28 October 2010

If it is not True and not False, then What is It?

The Guardian reports that the British Advertising Standards Authority -- an independent body recognized by government that adjudicates claims of truth or falsity in advertising -- has ruled that the advertisement shown above from Oxfam is not false.  Here is the explanation in full:
The ASA understood that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), was considered, through its work collating data from peer reviewed climate science papers internationally, to be the world's most authoritative source of information on climate science. Taking into account statements issued by other national and international bodies with expertise in climate science, we considered there was a robust consensus amongst them that there was extremely strong evidence for human induced climate change. We noted that the part of Oxfam's claim that stated "Our politicians have the power to help get a climate deal back on track ... let's sort it here and now" made a link between human action and climate change.

We noted that Oxfam had supplied a WHO fact sheet which had been published in January 2010 and which stated "Globally, the number of reported weather-related natural disasters has more than tripled since the 1960s. Every year, these disasters result in over 60,000 deaths, mainly in developing countries" and confirmation from WHO that that position still, in June 2010, reflected WHO's assessment of the situation. We noted that that statement reflected findings set out in more detail in WHO's publication "The World Health Report 2002 Reducing Risks, Promoting Healthy Life", which stated "Climate change was estimated to be responsible in 2000 for approximately 2.4% of worldwide diarrhoea, 6% of malaria in some middle income countries and 7% of dengue fever in some industrialized countries. In total, the attributable mortality was 154 000 (0.3%) deaths ..." and WHO's 2009 publication "GLOBAL HEALTH RISKS - Mortality and burden of disease attributable to selected major risks", which stated "Climate change was estimated to be already responsible for 3% of diarrhoea, 3% of malaria and 3.8% of dengue fever deaths worldwide in 2004. Total attributable mortality was about 0.2% of deaths in 2004; of these, 85% were child deaths". We noted that those statistics were broken down in more detail according to cause and region in WHO's 2004 publication, "Comparative Quantification of Health Risks." We also noted that the IPCC Report's position was that changes in weather trends had led to increased disease.

We noted that Oxfam's claim was reasonably restrained in that it stated deaths were occurring at the present time as a result of climate change but that it did not claim specific numbers of deaths were attributable and it did not speculate about future numbers of deaths. Because of that, and because of the consensus that we considered already existed amongst climate scientists that there was extremely strong evidence for human induced climate change, and because of a similar consensus that climate change was now resulting in people dying, we concluded that the ad was not misleading.
In The Climate Fix, I discuss the WHO claims in some detail, and point out that the WHO itself explains that their findings do not accord with the canons of empirical science (see p. 177).  I argue that the WHO results are a guess on top of speculation.  They are not true.

Well, if the WHO claims are not true, and the ASA says that they are not false, then what is their epistemological state?  They are, I suppose, whatever you want them to be.  Welcome to post-normal science.  From where I sit, seeking to justify action on emissions or even adaptation based on allegations that people are dying of climate change today is both wrong and wrongheaded, for reasons that I describe in some depth in TCF. Was the ASA decision wrong?  No.  But it wasn't right either.


  1. When the guardians of science won't stand up for its integrity, we can't expect lay people who have to rely on them to do the job for them.

  2. "Welcome to post-normal science."

    Another example of post-normal science: elevating a postulated 'Iron Law' of economic and environmental policy choices to equivalence with the truly rigorous scientific Second Law of Thermodynamics.


  3. -2-Sam

    That would be crazy. Who would ever do such a thing? ;-)

  4. Sam,

    you're statement is pretty ironic.

    There are no experiments that 'prove' the second law of thermodynamics either true or explicitly rigorous. In fact, your personal existence can be attributed to the fact that the second law fails on a local level.

    There has simply been nothing observed so far that seems to violate it on a universal scale, as in over the extent of the entire universe. With respect to this understanding, it's not really a 'law', so to speak, but rather a principle. It is a rather useful principle, but a principle nonetheless.

    Armed with that knowledge, I think the 'iron law' is very similar to the second law of thermodynamics. More similar than you appreciate. It's not really a 'law' because it would take too long to prove that every single policy situation would fall under it's provision. But it seems like a pretty damn meaningful principle to me.

  5. When a cause is ascribed to a problem that is "wrong" or out of context- our ability to correct the problem is diminished. When we focus attention and resources on climate as the main driver of malaria, when we focus on flooding victims as evidence of warming rather than a poor expanding population building on a flood plain, when we champion ethanol without considering the impact on food prices to the world's poorest .....-- People die as the result of global warming -just not in the way most believe.

  6. This fits right in with 10:10: massively inappropriate.

    I like you iron law, but would point out that in the right system, led by a 'man of steel', a great deal can be imposed. Many AGW fanatics point that out, pining away for an end to pesky voters and proletariat who decline to cooperate with what the enlightened ones choose as best.

  7. 'What if' is a scenario for a fantasy novel, not a question that can be answered in a meaningful way. How many people are *not dying* because we're providing cheap electricity generated from burning coal? What if we took the resources we're using to replace coal with renewable energy and instead used them to treat malaria and schistosomiasis? But there aren't two alternatives, there is an infinite set.

    As Wolfgang Pauli famously said of a bad paper, "Not only is it not right, it's not even wrong!"

  8. -4-


    More post-normal science! The laws of thermodynamics understood as 'useful principles'! They are, indeed, useful, but they are rather more than principles.

    The second law does not fail on a local basis to allow my existence - work was put into the system of matter that comprises my being, in accordance with the inviolable laws of thermodynamics. Local entropy was decreased, universal entropy was increased. Also in accordance with these laws, entropy of the universe will continue to increase as that matter cools and dissociates. Unless, of course, work is again input to decrease the entropy locally, while increasing it universally. Rigorous, testable, repeatable - these are the characteristics of a scientific law.

    I fight for the definitive meaning of these terms, because if purported 'laws' are accepted as such when they are not, in fact, any such thing, the terms become meaningless and policy discussions are artificially restricted. Advocacy for an economically meaningful carbon tax-and-refund in the face of a rigorous Iron Law of Political Science becomes entirely futile, and the discussion must focus on less impactful and delayed-effect approaches. If the Iron Law is just a 'useful principle' whose application is so malleable as to be nearly useless, then more impactful policies can (and will have been) adopted in important cases.

    I agree, the Iron Law as Roger formulates it is a principle as you describe. It is a principle describing the assignment of priority in a resource allocation decision-making process in the presence of resource limitations. However, some governments have shown much greater policy willingness to abate carbon emissions (Germany) through a large carbon tax-and-rebate programs than others (the US, India, China, etc). Good thing the German government did not know about the Iron Law as they imposed $45 to $90 carbon tax-and-refund eco-taxes on their economy! If they had known how badly it would harm their economy, they would never have done it! Instead, Germany has had years of sustained economic growth since then. Their economy has continued to de-carbonize even as it uses more energy. How much policy-making guidance can we take from the Iron Law in the face of such an example? Not much. A guiding principle on policy really just describes the political situation of a moment. To describe the latter as a Law is similar to equating Political Science with Science - a flawed analogy and a degradation of the terms 'law' and 'science'. I object.

  9. -8-Sam

    Your comments appear to be directed at what you think I may have written, not what I have actually written.

    The fact that some governments have decided to allocate more resources to climate/environment than have others is an essential part of my discussion of the "iron law." Germany in fact follows the "iron law" exactly as I have described it.

    Also, my discussion has absolutely nothing to do with anything as esoteric as equating political science with physics. (An ironic assertion if there ever was one;-)

  10. (1) Nothing violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics; locally, universally, or in any other way. If the patina of authority is necessary, I teach Thermodynamics at the graduate level and do research in the field.

    (2) Physics is not political science. Scientists have taken the word 'law' and given it a special meaning in the context of physical science. There is absolutely no reason to claim it should have the same meaning in another field. In fact, even in biology its usage is considerably laxer. 'Mendel's Law of Independent Assortment' is violated all over the place.

  11. -9-Roger,

    Your words below (Yale e360):

    " The "iron law" thus presents a boundary condition on policy design that is every bit as limiting as is the second law of thermodynamics, and it holds everywhere around the world, in rich and poor countries alike. It says that even if people are willing to bear some costs to reduce emissions (and experience shows that they are), they are willing to go only so far..."

    Your quotation above directly compares the rigor of your "Iron Law" with the rigor of the second law. I object - the rigor is not there, and you explicitly assert a 'law' whose universality is on par with scientific law. An appeal to authority. You continue:

    "To succeed, any policies focused on decarbonizing economies will necessarily have to offer short-term benefits that are in some manner proportional to the short-term costs. In practice, this means that efforts to make dirty energy appreciably more expensive will face limited success."

    How does the German $45/tonne cost on coal carbon emissions, and a $90/tonne cost on oil carbon emissions not make dirty energy "appreciably more expensive"? What are the short-term benefits that the German people see from this carbon tax-and-refund program that are "in some manner proportional to the short-term costs"?

    How would a similar program in the US or other First-World economy not provide similar short-term benefits?

  12. -11-Sam

    I won't engage in a semantic argument. I never said anything about comparative "rigor" -- that is your word.

    How about this, I'll try to build a perpetual motion machine, and you try to get politicians to endorse reducing GDP as a strategy of emissions reductions, and let's compare notes? ;-)

    The iron law that I describe is not an appeal to authority, exactly the opposite, simply an observation of empirical realities.

    Are you really sure that carbon pricing is leading Germany to accelerate its decarbonization? [It is not, see ...

    Do you think Germany government supports a EU carbon tax? [It does not, see ...

    Does Germany follow the iron law? [Absolutely, see ...

  13. -12-Roger

    OK, no more semantics on 'law'. Speaking of putting words in others' mouths, I do not endorse reducing GNP as a requirement to reduce GHG emissions (though some others do). I support carbon-tax-and-refund: some of the collections to be retained for funding R&D and deployment, the rest refunded to reduce income or payroll taxes. It is a policy of shifting the tax burden from activities that are productive to activities that are destructive. To the very effective German decarbonization model:

    1) Germany's economy has continued to decarbonize: 11% reduction in carbon emissions 1991 - 2010 (http://www.eia.doe.gov/country/country_energy_data.cfm?fips=GM) while sustaining 80% in actual (not real) GDP growth ( http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/eco_gdp-economy-gdp&date=1991) while registering a flat overall energy consumption and an overall flat real GDP/capita.

    2) Germany already has its own carbon tax (2x - 4x the proposed EU tax), why would it want to add an EU carbon tax? Indeed, country-by-country policies with balancing carbon tariffs may be the most market-effective framework.

    3) Your third link only indicates that Germany will additionally reduce subsidies by $700M to particular polluting industries rather than the $2B reduction initially proposed. So the eco-tax keeps its post-2003 levels ($45 - $90/tonne), and only increases these amounts for a net of $700M additional rather than $2B (an extra $1/tonne rather than an extra $2/tonne). Again, the German citizens and industries already pay higher carbon taxes than most other countries in the world - why raise them any higher?

    Finally, Germany has decarbonized its economy faster than the US economy over the past 20 years (German $GDP/tonne-CO2 +$2000, US GDP/tonne +1100), while decreasing emissions overall by 11% while population increased by 3%. The US at the same time has increased emissions overall by 20% while population increased by 20%. No one would say the Germans have sacrificed their economy, but they are cutting their emissions and decarbonizing. In 2009 dollars, Germany has gone from $43.5 GDP/capita-MtonneCO2 in 1991 to $48.2 GDP/capita-MtonneCO2 in 2009, while the US in the same period has gone from $8.5 GDP/capita-MtonneCO2 to $7.65 GDP/capita-MtonneCO2.

    I believe that carbon pricing policy has been an important part of that decarbonization. How could it not as it is a true market incentive?

    The Iron Law per your words specifies that Germany must receive short-term benefits commensurate with expenses from this de-carbonization. What are these benefits, and how would the US not receive the same benefits if it implemented similar policies?

  14. -13-Sam

    See figure 5 in this paper:


    From 1991 to 2006 US and German decarbonization was essentially identical.

  15. -14-Sam

    I just calculated the US and German decarbonization rates from 1998, which was the first year of the first German eco-tax.

    I used EIA CO2 data and Maddison PPP GDP.

    Here is the data, with 1998 set to 1.0

    US Germany
    1998 1.00 1.00
    1999 0.97 0.95
    2000 0.96 0.93
    2001 0.94 0.94
    2002 0.93 0.92
    2003 0.92 0.94
    2004 0.90 0.93
    2005 0.88 0.90
    2006 0.84 0.88
    2007 0.84 0.84
    2008 0.81 0.82

    The US has decarbonized _faster_ than Germany since the introduction of the eco-tax. The differences since 2000 are even greater:

    US Germany
    2000 1.00 1.00
    2001 0.97 1.01
    2002 0.97 0.99
    2003 0.95 1.01
    2004 0.94 0.99
    2005 0.91 0.96
    2006 0.87 0.94
    2007 0.87 0.90
    2008 0.84 0.88

    So if carbon pricing has been an important part of Germany's decarbonization over that period, and maybe it has been, is has not led to a rate of decarbonization greater than BAU in the US. Not so impressive.

  16. -13- -14- Roger

    I appreciate your willingness to examine this closely. My CO2 data are also from the EIA(http://www.eia.doe.gov/country/country_energy_data.cfm?fips=GM - Total from consumption of fossil fuels), and the GDP numbers were from the website http://www.nationmaster.com. I will adopt your sources and then re-calculate. I could not find a definitive Maddison PPP site to get a data series for 1991 to 2009 - could you point out your explicit source so I am using your preferred data?

    With the following snapshot, I cannot understand how could Germany not have de-carbonized faster than the US. Assuming that our GDP numbers will not be too far off when I take your sources, the (actual, not normalized) GDP of Germany in 1991 was $1.8T and the actual US GDP was $6T. In 2009, the German GDP was $3.3T and the US GDP was $14T. In 1991, German emissions of CO2 from fossil fuels (EIA) were 933 Mtonne, US was 5000 Mtonne. In 2001 German CO2 of 835 Mtonne, US of 6000Mtonne.

    Mtonne CO2/$GDP($B)

    Germany 1991 2009
    .518 .253 51.2% reduction

    US 1991 2009
    .833 .429 48.6% reduction

    It looks to me as if the German carbon intensity divided by the US carbon intensity went from .622 in 1991 to .59 in 2009. And then there is the point to discuss that de-carbonization gets harder as an economy is more efficient, and Germany started 40% more efficient.

    In addition, some would argue that it is not just GDP that should be considered here, but population as well since Germany is relatively stable and the US is growing. How do you propose to factor in population? I have a proposal, but will wait to hear yours.

    If you would prefer to take this off-line, I can provide an email.

  17. There is an interesting quote from a NPR story this morning.

    Shogren reports,

    "Republican pollster Frank Luntz says it's clear why the politics of climate change are so different than they were in 2008.

    "What has changed is that the American economy went to hell. And when you ask voters are they more concerned about destroying their environment over the next 100 years or rehabilitating their economy over the next 100 weeks, they'll choose the economy over the environment any day," Luntz says."

    ...and the 'iron law' rears its ugly head again...

  18. -16-Sam

    Thanks, here is that GDP data:


    Perhaps I'll do a post on Germany as well.

  19. Sam, the difference might be that you are starting at 1991 and Roger is starting at 1998. Question -- do the German numbers since 1991 look better because of shutting down inefficient/high-polluting East German industry in the 90's rather than because of any CO2 policy?

  20. -18- Roger,

    I have confirmed your decarbonization series (Mt-CO2/$GDP) using the EIA and the Madison PPP GDP data. I have also extended the analysis to several different metrics. I am fine examining the time period 1998 to 2008, though the eco-tax was phased in over 3 steps from 1998 to 2003. Before discussing the results, I wanted to engage on what the best metric for decarbonization is. Emissions per GDP, emissions per capita or emissions per per-capita-GDP. Each have their merits - as I had mentioned earlier in this thread, I think that normalizing for population and not just GDP is fairly instructive. Any thoughts on the best de-carbonization metric(s)?

  21. -20-Sam

    Thanks ... in The Climate Fix I argue that C/GDP is the most relevant metric for understanding efforts to stabilize concentrations of CO2.

    This follows from the Kaya identity as follows (note, TE = total energy consumed):

    CO2 = GDP * P/GDP * TE/GDP * CO2/TE

    I suggest looking at it as follows:

    CO2 = [GDP * P/GDP] * [TE/GDP * C02/TE]

    This is just


    If you want to measure the improvement in technology, then just move GDP:

    A Reduction in CO2/GDP = Advances in TECHNOLOGY

    To see how far you have to go you in CO2/GDP need a CO2 target and assumptions about GDP growth. This in a nutshell is the analysis in Chapters 3 and 4 of TCF.

    So, CO2/GDP is the best metric, if stabilization is the goal.

  22. -21- Roger,

    thanks for that. I will respond more shortly, just wanted to comment that my suggestion of emissions/per-capita-GDP is obviously nonsensical, as I realized after letting the post fly. More on de-carbonization metrics and Germany shortly.

  23. Gerald Harbison might like to review this article:

    "One of the most important principles of physics, that disorder, or entropy, always increases, has been shown to be untrue."

    Of course being that the 2nd law and entropy are statistical constructs as proposed by Boltzmann and eventually accepted reluctantly by Planck lo these many, many years ago, then it is inherent that the "law" is routinely locally violated all the bleeding time, just not overall. What a wonderful thing a standard education can be: Full of persistent myths and dogma!

  24. -21- Roger,

    On page 69 of TCF, you point out that: "The uncomfortable reality is that no one knows how fast a major economy can decarbonize, much less the entire global economy." True, true. The examples of the countries that have been trying to adopt policies of decarbonization for some time now are thus worth watching, hence my interest in Germany and others. The Kaya Identity relations are interesting in a heuristic sense, and certainly true at a global level. Adopting that model, the decarbonization of industrial economies is likely approximated by a function more complex than a linear one, so the function describing TECHNOLOGY above is likely non-linear, and includes not just rates of invention, but deployment and market competition with incumbent technologies. When Germany decarbonizes its very advanced economy from 0.59 kg-C/$-GDP to 0.484 kg/$ (while growing real GDP/P by 17% chained), that may be more difficult (require more current policy incentives) than the US dropping from 0.76kg/$ to 0.61kg/$ (while growing real GDP by 19% chained). Because of the difficulty of grid integration of renewables, for instance, or the baseload nature nuclear plants, or the need for peaking power in the summertime, there may be asymtotic behavior as an economy approaches greater levels of decarbonization. In fact, since market forces will be extremely important in technology deployment, there will be lots of non-linear de-carbonization behaviors as disruptions occur (e.g., solar PV reaches grid parity without incentives). So to close out on the Germany example, I think that the implicit pricing of carbon through the eco-tax has not violated your iron law for several reasons, is a price signal of significance to consumers, and MAY HAVE continued Germany's decarbonization at the same pace as the US decarbonization even though Germany is 27% more carbon efficient than the US, has not moved to nuclear, and emits 50% less CO2/P than the US. Using your illustration above from the Kaya identity work, you could say that Germany has 27% more TECHNOLOGY than the US (and that France has 100% more TECHNOLOGY than the US). Finally, while rates of decarbonization may be the same over the last 10 years, I think it is at least equally informative to represent economies using the same CO2/GDP baseline, say the US in 1998, and then the decarbonization history would look like (France thrown in for interest):

    US Germany France
    1.00 0.78 0.47
    0.97 0.74 0.44
    0.96 0.73 0.42
    0.94 0.74 0.42
    0.93 0.72 0.41
    0.92 0.73 0.42
    0.90 0.72 0.41
    0.88 0.70 0.40
    0.84 0.68 0.40
    0.84 0.65 0.37
    0.81 0.64 0.38

    Using each country's own baseline 1998 carbon intensities produces the following series (your original) showing similar rates of decarbonization, even though each country is at a very different level of decarbonization.

    1.00 1.00 1.00
    0.97 0.95 0.96
    0.96 0.93 0.91
    0.94 0.95 0.91
    0.93 0.92 0.89
    0.92 0.94 0.89
    0.90 0.93 0.88
    0.88 0.90 0.87
    0.84 0.88 0.85
    0.84 0.84 0.80
    0.81 0.82 0.83

    It is important that there are countries like Germany and Denmark that are pushing the envelope on decarbonization levels, while also keeping their eye on economic health, since their lessons can inform national policies for other Western countries. By decarbonizing without nuclear, these countries also set an example of less centralized electricity systems which also avoid the nuclear proliferation security issue - more valuable lessons. Carbon pricing is simply a potentially effective market tool that can be fashioned to comport with your iron rule. I do not believe that pricing carbon should be left out of the policy arsenal for encouraging decarbonization. While not proven, it is likely that such policies further encourage decarbonization, provide revenue for energy RD&D, and as Germany shows, can be implemented at a high level ($45-$90/tonne-CO2) that do not slow GDP growth.