For the longest time we’ve seen obfuscation weather the temp is actually rising. Now that this can no longer be denied, without looking like a complete fool, it has moved on to obfuscating the consequences.

235. quax Says:

Greg, #227

It is believable that hurricanes will intensify, as they are clearly powered by the sun. But this is not the slam-dunk established stuff like sea level rise.

That’s my point, back in the eighties, people started to point out that due to the CO2 accumulation will most likely cause, and may already have effected, a rise in world mean temperature. This was based on rather simple modeling of the greenhouse effect.

The current discussion about the intensifying of weather events is on a similar level at this point.

What remains true, regardless, is that it is not prudent to experiment with our planet’s climate in this manner.

236. Gil Kalai Says:

Dear John (#189), thanks!

237. jane Says:

Amy #233

http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/2804102.html

This may be of interest.

And as to population growth supporting economic growth and playing a role in reducing the wealth flowing to capital by increasing the share earned by labour,couldn’t it also be the case that, as here in the UK,we have a growing economy,a rapidly increasing population and a labour force which is increasingly reliant on poorly paid,insecure employment?
So GDP increases but pay differentials rise at the same time?
(A relative works at the London Stock Exchange-her boss earns 6 figures plus share options, bonuses,travel advantages,etc.All norms in the financial world.)
Overall the share going to the labour force might increase relative to capital,but more goes to those at the top; a direct result of our governments’ policies.
So wealth is still concentrated in the hands of a few.
And GDP measures now include the proceeds of prostitution and drug dealing-probably not providing much in the way of tax returns-but grist to the mill for the Treasury analysts.
Critics point to the external costs of rising GDP don’t they and emphasise that we don’t count the costs to natural capital in standard GDP measures.
http://www.wri.org/blog/2010/04/measuring-what-matters-gdp-ecosystems-and-environment

I’m a Food Bank volunteer by the way,not really relevant to this discussion but touching on your mention of community enterprise.

Austerity measures have devastated lives here and the Food Bank network has spread in response.

And finally kerb side collections for recycling and more recently, food recycling for composting,have had a reasonably positive uptake in my area; people do cooperate although it does take time ; many are still resistant to the idea of food recycling.

The local council emphasises the need to reduce waste and counter climate change in its pamphlets but most of the recycling is either taken by lorry to UK depots many miles away or exported by ship to countries in south asia.

Not quite sure what this achieves in terms of carbon emissions versus waste reduction; we do it as it has become expected of us and we want to play our part but the implications of all this are quite mind bending.

238. John Sidles Says:

Amy “I want to thank John Sidles for the reminder of Wendell Berry, whom I’d better read again.”

Lol … yes, if we follow Scott’s recommendation (#181) to heed people who “produce high-quality technical work”, then we have to take seriously Fields Medalist Cédric Villani’s quotation from the great mathematician-engineer Henri Poincaré

“There are some novels that for a mathematician will be worth one hundred books of geometry.”

See “Shakespeare and Company: Interview with Cédric Villani and Michael Harris”, at minute 45:10. This thoughtful Villani/Harris dialog, which speaks to multiple Shtetl Optimized concerns, is highly recommended [by me anyway].

Alas, history does not record (or at least, Villani does not say) which novels earned Poincaré’s high esteem.

In Quaker-lect, geometry books speak explicitly, novels speak implicitly.

From this Poincaré/Villani/Berry/Friendly perspective, a great shortcoming of market-fundamentalism is that it over-values the explicit, and discounts the implicit.

Prediction  As the mathematical notions of universality and naturality deepen and widen, the day is nigh in which “there are some books of geometry that for a writer will be worth one hundred novels.”

Which “books of geometry” will these be? That is what the great HoTT/UF debate is largely about.

239. Tony Says:

quax #234

Would you ‘buy’ that winds at the surface of Venus are slower than on Earth or that it has less lightning in the atmosphere?

You seem to have built up a Hollywood movies based mental image of a catastrophe that must have a big ‘boom’ and be accompanied with lots of special effects, whereas the drive toward the equilibrium (which is Second Law of Thermodynamics) is imagined as something too peaceful to go with that image.

BTW, what I wrote were almost literal citations from:

http://www.climatecentral.org/gallery/graphics/climate-change-the-jet-stream

http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/JCLI-D-14-00140.1

and

http://www.skepticalscience.com/How-we-know-were-causing-global-warming-in-single-graphic.html

Can you post references to back up your claims?

240. Jay Says:

Amy and John, you both have many advanced opinions that you’d like to share and discuss. But you may have noticed that several readers here are annoyed when your writings, even the best writings you can do, are not really relevant to the discussion. Or maybe you didn’t notice? May I respectfuly suggest you start your own blog for this kind of material?

241. Jay Says:

Quax 224,

“You only need to have rudimentary understanding of thermodynamics, to grasp that higher temperatures in a system far from the thermodynamic equilibrium will make things much more lively.”

Do you consider a potential disruption of the gulf stream as according to this general prediction?

242. jane Says:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-33132569

Now seems likely that a site will be approved for test fracking in England.

An awful lot of public disquiet and much opposition to date.

Apparently the natural gas obtained produces lower carbon emissions than coal,but there substantial concerns about effects on ground water, air pollution,noise, and invasion of rural areas with knock-on effects for wildlife and the countryside.

The Tory government is determined that this shall go ahead.

243. quax Says:

Jay, #241, yes breakdown of long held dynamic equilibria fits the bill.

244. quax Says:

Tony, #239 to just quote from a thermodynamics text book

“In dynamic equilibria forces fluctuate at every instant, but the forces are balanced on average over finite durations and finite parts of the system.”

They are metastable i.e. exhibit some stability towards perturbation, as long as the perturbation fluctuation remains within certain energy bounds. An increase of the overall energy of a non-equilibrium system will under most circumstances increase the risk that there will be perturbations that eventually exceed this stability energy threshold.

None of this is rocket science, and you don’t need a complex climate model to understand the risk.

Attempting to discuss the minutia is exactly the same kind of obfuscation strategy that used to be applied to the initial denying of the reality of climate change. I have absolutely no interest to waste my time on this, you can find somebody else to play that game with.

Nice try with regards to Venus though. That the atmospheric pressure there is 90 times that of earth will of course have nothing to do with it. Overall I think it would be a splendid idea to invite climate change deniers to move there.

245. John Sidles Says:

The mathematical gist of quax’ remarks (of #244), in regard to the contraints that thermodynamics imposes upon dynamics, are well-supported in chapter 1, section 2.4 of Cédric Villani’s book-length survey article “A review of mathematical topics in collisional kinetic theory” (2002), which appeared in Handbook of Mathematical Fluid Dynamics (Elsevier, 2002)

“So-called gradient flows [are] partial differential equations of the form $$\partial f/\partial t = \nabla E(f)$$, for some entropy’ functional E and some gradient structure. For such an equation, in some sense the entropy functional encodes all the properties of the flow …

The main, deep reason for the fact that the Boltzmann equation cannot be seen as a gradient flow, is the fact that the collision operator depends only on the velocity space; but even if we restrict ourselves to solutions which do not depend on space, then the Boltzmann equation is not (to the best of our knowledge) a gradient flow […] the lack of gradient flow structure contributes to the mathematical difficulty of the Boltzmann equation.”

Villani’s remarks apply not only to Boltzmann dynamics, but broadly to the dynamical systems that occur in nature. As Ingo Müller puts it in his two book-length survey articles “Entropy: a subtle concept in thermodynamics” and “Entropy in nonequilibrium”, which appeared in Entropy (Princeton University Press, 2003)

“When gradients are steep and rates of change are large we need a theory that can treat processes far from equilibrium. […] Entropic principles have been pressed into service: the maximum entropy principle, or the principle of minimum entropy production, or the minmax principle of entropy production.

None of these principles is universally accepted and perhaps they are not here to stay.

But they seem to belong to an account of the uses of entropy, if only to exhibit the aspects of entropy that are currently being discussed.”

Summary  In regard to the three-tier hierarchy of scientific climate-change understanding (of comment #161), the reviews of Villani and of Muller affirm that dynamics-from-entropy arguments belong to a fourth, weakest tier. In effect, the summary (of comment #161) extends as follows:

Scientific disciplines vary in predictive power. In the case at hand, namely anthropogenic climate change, the main line of scientific reasoning is grounded:

(1)  primarily in thermodynamics,

(2)  secondarily in the palaeo evidence, and

(3)  tertiarily in computer models and
recent observations.

(4)  most weakly (by far) in gradient-flow models
associated to entropy functions.

It may interest Shtetl Optimized readers to appreciate that diligent unraveling of the above entropy references by Cédric Villani and by Ingo Müller, will lead curious STEAM students to *ALL* of references that have appeared in my comments, including the works of climatologist James Hansen and conservationist Wendell Berry, and especially including the works of mathematicians William Lawvere, Michael Harris, and the entire HoTT/UF enterprise.

This unravelling begins by asking “How are the standard works of STEAM pedagogy transformed, when considerations of universality and naturality are maximally substituted for considerations of physicality”. Then the unraveling proceeds by the path that Villani’s and Harris’ dialog (of comment #238) admirably describes as follows:

When I search for a theorem, I systematically search for something unexpected and rather miraculous. […]

People in the engineering of GPS, in the end, do not use any theorem from general relativity. But knowing it is there helps their understanding … it’s often like this. […]

Beauty comes with an element of surprise … to describe this surprise we require literary techniques.

Conclusion  STEAM students who diligently seek answers to the question “What elements of my scientific understanding are mathematically universal and computationally natural?” will transform their appreciation of anthropogenic climate-change … and many other subjects too.

246. Tony Says:

quax #244

Jesus, I didn’t know all those people whose works I cited were deniers.

Okay, I tried to pull that trick with the pressure, but you noticed it thanks to your good understanding of thermodynamics. Hey, I admit, I tried. Didn’t work.

I really wish you the best of luck. May you become the man in charge of MIT’s response to environmental issues.

247. Jay Says:

#188 #241

“It is VERY UNLIKELY that the MOC [the gulf stream] will undergo a large abrupt transition during the 21st century. Longer-term changes in the MOC cannot be assessed with confidence.”

https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/spmsspm-projections-of.html

248. quax Says:

Jay #247, if this was to happen 100, 200 or 300 years in the future doesn’t really matter, unless you don’t give a s*** about the people who will be around then. Climate change disruption will by its very nature play out on such long time scales, and we risk to trigger tipping points (e.g. permafrost methane release) that will shut the door on any stabilization of the climate at the current level.

249. anonymous Says:

@ Amy 231

“If women tune out and say “I don’t want to deal with that, my husband handles (or insists on handling) all thermostat/energy issues”

—————————

Yes, it really sets me off when my wife violates our well-established patriarchal rules regarding energy issues. I *insist* on handling them! LOL

250. anonymous Says:

@ Amy 231

“I don’t mind imagining house infrastructure…but I think in most households that’s still the husband’s domain.”

————————

Evidence? Oh right, this is well-known, and you’re not my personal librarian. LOL

My mother pushed for better windows to improve heat retention in our household (oh, and controlled the thermostat like a dictator). My wife is similarly concerned about energy usage (and the consequent utility bill), and this has rubbed off on me. Whose anecdotal evidence is better?

Never mind! Let’s just change educational policy based on your observations.

————————

“Meaning that as we develop STEM ed materials for girls, it might be a very good idea to use home systems in writing modules and materials.”

————————

In terms of signal-to-noise ratio in postings, you give John Sidles a run for his money (but lack the nice formatting touches he provides).

251. Jay Says:

No Quax, the point is not “we know it will happen and just don’t know when”, the point is: “we have absolutly no idea if MOC will change in the long term, and in which direction it will change, if it change at all”.

By we I mean: the scientists that likely have the best available opinion on this topic. Your own opinion differs? Good for you, but please just don’t pretend it’s basic thermodynamics or it’s the scientific concensus. I’ve just proved it’s not, by providing a link to the IPCC reports that anyone can read.

Also, please don’t pretend thinking otherwise means I don’t give a shit about the people who will be around. This is offensive, and doesn’t make your opinion less unsupported that it is.

252. John Sidles Says:

quax observes “Climate change disruption will by its very nature play out on such long [millennial] time scales”

The Vatican, much more than global corporations and elected politicians, thoughtfully appreciates the cumulative impact of climate-change on multi-century time-scales.

For example, the Pantheon of Rome, which has seen continuous use since its dedication in 126 AD, sits only 10 meters above sea-level. Thus the Pantheon will survive for a similar period in the future, only if the mean sea-level rise-rate can be held to less than 5.2 mm/year.

The present rise-rate is 3.5 mm/year … accelerating in the last few years as the Greenland and West Antarctic ice-sheets begin to slide (as gravimetric satellites are showing us). So from the Vatican’s perspective, present carbon burn-rates suffice to ensure the doom of the Pantheon (along with many low-lying islands, cities and states around the world).

Pope Francis’ long-anticipated climate-change encyclical — to appear in its final form later this week — will provide a reasoned, science-respecting, morally grounded perspective upon these climate-change considerations.

What counter-arguments will arch-skeptics present? Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee’s much-cited, free-as-in-freedom survey “Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?” (European Journal of Public Health, 2009) surveys the past history of arch-skepticism.

These authors identify the following traits as characteristic of arch-skepticism:

• conspiracy theories, and
• fake experts, and
• cherry-picking, and
• impossible expectations, and
• misrepresentation of facts, and
• logical fallacies.

Conclusion The arch-skeptical response to Francis’ encyclical very likely will present all of the above anti-science traits.

Kudos to Shtetl Optimized for taking a public stance against anti-science arch-skepticism.

253. jane Says:

http://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/inoculating-science-denial/

Interesting blog post on ways to counter science-denial by using inoculation theory-which I’ve never heard of before.

254. anonymous Says:

@ quax (comment 248)

“… you don’t give a s*** about the people who will be around then.”

————————-

Your emotional response has convinced me! Now, can we finally get back to talking about that lego set?

255. John Sidles Says:

Shtetl Optimized readers who respect Amy’s social justice concerns, and respect also Scott’s logical acuity, and enjoy too Amy and Scott’s shared predilection for rhetoric that is “peppery and to the point”, are likely to enjoy an interview that the Harvard Divinity School’s house magazine Cosmologic published under the title “Naomi Oreskes: Environmentalism at the Vatican” (Aug 7, 2014).

The Cosmologic interview gives the back-story to Prof. Oreskes’ lecture at the 2014 Vatican conference Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility. Oreskes’ lecture (one of dozens) was titled “Scientific consensus and the role and character of scientific sissent” (on-line as YouTube video #bXS6X3P0sVU at 08:07:10).

Summary  Folks wondering who provided the scientific grist for Pope Francis’ moral mill — grist entirely consonant with Amy’s social justice concerns and Scott’s objective (of #200) to “transcend backgrounds and build a global shtetl” —will find plenty of science-respecting reasoning and friendly humor in Oreskes’ on-line Vatican lecture.

Good on`yah for achieving the trifecta of solid science, foresighted applications to justice, and good-natured wit, Naomi Oreskes!

256. quax Says:

anonymous #254 you’re skillful edit of my conditional statement to turn it into a declarative insult totally convinced me that I want to talk Lego with you. Come on over any time.

257. anonymous Says:

@ quax

“if this was to happen 100, 200 or 300 years in the future doesn’t really matter, unless you don’t give a s*** about the people who will be around then.” — comment 248

——————–

“you’re [sic] skillful edit of my conditional statement to turn it into a declarative insult…” — comment 256

——————–

I see! You weren’t *declaring* the insult, you were *conditioning* it on an individual holding a particular view. A view not disputed by the IPCC report.

Well, then your style of debate is great for discussing issues… unless you care about persuading a person by addressing the substance of their argument.

(Note: I used a conditional statement, so it’s not insulting, right?)

258. Tyranny of the Or Says:

Quax @ 256,

He said: “It is VERY UNLIKELY that the MOC [the gulf stream] will undergo a large abrupt transition during the 21st century. Longer-term changes in the MOC cannot be assessed with confidence.”

You said: “if this [that the gulf stream abruptly transitions] was to happen 100, 200 or 300 years in the future doesn’t really matter, unless you don’t give a s*** about the people who will be around then.”

Conditional statement vs clear insult? Can’t it be both? 😉

259. John Sidles Says:

anonymous presumes (#257) that  “[Shtetl Optimized readers] care about persuading a person by addressing the substance of their argument.”

In regard to persuasion, commenter jane (#253) has already pointed to the large body of cognitive science and sociological studies — summarized on the web-site “Inoculating Against Science Denial” — that affirms the surprising inefficacy of logic and facts as a modality for human persuasion.

To the (excellent) citations on that site, please let me add also Milena Wazeck’s wonderfully complete monograph Einstein’s Opponents (2014). Wazeck’s teaching is that arch-skeptics of Einstein’s relativity theory were never persuaded by logic or observations … their destiny instead was to grow old and die without transmitting their arch-skepticism to the next generation.

As with arch-skepticism of relativity in the 20th century, so with arch-skepticism of climate-science in the 21st century.

A saving grace of the 21st century (perhaps) is Pope Francis’ kinder, gentler discussion of the implications of climate-science, which relies upon persuasion beyond logic and facts. Among the most acute appreciations of Francis’ contributions is this week’s Katharine Hayhoe essay “The Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change — Will Evangelicals Care?” (June 17, 2015), whose observations are commended by many (including me).

In regard to appreciating climate-change rhetoric (and quantum computing rhetoric too) that is “peppery and to the point”, the Mark Twain essay “Journalism In Tennessee” (1871) — the same essay that gave birth to the phrase “peppery and to the point” — eloquently gives voice to the sentiments that inspire Scott to “transcend backgrounds and build a global shtetl”

“The heaven-born mission of journalism is to disseminate truth; to eradicate error; to educate, refine, and elevate the tone of public morals and manners, and make all men more gentle, more virtuous, more charitable, and in all ways better, and holier, and happier.”

Conclusion (from Twain’s essay) “Vigorous writing is calculated to elevate the public, no doubt, but then I do not like to attract so much attention as it calls forth.”

This is a lesson that Scott and Amy and Pope Francis and Mark Twain and Albert Einstein (and many more “peppery” essayists) have learned over-and-over.

Still, we are all of us better off for their admirable “pepper”, which exerts a persuasive influence that bland recitations of facts and logic can never attain.

260. Stephen V Says:

jane #191 (sorry for the delayed reply):

My point here isn’t that “brain hacking will solve everything”, so much as “brain hacking already exists, in a sense, and people will (continue to) use it, with or without considering the consequences.”

Jay #204:

That’s (another) facepalm moment if it’s true… and while it’s a little late here to go wikiwalking to check, it does make some intuitive sense – after all, if something’s radioactive enough to be dangerous, why can’t we try to harness that radioactivity?

261. jane Says:

Stephen V #260

O dear;could be business-as-usual but with speedier,cleverer people doing it : one more thing to worry about.

Please bear with me here,because I’m going away from the immediate discussion topic:

http://www.renewal.org.uk/articles/interview-capitalism-neo-liberalism-and-democracy

I’ve just ordered Professor Streek’s book and what I hope will be taken up here-if anyone is still interested-is whether the free market economics which now prevail will stymie or lead efforts to counter climate change and the other environmental ills facing us.

Prof Streek’s predictions are pretty dire.

Interesting to see Republicans in the US lambasting the Pope for his intervention on climate change.

I always thought-being an atheist British person-that Republicans and the Pope broadly supported the same views: family values;pro-life etc,but a dispute seems to be growing.

Interesting times.

262. quax Says:

anonymous #257

(Note: I used a conditional statement, so it’s not insulting, right?)

Much better, see we are already having a dialog.

John Sidles, is of course entirely right with regards to persuasion. And his referencing of the recent Encyclica is spot on.

My (none-)insult was to point out that this is at its core a moral question, which is why the pope is getting in on the act, and presumably why my (none-)insult hit a nerve.

The sheer fact that the question of MOC impact needs to be studied, is a clear indication that the risk for this is real. Policy deals with risks. We don’t have the luxury to wait for the evidence to be ironclad.

263. jane Says:

Another very interesting study just posted on MAHB blog

264. anonymous Says:

@ quax (comment 262)

“John Sidles, is of course entirely right …”

LOL, then it is beyond contestation! He also grouped Amy with Mark Twain and Albert Einstein, which *might* be a warning…

———

“The sheer fact that the question of MOC impact needs to be studied … ”

Never in dispute, but that’s a nice straw man.

———

” … is a clear indication that the risk for this is real.”

Nobody will ever accuse you of being a logician.

———

“We don’t have the luxury to wait for the evidence to be ironclad.”

Again, a straw man since nobody here is demanding the evidence be ironclad. By all means, study it. But from Jay’s comment 247 citing the IPCC, we are so very far from ironclad:
&nbsp
“It is VERY UNLIKELY that the MOC [the gulf stream] will undergo a large abrupt transition during the 21st century. Longer-term changes in the MOC cannot be assessed with confidence.” — 247
&nbsp
Facts and logic might might seem bland to Sidles (and perhaps you too, given your recent posts), but I’ll take them over this so-called “pepper” any day.

265. John Sidles Says:

anonymous affirms (#264) “It is beyond contestation [that JS is of course entirely right].”

Your kind tribute is not my due, “anonymous”, but rather is deserved by workers who distill juicy rhetoric to dry facts, dry logic, and dry wit. We have already praised the dry wit of Twain (in comment #259), so let us now praise rhetoricians like Trisha Roberts-Miller, whose on-line course-notes “Characteristics of Demagoguery” do so much to distill our appreciation of arch-skeptics like Chris (Monckton) and Tony (Watts).

To the early writings of Michel Foucault we owe our appreciation that these distillations have served to enlarge “the Overton window” of eighteenth century politics sufficiently to politically accomodate Enlightenment Ideals (needless to say, enlarging the Overton window was and remains vital to the progression of the Enlightenment).

In particular, seminal works of the philosophe César Chesneau Dumarsais (1676 1756)) are justly commended by Foucault:

Eighteenth century grammarians well understood the marvelous property of languages to extract wealth from their own poverty. […] Let’s consult Dumarsais, one of the subtlest grammarians of the period:

The same words obviously had to be used in different ways. It’s been found that this admirable expedient could make discourse more energetic and pleasing. Nor has it been overlooked that it could be turned into a game and a source of pleasure. Thus by necessity and by choice, words are often turned away from their original meaning to take on a new one which is more or less removed but that still maintains a connection. This new meaning is called ‘tropological,’ and this conversion, this turning away which produces it, is called a ‘trope.’
— Dumarsais, Les Tropes, 2 vols. (Paris 1818)

In the space created by this displacement, all the forms of rhetoric come to life—the twists and turns, as Dumarsais would put it: catachresis, metonymy, metalepsis, synecdoche, anatonomasis, litotes, metaphors, hypallage, and many other heiroglyphs drawn by the rotation of words into the voluminous mass of language.
— Michel Foucault Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel (1963)

Conclusion  The systematic deconstruction of juicy rhetoric to dry facts, logic, wit, as pioneered by 18th century savants like Dumarsais, and as systematically embraced by 21st century category theorists, serves well the continued purposes of the Enlightenment.

“Anonymous”, for helping Shtetl Optimized readers to appreciate the merits of dry facts and logic, your posts are richly deserving of our thanks. Now pray excuse me from further comments on this subject, as I have some Leslie Nielsen documentaries to deconstruct.

266. quax Says:

anonymous #264

If after a furnace inspection you receive the following note in the mail then it clearly won’t worry you one bit. No reason to take action.

“It is VERY UNLIKELY that your furnace will leak carbon-monoxide and kill you in your sleep within the next year. Longer-term changes to your furnace’s venting system cannot be assessed with confidence.”

267. jane Says:

http://news.stanford.edu/news/2015/june/mass-extinction-ehrlich-061915.html

268. Devil's Advocate Says:

quax #266: Not sure what the problem is. “Very unlikely” to die in my sleep sounds good to me. Consider this in a situation where you either have to go without heating, or pay a large fraction of your income on a remedy.

I would inquire more information, but if this is all I get, I would accept the risk (at least until I’m richer).

269. quax Says:

#268 As Devil’s Advocate it is your duty to say that, even if your entire family’s life is on the line and you could actually afford to limited the risk. (Of course where the analogy breaks down, once you established with certainty that the risk is real, chances are no money in the world that can fix it again).

270. Devil's Advocate Says:

quax #269: Whatever damage an aprupt disruption of the MOC would cause, it will certainly be untrue that “no money in the world can fix it again”. After all, the gulf stream has no intrinsic value, it only has instrumental (economic) value.

In the case of CO poisoning, all I can say we all take risks of death in exchange for money, or things with value that can be measured in money. Go outside, you can be hit by a car. Obviously, the probability and the amount of damage are what matters, in comparison to the cost of risk reduction.

I don’t think it makes sense for anyone who would be affected by the MOC disruption to pay the cost needed to lower the (already small) risk, because I think that cost is too high and the risk small enough.

271. yme Says:

Devil’s Advocate #270: I don’t think I agree that money could certainly fix any problems caused by climate change. If one person has a problem, he can pay someone else to fix it for him if he has enough money. If the whole world has a problem, what are we going to do? Give everyone more money?

272. Devil's Advocate Says:

yme #271: Depends on the problem. Let’s say you fear a higher probability of more destructive hurricanes. With more money, you can built sturdier houses and more bunkers. Or let’s say you fear it gets too hot in the summer in some regions. With more money, you can build better housing with internal climate control. Or let’s say you fear crop failure due to changed climate. With more money, you can build vertical farms, or invent more resistant crops. Or let’s say you fear loss of fresh water reserves. With more money, you can desalinate more sea water and transport it inland. Or let’s say you fear loss of coastal regions. With more money, you can built better fortifications against floods, more housing inland or even create artifcial islands or underwater cities.

Now, the thing about money is that it can create more money, if it is invested properly. The process in which this happens relies on innovations, knowledge and making more and/or more capable human capital.

273. yme Says:

Devil’s Advocate #272: I agree that innovation, knowledge and more and/or more capable human capital are very important. But they’re not the only important things. Another important thing is the difficulty of the problems that they hope to solve. It’s not as if they will automatically solve all problems, provided you “invest properly,” which you make sound easy. Some problems are simply very hard.

274. yme Says:

In any case, I do agree that “very unlikely to be a problem” is about the best one can hope for. No furnace inspector is going to guarantee, with 100% certainty, that your furnace won’t kill you.

275. Devil's Advocate Says:

yme #273: The point about investment is that climate change prevention typically costs money (otherwise it wouldn’t be so politically hard to get done), and this money is then no longer available for research. So you have a real tradeoff in solution strategies, not just a greed vs. caring story. Of course, you are right that not all problems are solvable; if we turned Earth into a second Venus, no technology could help us (unless we figure out how to live on Venus). But I don’t think the MOC and similar disruptions are of that magnitude.

276. Mark Srednicki Says:

One issue not mentioned is that divesting costs money in increased management fees. If you divest, you can’t buy plain vanilla index products (for stocks or bonds). I don’t know how much of this MIT does, but I would be surprised if they did none (and they would almost certainly be better off if they did a lot more, which is another story). Any consequent increase in management costs (and it won’t be zero!) will be charged annually, forever. It’s impossible to judge whether the Overton window shift that you get is worth the amount that you are paying for it without knowing what that amount is.