Archive for October, 2009


Pass the Information, Please

October 24, 2009

Have food phobias?  Some people are terrified of mayonnaise, others Jello… {Food on Shine}Sweden, one of the most fish-and-mayonnaise-eatingest countries I visited last month, is conducting an experiment by putting CO2 emissions labels on their food products. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. Judging by the sheer girth and heft of the average American tush, coupled with our long available nutritional data, I’m not terribly optimistic that carbon footprint information will change behavior. Far better to do something exotic like encourage people to have fun doing the right thing. Either that, or to offer full release massages to your employees. Or both.


Skydiving for the Earthbound

October 23, 2009

This fun article over at the Atlantic offers some nice tales about amateur mushroom hunting, a quasi-dangerous past-time that I used to engage in often, but that parenthood has kept me from pursuing more ambitiously. I’m told that the season this year was terrible, but next year, let’s hope for better. Local Coloradoans might consider joining the Colorado Mycological Society. I’ve been on one foray with them, and they have some pretty well informed members.


Mr. Fix It

October 23, 2009

Keith Kloor kindly baits me with this thoughtful post.  How can I resist a reply?

The first step in understanding my position may come through somewhat more formal channels.  I recently published an essay at Science Progress.  That essay is primarily on ocean fertilization, though some of the arguments can be parlayed to geoengineering more generally.

But that’s not all…

Read the rest of this entry ?


Misreading the Point

October 23, 2009

Not sure where Steve McIntyre gets this from:

Yamal Already a “Standard”?
Another possible argument was raised by Ben Hale, supposedly drawing on realclimate: that Yamal was already “standard” prior to Briffa. This is totally untrue – Polar Urals was the type site for this region prior to Briffa 2000.

I didn’t suggest anything of the sort. I said that the burden of proof is on McIntyre. I remain agnostic on the history. I remain agnostic on the science. Truth be told, I’m not even sure I understand what he means when he says that I said “Yamal was already ‘standard’ prior to Briffa,” so I find it difficult to understand how this could be my position.

Maybe someone can explain to me what McIntyre is after, but from my vantage, it looks a lot like he misses the point. The point should be a simple one: if he wants to demonstrate a failure in the science, he has to do so through the formal, albeit flawed, channels. Very few readers of his blog are qualified to judge whether what he’s saying makes sense; and it is definitely true (a) that there are some qualified people who object to his methods, and (b) that there are some people in the world who are meticulous enough to back up crazy ideas with lots and lots of numbers. Both of these facts cast suspicion on what he, or anybody else for that matter, writes. Thus, we have formalized systems of peer comment and review.  You can read all about it at the three, relatively hot, hockey stick threads here, here, and here.


Dangerous People

October 22, 2009

I really object to this list of the so-called “most dangerous global warming deniers.” It’s not that I want to defend the people on this list. Most of them are complete nitwits. It’s that I think that vilifying people is terribly counterproductive, and perhaps generative of danger. I am reminded of repeated calls for the heads of university professors. I think those on that list will attest that this kind of politics is nasty and unhelpful.

Sure, some people can be dangerous, but most of the time, they’re just people. Focus on the ideas, on the issues, on the positions. Oh, I know, doing so is not as much fun. Many times it can be extremely frustrating. In cases where policy decisions matter, it can feel that the position another advocates is, and therefore that they who hold and defend that position are, dangerous. But I have to believe that it doesn’t help matters to single out dangerous people.

Carry on.


Foot Fighting and Dog Balls

October 22, 2009

Here’s an outrageous thesis from New Yorker fluff-daddy Malcolm Gladwell. The upshot?  Football is injurious to the health of a player. Dogfighting is similarly injurious. Lo, some spectators love to watch that stuff.  Ergo, maybe they’re the same?

Check out this winning quote:

At the core of the C.T.E. research is a critical question: is the kind of injury being uncovered by McKee and Omalu incidental to the game of football or inherent in it? Part of what makes dogfighting so repulsive is the understanding that violence and injury cannot be removed from the sport. It’s a feature of the sport that dogs almost always get hurt.

True. But that’s not the core distinction between dogfighting and football. Another core distinction is that dogs don’t volunteer themselves to be stuck in cramped rings to tough it out with their enemies.

I have my affections for Gladwell’s work, but then… yeah, well, read it for yourself.


NPR on Limbaugh and Revkin

October 22, 2009

NPR is on the case.  Andrew Sullivan posts a nice commentary from one of his readers:

It was as if NPR decided that, instead of giving Limbaugh more attention, they would give the attention largely to his innocent victim. It seems sort of jujitsu–turn Limbaugh’s energy against him by promoting exactly what he attacks.


India In, India Out

October 22, 2009

Friend, colleague, philosopher, and co-conspirator Andrew Light posts this hopeful report over at the Center for American Progress. Friend, colleague, policy scientist, and co-conspirator Roger Pielke Jr. disagrees.

Light and authors are hopeful that “India may be the country that provides the necessary breakthrough in international negotiations to help developed and developing countries reach an agreement.”  Roger and Pielke are more pessimistic, given these obstructionist comments from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: “No way.”

(Singh didn’t actually say that.  I paraphrase.  But, as we’ve seen, quotes can be a barrel of fun.  Singh actually said this: “”Developing countries cannot and will not compromise on development.”)

Who to believe?  What to do?  Shall I intervene?

The truth clearly lies somewhere in the middle: that international agreement options for developing nations at Copenhagen are not off the table, even though Singh implies they are; and that all of the options for developing nations are not on the table, even though Ramesh implies that they are. The idea, I take it, is that India will play, but maybe not play casually (whatever that means).  My impression is that apparently mixed messages work like this in politics.

This can be chalked up to the quick movement of statements, as well as the context in which the statements are uttered. I often challenge my students not to gravitate immediately toward apparent contradictions in statements — though this is an important skill too — but rather to engage in a bit of low-impact mental contortionism. I urge them to try to reconcile apparently contradictory statements. It’s a wee bit more difficult when you have multiple speakers, like Ramesh and Singh, as individual speakers often genuinely disagree, but when you’re talking about the utterances and whispers of an administration, I think we can nevertheless make sense of these claims.

Singh is signalling the dedication of his developing nation to development, implying that this means no agreement in Copenhagen. Ramesh, by leaking the memo, is signalling the dedication of his department to smart development, implying that this means yes agreement in Copenhagen. There’s no reason these two positions can’t be reconciled. Both positions can support development; the question is, rather, over what kind of development.

Policy positions change.  Singh wants to lay down the law. Ramesh is trying to get Singh to change his tune, to free his mind and allow his ass to follow, as any person in an advisory position might do.  There are clearly pressures pushing both ways internal to the Indian government, just as there are pressures pushing both ways among my friends and colleagues. Nothing so crazy about that.

Beer summit, anyone?


The Woes of Oscar

October 22, 2009

Now how, exactly, is the new San Francisco law prohibiting the reckless disposal of food scraps supposed to work when so many poor monsters are dependent upon leftover trimmings for nutrition? This is clearly an inconsiderate strike against the interests of our lovable curmudgeon.  The grouch will have nothing to nosh on. He’ll go hungry, I say! He’ll stave, only to emerge weeks later — emaciated, chartreuse, and rail-thin — to terrify kids and spew all manner of hate-filled nonsense on freakishly-large birds with imaginary woolly mammoth friends.

What is he to do? Is he to eat plastic? Is he, woefully unqualified, suddenly to take bottom-of-the-trash-bin jobs photosynthesizing our waste?  Or will he be forever relegated to a life of crime, forced to steal cookies from other, more fortunate, monsters? What, pray tell, is the grouch to do when food scraps are pillaged from our waste stream?

There is no justice in this world.


The Fix Is Spin

October 21, 2009

Boy, the blogosphere is all a twitter with discussion of geoengineering.  Gotta hand it to Levitt and Dubner for that, even if they’ve run the wrong way. I really enjoyed this post on geoengineering over at Real Climate, more or less following up on the Romm/Levitt&Dubner/Pielke/Caldeira flap from earlier in the week.

A lot of my scholarly work explores the ethical dimensions of various remediation technologies — including, but not limited to, geoengineering — so it is always illuminating for me to read other related commentaries on science, economics, governance, and public policy.  Gavin offers some nice answers to questions that I think rest at the surface of this incredibly complex question.  Is geoengineering really cheap? Is it a fix? Is there a moral hazard? and so on. I particularly appreciated this bit of wisdom:

It is precisely because climate modellers understand that climate models do not provide precise predictions that they have argued for a reduction in the forces driving climate change. The existence of a near-perfect climate model is therefore a sine qua non for responsible geo-engineering, but should such a model exist, it would likely alleviate the need for geo-engineering in the first place since we would know exactly what to prepare for and how to prevent it.

I think this is an underreported dimension of the debate. It’s not the certainty of climate change that has people worried, it’s the uncertainty.  That’s a nice way of looking at things.

(ADDENDUM: Roger takes issue with the last sentence of this quote, and I have to say, I agree with him.  It is not the case that simply having all the facts will be enough to tell us “what to prepare for and how to prevent it.”  Not only would we have to have a clear sense of our collective priorities, but we’d also have to have a sense of how these priorities shift in the face of shifting conditions, which will largely be determined by the decisions of humans.  It’s arguable whether these other considerations are “factor-outable,” since they apply in both scenarios, but I take Roger’s criticism seriously.  Indeed, it is closely related to the reason that I’m concerned with below, that geoengineering technologies, while imperfect now, hold out promise that they can be vastly improved in such a way so as to override risks.  To wit…)

At one point, however, Gavin cites Deltoid’s cynicism when he shrugs his shoulders and writes “What could possibly go wrong?,” presumably implying that a great deal could go wrong.  The implication, of course, is that we simply don’t have technical know-how to control the climate in the right way, and so the risks of undertaking any geoengineering strategy are too great.

I think this discussion misses the point.  Here’s the problem: focusing on what could go wrong doesn’t answer the question about how we might eventually get things right.  It is conceivable, albeit far from likely, that some engineering genius could design a technology that would work perfectly, that would model the world perfectly, that would anticipate every butterfly and raindrop.  Supposing that this were to come to pass, that the geoengineering technology could then perfectly and without question generate a better world (in general), would geoengineering then be permissible?  I can’t help but feel that it would still not be permissible, even if we got the technology to work perfectly well.

The problem is that we ought not to exert such control over our climate, even if we can do so with extreme precision.  Doing so introduces incredibly complex moral problems that we can hardly begin to fathom.

A more interesting quote from Deltoid is this one:

The point they are trying to make is that geoengineering is a more cost-effective solution than mitigation. Which is wrong. It might be cheaper, but you don’t get the same result.

This, of course, is absolutely right.  What you get with geoengineering is a dramatically different earth; an earth that has a climate for which we are now responsible.  In years past, we could say when a hurricane strikes a city that the hurricane was a force of nature.  If we undertake geoengineering, we won’t be able to say that with a straight face. We may even be liable for shifting the trajectory of hurricanes, for shifting the burden of drought and famine, among many other things.