31 July 2010

The Honest Broker

Among a few climate scientists there is a renewed interest in discussing my book The Honest Broker. To be honest I don't really understand their specific critiques but I think they can be summarized as follows:

1. Scientists should not be in the business of giving policy makers choices (that is, the role of the honest broker of policy options is not desirable), because it gives cover to policy makers who might do the wrong thing.

2. Science dictates a specific course of action, thus to present science to policy makers necessarily compels a particular course of action, rendering advocacy and indeed political give and take, unnecessary.

Needless to say I find both of these positions highly problematic -- from practical and democratic perspectives. This post is for any questions or discussions about the book.
UPDATE 7/31: Over at the discussion of my book hosted by climate scientist Michael Tobis, Tobis presents a clear statement of authoritarianism:
On complex matters which have significant objective and normative components, those opinions which are informed by expertise should carry more weight in decisions than opinions which are not well informed. The more complex the matter at hand, the more weight should be given to expertise and the less it should account for value-driven decisions that are likely to be ill-informed.
Wow. And scary.

28 July 2010

Michael Oppenheimer Responds

[Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University has graciously offered this post in response to several comments made earlier this week on his recent PNAS paper on climate change and Mexico-US immigration. His contribution is much appreciated. -RP]

Our article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Linkages among climate change, crop yields and Mexico–US cross-border migration" by Shuaizhang Feng, Alan B. Krueger, and Michael Oppenheimer“, has drawn criticism in this blog. Before we respond in detail, let us point out that the problem of climate-driven migration has resisted quantitative analysis for decades. To contribute to filling this gap, we proposed a line of modeling drawing on empirical evidence about responses to past climate variations, which may be informative about responses to future climate trends. If others have better ideas for estimating how climate change affects migration, they should publish them.

Richard Tol argues that our paper “confuses decadal weather variability with climate change”. We were not confused and I doubt anyone who read the entire article would be confused either. Using the response to historical short term variability to estimate the response to a long term trend is a common first approximation in climate impact analysis when quantitative process-based information is lacking, such as for the processes underlying the immigration response. We state in the paper,
“Such a method implicitly assumes that the response to changes in the climate variables is linear and symmetric, and that migration responses to 5-y changes in climate conditions can be applied to longer run trends. We acknowledge that, in actuality, the response to a trend may differ from the response to periodic variability...”
... particularly because climatic variability during the study period has not been of a magnitude or duration comparable to what is projected in the future under various climate scenarios.

Richard further argues that the study
“fails to control for other determinants of migration that may well be correlated with weather during the sample.”
First, in terms of estimation, our approach (fixed effects IV) controls all time-unvarying state effects through state dummies, and addresses (controls for) other determinants of migration that are NOT correlated with climate through using climate as the instrument. If some of those determinants are correlated with changes in climate (other than fortuitously), then the estimated semi-elasticity would be affected, but we would be just attributing some of the impacts of climate on emigration through other channels to the crop yield channel (as the two cannot be separated anyway given the data).

Second, in term of prediction, we emphasize from the beginning that our study is a “ceteris paribus” one. In the language of economics, it is a “partial equilibrium”, not a “general equilibrium” study. The objective is to examine the “marginal” effect of climate change on migration, holding everything else constant, not to forecast the “total” number of emigrants in the future.

Finally, Tol states,
“they extrapolate beyond belief... their largest yield change is -48% between now and 2080. If technological progress would bring about a 1% yield increase per year, then the two effects cancel each other out. 1% may be too low, -48% is probably too high.”
We are careful to acknowledge the impact of other factors including technological progress in the paper:
“estimate of the elasticity of migration is conditional on many factors specific to Mexico for the period under study, such as the macroeconomic situation compared with that of the United States, the population share of youths (who are more likely to migrate), farming practices, the relative importance of the agricultural sector, and agricultural policies including responses to droughts and other climatic events that adversely affect crop yields.”
However, note that we are estimating the “marginal” effect of climate change. If technological change produces general increases in productivity and partially offsets effects of climate change, then predictions of “total” migrants would change, but the “marginal” effect of climate change would not.

With respect to the observation of Harrywr2 that at the upper end, our projections exceed the current size of the agricultural labor force: First, people not employed in the agricultural sector would also be affected by declines in crop yield, due to a well known and substantial “ripple effect”, and these would also be represented in our empirically determined semi-elasticity. Furthermore, the projection of between 1.4 to 6.7 million Mexicans migrating to the U.S. due to climate change applies to a 70-year time period. Thus, more than one generation would be affected.

Second, the projection is based on the assumption that Mexican adult population would stay at today’s level of 70 million. The projected numbers are significant but not necessarily “alarming” if they are put into the right context. The recent annual Mexican emigration flow to US is about 500,000. If in the future this is cut by half on average due to factors such as declines in fertility, to 250,000 emigrants, the total number emigrating due to all other causes would be 17.5 million in the 70 years.

...Michael Oppenheimer 28 July 2010

The Nuclear Option

[UPDATE 7/29: Just one day later E&E News pours cold water on the nuclear option.]

E&E Daily Reports that the White House has floated the idea of adding cap & trade provisions to energy legislation in conference.

Cap-and-trade provisions that likely cannot pass the Senate directly this year could be added to a narrower energy package during a House and Senate conference, a White House spokesman suggested yesterday.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters he "certainly wouldn't rule it out" that a House-Senate conference committee would reconcile differing versions of energy legislation by adding climate provisions left out of a narrow package the Senate is expected to take up this week.

Gibbs said he does not think a climate bill is dead for the year, despite the decision by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to drop greenhouse gas emission limits from the scaled-back oil spill response and energy bill unveiled yesterday.

"The House passed a very strong and very comprehensive energy bill last year," Gibbs said. "The Senate is going to take up a version that is more scaled down but still has some important aspects, particularly dealing with how we deal with oil spills in the future. But I don't think that closes the door -- once a bill passes, each house doesn't close the door to having some sort of conference."

Briefly, here is what this means in the context of US congressional politics: when legislation is passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives, it often contains substantive differences. These differences are worked out by a small committee of members of Congress (called a "conference committee") from both chambers in what is called "conference."

Republicans are taking steps to prevent cap and trade from slipping into legislation through a back door. For reasons that I have already discussed, I don't see this effort getting very far, but I am surprised that the White House even raised it as a trial balloon. Maybe they are hoping to distract or otherwise confound the Republicans. If so, playing with bombs is a risky strategy.

27 July 2010

Silly Science

A new paper is out in a journal getting a reputation for silly science that predicts that climate change will lead to a massive influx of Mexicans across the border to the United States. Here is how the LA Times breathlessly opened its news story on the PNAS paper:

Climbing temperatures are expected to raise sea levels and increase droughts, floods, heat waves and wildfires.

Now, scientists are predicting another consequence of climate change: mass migration to the United States.

Between 1.4 million and 6.7 million Mexicans could migrate to the U.S. by 2080 as climate change reduces crop yields and agricultural production in Mexico, according to a study published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The number could amount to 10% of the current population of Mexicans ages 15 to 65.

A reporter emailed me an embargoed copy last week asking for my reactions. Here is how I responded (and I pulled no punches):
To be blunt, the paper is guesswork piled on top of "what ifs" built on a foundation of tenuous assumptions. The authors seem to want to have things both ways -- they readily acknowledge the many and important limitations of their study, but then go on to assert that "it is nevertheless instructive to predict future migrant flows for Mexico using the estimates at hand to assess the possible magnitude of climate change–related emigration." It can't be both -- if the paper has many important limitations, then this means that that it is not particularly instructive. With respect to predicting immigration in 2080 (!), admitting limitations is no serious flaw.

To use this paper as a prediction of anything would be a mistake. It is a tentative sensitivity study of the effects of one variable on another, where the relationship between the two is itself questionable but more importantly, dependent upon many other far more important factors. The authors admit this when they write, "It is important to note that our projections should be interpreted in a ceteris paribus manner, as many other factors besides climate could potentially influence migration from Mexico to the United States." but then right after they assert, "Our projections are informative,nevertheless, in quantifying the potential magnitude of impacts of climate change on out-migration." It is almost as if the paper is written to be misinterpreted.

Climate change is real and worthy of our attention. Putting forward research claims that cannot be supported by the underlying analysis will not help the credibility of the climate science community. Even with the voluminous caveats in the paper, to conclude that "climate change is estimated to induce 1.4 to 6.7 million adult Mexicans (or 2% to 10% of the current population aged 15–65 y) to emigrate as a result of declines in agricultural productivity alone" is just not credible. The paper reflects a common pattern in the climate impacts literature of trying to pin negative outcomes on climate change using overly simplistic methods and ignoring those factors other than climate which have far more effect.
One of the paper's authors, Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton professor and lead author of the forthcoming IPCC report on extremes explains his motivation with the paper:
Our primary objectives were, No. 1, to give policymakers something to think about and, No. 2, to give researchers a spur to start answering some of the more complicated questions
One of the climate impacts scholars whose work was relied on in the PNAS paper was critical:
Diana Liverman, a University of Arizona climate researcher, criticized the new study for basing its forecasts in part on research that she worked on in the early 1990s that looked at crop yields in only two central Mexico sites.

In reply, Oppenheimer said the Princeton study found similar results in a second crop-yield study, and the crop reductions predicted for Mexico are typical of what has been predicted for other countries in that latitude.

Liverman said that while she believes climate change could cause widespread migration, she has seen no study documenting it. Having studied the problems of Mexican farmers for two decades, she said she has found that a bad economy, the government's withdrawal of agricultural subsidies and the North American Free Trade Agreement have caused problems far greater than climate change.

Nature also has a set of critical reactions. The LA Times article recovered from its breathless opening with a well-buried lede:

Philip Martin, an expert in agricultural economics at UC Davis, said that he hadn't read the study but that making estimates based solely on climate change was virtually impossible.

"It is just awfully hard to separate climate change from the many, many other factors that affect people's decisions whether to stay in agriculture or move," he said.

In silly science however, nothing is impossible.

The Forest for the Trees

The blog post below by Sharon Friedman, a scientist who deals with land management issues every day, is reposted from A New Century of Forest Planning.

Creekside Ruminations on Climate Change from Bark Beetle Country

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a field trip on part of the old Routt National Forest, when I had to take a climate change conference call. Since cell phone coverage was spotty, we targeted a good spot and I was dropped off for a couple of hours and sat at creekside while on the calls.

Looking at the dead trees on the hills, it became clearer to me some of the disconnects between climate change as talked about or written about in scientific journals, and as currently lived.

1. People are already dealing with climate change every day as part of their work.
People are felling hazard trees, doing WUI fuels treatments, looking for biomass opportunities, etc. Climate change is just another change agent that affects our work.

2. We may never know how much of what we observe is due to climate change (take bark beetles; 100% climate change? 75% climate change plus the age of trees 25% ?). But we still have to deal with the changes, regardless of their source. So it probably doesn’t make sense to have a separate pot of funds for climate change adaptation or resilience- otherwise we might spend out time in tedious disagreements about whose problem is more climate-induced.

3. We will be dealing with these issues collaboratively, locally (for the most part) using an all lands approach, and involving regulators and communities early and often.

We can’t or shouldn’t get to the point where the community and the FS is in one place, but the regulators have a different worldview.

4. Climate change will include opportunities as well as hazards and difficulties.

For example, at the Steamboat Ski Area, we visited a site where dead trees provided an opportunity for a children’s outdoor ski opportunity..

5. It could be argued that the complex structure of direction in the Forest Service does not make us as flexible and adaptive as we need to be. Changes due to climate change and other factors can occur more quickly, and in different spatial/temporal configurations, than the current structure can respond to.

For example, the ranger district or forest is the right scale for many decisions. But not for bark beetles. Should it be dealt with by the current three forests? An interior west scale group? What would be the governance of such a group?
We have the incident command model for fires.. but if something is large, but not a month by month kind of emergency, do we have an organizational structure to deal with it?

6. Safety of our employees and the public need to come first.
I don’t know at the end of the day how many climate change issues will have real safety hazards such as bark beetle and other sources of dead trees. The urgency requires new ways of working together in a timely way. Environmental groups, industry groups, local communities, regulators- we all need to be able to speed up from our bureaucratic and legal natural rate of speed to an emergency rate of speed.

7. If ecosystems are too complex to predict (“more complex than we think, more complex than we can think”), let’s use scenarios and not specific predictions, and pick “no-regrets” strategies. I wonder sometimes if we are overthinking and overanalyzing climate changes and I think we should consider the opportunity costs of what we could to to “protect reconnect and restore” in the Trout Unlimited strategy versus “assess, predict and model.” Note that while common sense and decision theory under uncertainty have always argued for “no regrets” strategies, now at least some water scientists agree.

I would ask us to think about that climate change may be a stressor to our organizational and social systems as well as the environment. It requires us to work together faster, and better than we have in the past. I often wonder if climate science funding were divided half to social scientists, what would the “best available science” look like?

I’d be curious about others’ ruminations on these topics…

Unit Conversion - A Million Votes

Advocates for action on climate change are fond of arguing that costs of a few percent of GDP are really quite small in absolute terms (see image above from EDF). Here is one way to think about a 1% reduction in GDP in political terms.

Political scientist Ray Fair calculates that in historical presidential elections, every 1% decrease in GDP results in a 0.7% decrease in vote share for the incumbent party(See Table 2 in this PDF). In 2008, more than 130 million people voted in the US presidential election. In very round numbers, a 1% change in GDP has historically led to a swing of 1 million votes.

Are 1 million votes a small amount or a large amount? For selfish reasons alone, policymakers are going to be reluctant to impose any brakes on GDP, no matter how small those effects are argued to be. Climate policy will not succeed until the benefits are far more tangible and on the short term.

26 July 2010

Personal Insecurity and Climate Politics

Last week I suggested that Julia Gillard, Australia's Prime Minister, was asking for trouble by promising that carbon pricing would transform society:
When will politicians learn that climate policies are a political loser if they require that people "transform the way we live and the way we work"? The vast majority of people simply do not want their lives transformed. Promising that government will transform your life is one way to ensure a rough political road for any policy -- climate change, health care, economic, whatever.
Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations presents a similar argument with respect to "green jobs":
Basically, cap-and-trade introduces uncertainty at an individual level (though it does the opposite for actual investors); in the current economic climate, that scares people into thinking that they will lose their jobs. . . Anything that the public is unfamiliar with adds to uncertainty – and that is precisely what people don’t want. Second, green jobs may poll well across a wide spectrum of voters, but that doesn’t mean that selling regulation or taxation with a jobs message will work.
To succeed, policies focused on decarbonizing the global economy must not be seen as adding to personal insecurities, better yet, they should add to personal security. This should be a major lesson taken from the failure of US climate legislation.

We'll Always Have the Climate Wars

For whatever reason, RealClimate has decided to open up debate over the so-called Hockey Stick, in their typical aggressive and angry manner (see, e..g, the exchanges between NASA's Gavin Schmidt and Georgia Tech's Judy Curry). As far as I am concerned the debate over the Hockey Stick is pretty much irrelevant to discussions of climate policy for the simple reason that the policies that I advocate are insensitive to that debate.

However, the debate over the Hockey Stock does serve as a useful measure of the state of the activist wing of the climate science community as well as their most bitter enemies, the so-called skeptics. For even the most dedicated observers the debates between the activist scientists and their opponents can be arcane, technical and simply impenetrable due to years upon years of perceived slights, a practice of in-group shorthand and a chorus of followers on either side cheering on the spectacle. So most people simply evaluate the arguments by who they decide to trust. Such decisions could be made due to political or other affinities. The issues raised by the released East Anglia emails and the IPCC troubles did much to swing the pendulum of trust away from the activist scientists among many observers. How to regain trust has thus been a focus on some responsible voices in the climate science community.

So it is somewhat surprising to see the renewed "academic penis wagging" of the activist scientists. This sort of behavior would seem to be a mistake, as going back to the old ways of winning through intimidation just doesn't seem plausible anymore. But like the skeptics, over-testosteroned academics are just something to be lived with, rather than defeated.

Over at Klimazwibel, climate scientist Eduardo Zorita helps to explain why the renewed offensive by the activist scientists is so badly misplaced. Zorita points to some additional major errors that have been found in the work of Michael Mann and colleagues, being published in the Journal of Climate (he also links to an online rebuttal which admits the errors, but in characteristic fashion explains that they do not matter). Zorita explains that in the debates over the Hockey Stick, sloppy errors provide a criterion with which to evaluate the trustworthiness of different research groups:
Now to the perhaps most substantial point: there is a debate around the RegEM method [as part of the Hockey Stick debate], as I tried to explain in the weblog. To my knowledge, three (truly) independent groups have found that this method also leads to too small past variations (Smerdon et al, Christiansen et al and Riedwyl et al). Another group says that the method slightly underestimates past variations (Lee et al) and another group says that this is a good method (Mann et al). The RegEM method is difficult to implement, there are several variants (ridged regression, total least squares, truncated total least squares, and for all them there exist hybrid versions in which the data sets are previously filtered in two different frequency bands). It also involves the somewhat subjective choice of a few internal parameters. In short, a quite complex method. If I am now told that, in the calculations by one of the groups, the input data have been mistakenly rotated around the Earth and that the interpolation on the global grid is not correct even before the implementation of the method has started.. well, what I am going to believe?
Given the amount of source material that has been provided to them, I have no doubts that the so-called skeptics are going to be perfectly happy discussing the Hockey Stick for the next 1,000 years. Simply by discussing it they raise issues about the credibility of the activist academic and government scientists that they oppose. For their part, the activist scientists are simply playing right along.

I do have a sense that climate debates have matured to the point where such political debates over science are far less meaningful to those involved in climate politics and policy than perhaps they once were. While that is a good thing for climate policy discussions, the broader climate science community still has a long ways to go in restoring trust. It cannot be demanded, but must be earned. Earning that trust will have to occur in the context of the never-ending climate wars, as they are not going away anytime soon -- much to the delight of the activists scientists and their skeptical dance partners.

25 July 2010

Egypt's Growth and Carbon Dioxide Emissions

From last week's Econ0mist comes these remarkable statistics:
BY ALMOST any statistical measure Egyptians are far better off than ever before, even though there are many more of them. The population has nearly doubled in size in just 30 years, from 44m in 1980 to 84m today. Farmers who until the 1970s spent half their working day on the back-breaking labour of lifting irrigation water now use diesel pumps, plough with tractors and thresh their wheat by machine. Life expectancy at birth has risen from 52 years in 1960 to 72 now. Back then Egyptians were lucky to own a transistor radio. Now two-thirds of homes have a satellite receiver, 87% own a fridge, 97% have piped water and 99% have electricity. Egyptians chatter on 57m mobile phones, and the number of passenger cars on the roads has more than doubled in the past decade.
And yet:

Nearly all Egyptian homes have piped water and electricity, but away from Cairo the power is often cut and taps often produce mere dribbles of water whose poor quality explains high levels of kidney disease. Nationwide, less than half the homes (and less than a third in the poor south) are connected to public sewage systems. In a survey of Egypt’s poorest villagers 91% said the service they needed most urgently was sewers. Visitors to Egypt invariably remark on the grubbiness of its streets. Statistics show that among the poorest fifth of Egyptians 85% of households have no proper means of rubbish disposal, so they burn it, dump it by the side of roads, tip it into canals or feed it to wandering goats and chickens. Some 16m Egyptians, according to the World Bank, inhabit informal and squatter settlements. That may equal the population of Cairo, though because of a muddle of overlapping administrative districts no one is really sure how many people the sprawling capital packs in.

Even Egyptian government economists admit that even as the rich get much richer and Egypt’s small middle class is expanding somewhat, the rest have struggled to keep up with an inflation rate that is far higher than in most comparable countries. The private planes, holiday homes, new highways, airports and supermarkets remain out of their reach. That may help to explain why recently Egypt has seen an uncharacteristic flaring up of strikes and protests of every kind. For the first few months of this year the streets around the parliament were occupied around the clock by angry factory workers, disgruntled tax inspectors or junior doctors, all protesting against their miserable pay.
Egypt is not often discussed in terms of carbon dioxide emissions (See figure below). After all, its annual emissions barely put it into the top 60 emitters, with its entire annual emissions about the same as China emits in a week. Even so, look at what is going on in Egypt as described in the paragraphs above.

Egypt provides a useful window into global trends -- the world needs more energy, vastly more energy, in coming decades. Where is that energy going to come from?


The aftermath of the US Senate's decision to put off climate legislation has been ugly. The Obama Administration is blaming the inside-the-beltway environmental lobbyists:

One exasperated administration official on Thursday lambasted the environmentalists – led by the Environmental Defense Fund – for failing to effectively lobby GOP senators.

“They didn’t deliver a single Republican,” the official told POLITICO. “They spent like $100 million and they weren’t able to get a single Republican convert on the bill.”

One of those inside-the beltway lobbying groups, the Center for American Progress, fires right back at the Obama Administration:
On the political front, the White House deserves most of the blame for not getting Republicans. Why? Because the White House never tried to keep moderate Democrats in line, never made it clear that there was definitely gonna be a vote on this bill and the moderates should figure out what they needed to support the bill (as in the case of healthcare reform).
The failure of the climate bill in the Senate has also led to something that I never thought I'd read, this from Thomas Friedman:
I don’t have anything else to say
By contrast, Clive Crook however has a lot to say, and as usual, it is smart and on point:

Governments have failed. It is important to understand why, and to see what needs to change. In the US, almost everybody is implicated. The Republican party is at fault for refusing to take climate change seriously and for brainlessly opposing tax increases – which meaningful climate change policies demand, one way or another. Under current rules, the Senate needs 60 votes to pass a law; there are 59 Democrats, so they cannot act alone.

The Democrats themselves are divided. They would struggle to muster a bare Senate majority for cap-and-trade. The party has also bungled the case for action. It pretended cap-and-trade could work without making energy dearer – it is not really a tax, they insist. Of course it is and voters can usually tell when they are being conned.

In an election year, with a depressed economy and sentiment turning against the Democrats, passing cap-and-trade was sure to be difficult. After healthcare reform, a fiscal stimulus of $800bn, the Troubled Asset Relief Program and a wholesale rearrangement of financial regulation, US voters have no appetite for another big initiative. This may be why Mr Obama invested so little in the issue. He let cap-and-trade die in Congress. He too is partly to blame.

In all these political calculations, one fact looms large: voters are worried about climate change, but not enough to demand, or perhaps even tolerate, meaningful action. This is why the politicians acted as they did. Stronger leadership would have helped, no doubt. Still, you have to wonder why public opinion is failing of its own accord to demand action. The answer is not, I think, that voters on the whole are stupid – something many politicians believe rather too openly. In part, it is that climate science has trashed its own credibility.

Leading scientists have worked as activists rather than scholars, on the principle that the public needs to be scared and must not be troubled with complications. Uncertainties are suppressed, disagreements kept quiet, inconvenient truths set aside. The science is settled: that is all the public can handle.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change institutionalised the idea and the Climategate e-mails opened a window on the process. What was supposed to be a disinterested clearing-house for science to guide policy became, in part, a taxpayer-funded lobbying shop – and a notably incompetent one. The science was fitted to the case for action rather than the other way round. The public does not trust scientist-activists, and is right not to.

Restoring confidence in climate science should be a priority – a task that the recent flurry of inquiries supposedly vindicating the Climategate e-mailers has set back. The IPCC needs new leadership, a fresh mandate and strong oversight. Governments should stop outsourcing their advocacy role to a supposedly non-political scientific body. Scientists demanding deference to their expertise are entitled to it only if they leave politics to the politicians. The case for action on greenhouse gases is strong, but not certain. Action ought to be taken despite the doubts. That is different from demanding action because there are no doubts. Trust the public with a less varnished view of the science and support for climate policy would strengthen. How else should governments move forward?
Meantime, some activist climate scientists are trying to reignite the bitter debate over the Hockey Stick (I kid you not).

In short, climate policy is in utter meltdown: on the political left environmental advocates are at each others' throats while there is every indication that the climate science community has drawn no useful lessons from the past nine months. The state of both the politics and the visible elements of the scientific community are completely contrary to advancing action on energy and climate policies. Those opposed to such action will most likely sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

23 July 2010

Julia Gillard Lays Out Her Approach to Climate Policy

In a speech today at the University of Queensland in Brisbane,, Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard has laid out her approach to dealing with climate change in the context of an upcoming national election (see the news report above). At the core of her proposal is the convening of a "citizen's assembly":
And so today I announce that if we are re-elected, I will develop a dedicated process – a Citizens’ Assembly – to examine over 12 months the evidence on climate change, the case for action and the possible consequences of introducing a market-based approach to limiting and reducing carbon emissions.
It is an interesting proposal, not least because public opinion on climate policies in Australia are well known: People support action on climate change, but they don't want it to cost very much at all (see this Lowy Institute poll). In this respect, Australians are no different than pretty much every one else around the world. Any properly constituted citizens assembly is likely to come to the same conclusions.

Gillard appears to recognize this, saying that she "will act when the Australian economy is ready":
[W]e must acknowledge that Australians have real concerns about making changes that are this big and they need more information.

They are concerned about the impact on jobs and the impact on the prices of goods and services that they rely on, especially electricity.
But she seems to get off track when discussing the implications of her proposed policy approach - a market-based approach to carbon trading as was proposed under the former Prime Minister:
Adopting a market based mechanism to price carbon will transform the way we live and the way we work. Such a major change cannot be made and unmade on the oscillations of the political pendulum.

Instead this transformational change must have as its foundation the genuine political support of the community, a consensus that will drive bipartisanship.
When will politicians learn that climate policies are a political loser if they require that people "transform the way we live and the way we work"? The vast majority of people simply do not want their lives transformed. Promising that government will transform your life is one way to ensure a rough political road for any policy -- climate change, health care, economic, whatever. Many smart politicians have recognized this, from Obama's promise during the health care debate that if you like your current health care arrangements you can keep them to the oft-repeated claims that US climate legislation would cost only a "postage stamp per day." The implied message is exactly the opposite of transformational change. As can be seen in the ABC news story above, Tony Abbott, the opposition leader, is already exploiting this point.

Gillard may have kicked the can down the road far enough to get through the upcoming election with the perception that she has a credible approach to climate change (which Rudd did not). However, at the same time she has also guaranteed that this issue is going to be highly problematic for her in the future.

Climate policies cannot succeed as agents of transformational change. It is better to go with the direction of public opinion than against it, which for Australia (and the world) means a need to go back to the policy drawing board and rethink climate policies from the bottom up. It is possible to design climate policies in such a manner. What leader will be first to recognize this?

22 July 2010

The US Punts on Climate Legislation

As has happened in Australia (see former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd dealing with climate legislation in the image above) and is likely to occur in Japan the US Senate has decided to put off consideration of climate legislation:

Senate Democrats pulled the plug on climate legislation Thursday, pushing the issue off into an uncertain future ahead of midterm elections where President Barack Obama’s party is girding for a drubbing.

Rather than a long-awaited measure capping greenhouse gases — or even a more limited bill directed only at electric utilities — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will move forward next week on a bipartisan energy-only bill that responds to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and contains other more popular energy items.

As I argued in March, this was entirely predictable (see also this):
Late last year, the Australian government decided to separate energy policy legislation from the emission trading scheme and secure passage of the former while leaving the latter to a later time. Democrats in the US Congress seem keen to do much the same this year.
Reaction to the Senate's decision has been swift. For instance, Joe Romm, in characteristic fashion, has declared the entire Obama Presidency a failure, in the process perhaps unintentionally proving Clive Crook's "good rule of politics":
[I]f you are going to disappoint the left, make it your enemy. Mr Obama has got the worst of both worlds. He pleads for the left’s patience and understanding, certain to be rebuffed. The centre watches, also feeling betrayed, and waits for November.
Andy Revkin, also expressing severe disappointment in Obama's lack of effort on climate, posits that perhaps only a Republican president can enact meaningful climate policy:
Could it be that the White House has concluded what some political analysts have quietly told me — that only a Republican president could muster the Senate votes to pass a meaningful climate bill? That sounds strange initially but isn’t so strange when you consider the history of major environmental legislation and note that a moderate Republican could bring his or her base and lure many Democrats, while a Democrat is unlikely ever to lure sufficient Republican support to get 60 votes on a climate bill.
With the far left and far right in US politics united in anger at Obama, perhaps we'll see Revkin's hypothesis tested sooner rather than later. The reality is that the next Congress is going to be no more friendly to comprehensive climate legislation that the current Congress, as both chambers are going to see large swings toward the Republican party. This means that the chances for comprehensive climate legislation are probably less in the next Congress.

Perhaps this is why The Hill suggests that there is a "growing consensus among green activists" that a delay in considering climate legislation until fall would be OK. That would mean considering the legislation during the "lame duck" session, after the election but before the seating of newly elected representatives and senators in January. The political right is already gearing up for this possibility. I simply cannot see the President pushing to enact anything controversial during a lame duck session after his party suffers large losses in an election that will serve largely as a referendum on his leadership. Were he to do so, he would pretty much seal his fate as a one-term, failed president. Like Bill Clinton, Obama's opportunity to reverse his political fortunes may depend on being drawn to the center by the more Republican congress that he'll have to work with over the next two years.

The bottom line is that the dominant approach to climate change promoted by those calling for action the loudest has failed -- yet again. Really, how much more evidence is needed to convince those calling for action on climate change that a radically new approach is needed?

21 July 2010

Against Scientism

Brian Wynne has a thoughtful review of Oreskes and Conway's Merchants of Doubt in this week's Nature. Wynne summarizes the core of Oreskes and Conway's argument:
Because uncertainty arises in any scientific study, powerful elites find it easy to derail policies by representing the justificatory knowledge as inadequate, even when collective scientific and related judgement supports intervention. To make science more robust against such attacks, Oreskes and Conway recommend the widespread adoption of peer-review procedures, following the model of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with the demand that the public should trust such a process to judge the proper policy significance of scientific uncertainty.
But demanding trust doesn't always work so well. Trust must be earned. Wynne explains that the larger problem -- missed by Oreskes and Conway -- lies in the notion that science should be the fulcrum on which political debates are decided:
[T]hey miss a crucial point: the ingrained assumption that scientific evidence is the only authority that can justify policy action — scientism — is what renders both policy and its supporting science vulnerable to the dogmatic amplification of doubt.

The doubters' success lies in the way that policy questions are framed, with science placed at the centre. If a policy commitment is reduced only to a question of whether the science is right or wrong, then evidence can easily be made to unravel. Paradoxically, this happens when science attains its greatest political influence, when it goes beyond supplying the facts to defining the public meaning of problems. Public-policy issues always have dimensions beyond science, and require more than technical responses. When framing debates, policy-makers should prioritize discussion of social benefits as well as science: there are many good non-scientific reasons to reduce global environmental footprints and consumption frenzy, and to pursue greater justice, for instance. If the many factors that go into a policy commitment are recognized, science does not become the sole centre of authority and the sole target for opposition.

Wynne implies that trust is built through being more openly honest:
A more enlightened institutional culture around science and policy would foster wider debate about the implications of interventions, and of burdens of proof weighed against social benefits and the costs of erroneous outcomes. This might resemble the 'extended peer review' system of philosopher-sociologists of science Jerome Ravetz and Silvio Funtowicz, in which specialists (including non-scientists) review policy-relevant scientific claims but a wider variety of stakeholders bring further knowledge to bear in interpreting them. Rather than assuming that disputes are solely scientific, opening up these decision-making processes would render their primary nature more honestly political and economic, while giving proper weight to scientific reason and evidence.
As I've often argued, the best antidote against scientism is to open up political debates, rather than try to shut them down.

China's Energy and GDP Data

Last week China announced a surprising revision to its official data with the effect of making the achievement of its aggressive energy intensity targets within reach. According to the FT:

It’s amazing what a bit of creative accounting can do. As recently as last week, China looked set to miss its energy intensity targets for the end of this year by a wide mark.

But now, after revisions from the National Bureau of Statistics, the country is within reach of its targeted 20% reduction in energy intensity from 2005 levels. Beijing has long called for energy intensity—a measure of power consumption per unit of GDP—to be a global benchmark for environmental regulation.

Before the revisions China had only lowered energy intensity by around 12% from 2005 levels. The new numbers, posted online on Thursday, show increased efficiency gains in every year from 2006 to 2009, lowering current energy intensity to around 16% of 2005 levels. These figures were calculated “according to the results of the second economic census,” the statistics bureau said in the online statement.

The news will be welcome relief to China’s leaders, who have called for officials to use an “iron hand” to reach environmental targets. This year has been especially problematic, with energy intensity going up in the first quarter instead of down.

“The debate is whether they are going to fudge the numbers to meet the marker by the end of this year,” a Western diplomat told the Financial Times last month, before the revisions.

China also has taken issue with claims this week that its energy usage has surpassed that of the United States:

China on Tuesday dismissed claims that it was the world’s largest energy consumer, calling the latest estimates from the International Energy Agency “not very credible”.

The energy watchdog disclosed on Monday that China had overtaken the US in energy consumption, according to preliminary estimates. The news – and China’s quick reaction – underlines the sensitivities that surround China’s thirst for energy, particularly as the government struggles to meet ambitious efficiency targets by the year’s end.

Zhou Xian, head of the general office of the Nat­­ional Energy Administration, dismissed the numbers. “When the IEA came to China to publish its energy outlook a couple of days ago, they also overestimated China’s energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions,” he said. “We think that is because of a lack of knowledge about China, especially about China’s latest developments of energy conservation and renewable energy.”

If a policy goal is expressed in terms of a reduction in the ratio of energy consumption to GDP, then there will be incentives to show growth in energy consumption as low as possible and growth in GDP as high as possible. Such incentives don't make China's data automatically wrong, but they should be examined from an independent perspective. So far at least, independent data suggests a different interpretation of energy intensity decline than China is suggesting.

20 July 2010

Fantasy Island

Tim Yeo, chair of the UK Parliament's Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, has issued a pamphlet (PDF) that indicates that UK Conservatives are just as out-of-touch on climate policy as was Labor. Writing in The Telegraph yesterday Yeo had this to say about the party's commitment to action:
Party members remember that, within a year of his election as Leader, David Cameron was photographed on a dog sled in the Arctic visiting a Norwegian glacier to see the effects of climate change first hand. This iconic image came to define his efforts to transform the image of the Conservative Party. Since then we have been urging voters to “vote blue, go green”.
A dog sled? That Cameron was actually on a dog sled is embarrassing enough, but to subsequently cite it as evidence of some sort of commitment to action? Oh, my. Yeo's specific statements on policy are no more encouraging:

The Coalition Agreement pledges to increase the target for energy from renewable sources; to create a green investment bank; to reduce carbon emissions from central government by ten per cent within a year; to cancel the third runway at Heathrow; and launch a (as yet undetailed) national tree planting campaign.

But we must go much further.
Meantime, the Coalition government has been busy this week cutting investment in green technologies, perhaps forgetting that targets don't reduce emissions, technology does. Third runway? Planting trees?

Yeo's pamphlet has some other bright ideas -- perhaps indicating what it means to "go further" -- such as personal carbon trading, increasing political will, making every aspect of our lives more energy efficient, ending deforestation and developing a viable system of carbon capture and storage. Easy!

Yeo points out that the UK is second only to Brazil in the international league tables of climate policy effectiveness as judged by the German NGO Germanwatch, due to its foresight in passing the Climate Change Act of 2008. He does not appear aware that the UK is going to fail dramatically to meet the targets for emissions reduction in the Act. No matter, with discussion of dog sleds, personal carbon trading and planting trees, Yeo's analysis has little connection to reality in any case.

UK climate policy continues to serve as a leading case for why climate policies need to be rethought.

19 July 2010

Steve Schneider: 1945 to 2010

Steve Schneider, of Stanford University, has died of a heart attack. He was a true giant in the field of climate science and policy. I first met him in the early 1990s at NCAR before I received my PhD. Characteristic of his support for young scholars, he encouraged and published my first paper on climate change as an editorial essay in Climatic Change in 1994 (PDF). He was always up for a debate, and we certainly debated many things over the years, most recently just this past weekend in a group email exchange. His views on climate are cited positively in my new book. His energy, passion and genius will be sorely missed. Andy Revkin has details.

The Reality-Based Community

In much of the debate over energy and climate there is a distinct departure from reality. The reality that I m referring to is not the reality of the physical climate system, but the reality of social, technological and political systems. This reality governed by human interests and values, and is no less (and perhaps more) important than the reality that human activities are influencing the climate system.

I was reminded of this reading two articles today. Fist, here is Don Runkle, CEO of EcoMotors, a company that Bill Gates has invested in with a focus on developing dramatic advances in the efficiency of combustion engines:

“I’m a big fan of electrification and electric cars,” he says, noting that he spearheaded GM’s now-abandoned EV1 electric-car in the 1990s.

But he adds: “The products and solutions that win in the marketplace are those that don’t defy economic gravity.”

The second was in Paul Krugman's column, where he talks about "the pundit delusion":
. . . the belief that the stuff of daily political reporting — who won the news cycle, who had the snappiest comeback — actually matters.

This delusion is, of course, most prevalent among pundits themselves, but it’s also widespread among political operatives. And I’d argue that susceptibility to the pundit delusion is part of the Obama administration’s problem.

What political scientists, as opposed to pundits, tell us is that it really is the economy, stupid.
Designing climate and energy policies based on the "boundary conditions" established by social realities is a central focus of The Climate Fix.

Rathenau Institute Report on IPCC and the Politicization of Climate Science

The Rathenau Institute, a leading Dutch think tank with a focus on technology assessment, has published a thoughtful analysis of the politicization of climate science, with a focus on the IPCC and the media (here in PDF). It is a smart and sophisticated report.

Here is how it explains the politicization of climate science through the application of the "linear model" of science and decision making (p. 76):
[T]he political body has assigned the IPCC the role of instrument for the production of incontrovertible authority (a sort of certainty machine for univocal problem analysis) as well as of arbiter for settling political controversies about the right policy goals and the best ways to achieve them. Apparently, politicians deem science capable of calculating objectively, reliably and validly what the right climate policy is and how (with which optimal combination of options) is must be implemented. As a direct consequence, the political conflict about climate change and the underlying ideological conflicts (e.g. about free markets versus government intervention) are now deeply embedded in the field of climate science itself. To put it bluntly: if you want to exert influence on policy choices, given this division of roles it is most effective to do it through science. (Think of policy choices such as: What is the best stabilisation level or reduction goal? Can this be optimally realised with nuclear energy, wind energy or underground CO2 storage?) After all, science has always been given pre-eminence to make such calculations. This has contributed to a strong polarisation and politicisation of the scientific debate.
The linear model holds that once people agree on the facts, then coming to agreement on action follows. Similarly, under the linear model, lack of agreement on facts among competing political interests is viewed as an obstacle to action (for discussion of the linear model see Chapter 6 in The Honest Broker). The Rathenau report explains the resulting dynamics (pp. 76-77):
Because politicians in the Netherlands and elsewhere have embraced the linear model, climate science has ended up at the heart of the political conflict – that is, the scientific climate debate has become an important arena for political battles. As a result, diverging political visions seek justification of their position in the scientific debate. In the process, supporters of climate policies use the IPCC reports to depoliticise and thus monopolise the climate debate. They claim that the IPCC report has a preferential position in the political debate. On the other hand, opponents try to reopen the political debate by magnifying uncertainties and imperfections in climate science. This explains why in climate-sceptical blogs such as climategate.nl and klimatosoof.nl the arrow points nowadays mainly at science and not at politics. The proposal to evaluate the political procedures and practices of the IPCC also fits into this picture. The expectation behind it is that the current controversy can be settled by perfecting policy-oriented climate science. People are thus seeing scientific uncertainty as the main cause for the lack of solid justification of policy and solid support for it. This is the exact central core of the technocratic linear model for politically dealing with scientific uncertainties.
The report argues that we should reject the linear model in the context of climate science (p. 79):
The basic assumption behind the linear model – that reducing scientific uncertainty is necessary to justify climate policy – does not wash either. Scientific uncertainties play a role in many terrains, and in most policy terrains these uncertainties are accepted as unavoidable. It would be better to just say goodbye to the illusion of certainty. This gives policy its primacy back, and climate science becomes depoliticised. Hence it is important for the public and political debate to clarify which political values and visions are at stake. From a deliberative vision it is those values which should give direction to science – in place of the other way around, which is what commonly occurs these days.
By placing values before science, we might realize a positive vision for the future (such as this) -- one that encourages robust decision making under conditions of uncertainty and ignorance (p. 79):
In addition to doomsday predictions and exercising precaution, more desirable political scenarios for the future and the world could get a clearer spot in the climate debate, turning it into a search for societally attractive development perspectives. The transition into a sustainable society is one that beckons ecologically as well as economically speaking. A vision that is possible here fits that of a bio-based economy. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is interesting not only from an environmental angle but also in terms of bringing down economic vulnerability (e.g. running out of raw materials), innovation and new business impetus. Too much emphasis in the climate debate has come to lie on scientific substantiation or proof of the end of the world. Scientific knowledge can be well deployed towards depicting and developing beckoning future scenarios.
The report has some good advice for the climate science community. The report will likely be received as bitter medicine for those whose authority in the climate debate depends upon playing politics through science -- a category which includes those typically characterized as skeptics and alarmists. This is one of the great ironies of the climate debate: the parties that are arrayed most diametrically on issues of climate policy share a common vision for the role of science in political debate. They are thus wedded together in a mutually-reinforcing and destructive embrace.

The Rathenau Instutute suggests that it is time to broaden our thinking at the science-policy interface (compare this discussion - PDF). They are right. Have a look:

Jeroen P. van der Sluijs, Rinie van Est and Monique Riphagen (eds.) (2010), Room for climate debate: perspectives on the interaction between climate politics, science and the media. The Hague, Rathenau Instituut. (PDF)

18 July 2010

Boeing's Eye-popping 2030 Air Travel Forecast

The incredible graph above comes from Boeing's forecast of air travel to 2030 (PDF). The figure shows that RPKs (revenue passenger kilometers) are projected to increase by a factor of 6 by 2029 from their 1990 values. Boeings' forecast from 2000 for 2000-2019 underforecast growth in air travel demand.

What is a critical factor for anticipating growth in demand for air travel? Not surprisingly, GDP growth:
Here is what Boeing says about the relationship between GDP and air travel:

Growth in air travel, measured in revenue passenger-kilometers (RPK), has historically outpaced economic growth, represented by GDP, by approximately 1.5 to 2.0 percent. This leads us to conclude that about 60 to 80 percent of air travel growth can be attributed to economic growth, which in turn is driven, in part, by international trade. This is consistent with the observation that countries whose economies are tied to trade tend to have higher rates of air travel. Air travel revenues consistently total about 1 percent of GDP in countries around the world, regardless of the size of the national economy. Globally, air travel has historically trended toward this consistent share of GDP, such that countries that are below or above this level will generally move toward it over the long term.

The remaining 20 to 40 percent of air travel growth results from the stimulation provided by the value travelers place on the speed and convenience that only air travel can offer. For example, travelers value choice of arrival and departure times, routings, nonstop flights, choice of carriers, service class, and fares. Liberalization is the primary driver enabling value creation in the global air transport network. Liberalization typically gives rise to a "bump" in traffic demand. Studies suggest that as the relative openness of a country's bilateral air service rises from the 20th percentile to the 70th, the resulting increase in traffic can boost air travel demand by an additional 30 percent.

Often, economic growth, induced directly and indirectly by improved air services, creates a virtuous circle that leads to further air transport growth, which in turn leads to added economic growth, and so on.

This suggests some simple logic with straightforward implications:

*Demand for air travel rises with GDP increases
*Increasing GDP leads to increasing emissions
*Policy makers around the world are focus on sustained GDP growth
*New generations of aircraft are expected to be more fuel efficient
*Increased demand will have a much larger than efficiency gains on aviation emissions
*Aviation emissions are going to increase dramatically under this scenario

The inevitable implication of this logic is a need for technological advances in either carbon neutral liquid fuels (e.g., biofuels) or carbon capture and storage. Any other options?

15 July 2010

Skill in Prediction, Part I

Over the past month I organized a competition for predictions of the outcome of the World Cup, using ESPN's Bracket Predictor. The competition, fun on its own terms, also provides a useful window into the art and science of prediction and how such efforts might be evaluated. This post summarizes some of the relevant lessons.

A key concept to understand in the evaluation of prediction is the concept of skill. A prediction is said to have skill if it improves upon a naive baseline. A naive baseline is the predictive performance that you could achieve without really having any expertise in the subject. For instance, in weather forecasting a naive baseline might just be the climatological weather for a particular day. In the mutual fund industry, it might be the performance of the S&P 500 index (or some other index).

For the World Cup predictions, one naive baseline is the expected outcomes based on the FIFA World rankings. FIFA publishes a widely available ranking of teams, with the expectation that the higher ranked teams are better than lower ranked teams. So even if you know nothing about world football, you could just predict outcomes based on this simple information.

This is exactly what I did in RogersBlogGroup. The naive FIFA World Ranking prediction outperformed 64.8% of the more than one million entries across the ESPN Competition. Only 33 of the 84 entries in RogersBlogGroup outperformed this naive baseline. The majority of predictions thus can be said to "lack skill."

I also created entries for "expert" predictions from financial powerhouses UBS, JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, each of which applied their sophisticated analytical techniques to predicting the World Cup. As it turns out, none of the sophisticated approaches demonstrated skill, achieving results in the 35th, 61st and 54th percentiles respectively -- a pretty poor showing giving the obvious time and expense put into developing their forecasts. Imagine that these "experts" were instead predicting stock market behavior, hurricane landfalls or some other variable of interest, and you learn that you could have done better with 10 minutes and Google -- then you probably would not think that you received good value for money!

It gets tricky when naive strategies become a bit more sophisticated. I also created a second naive forecast based on the estimated transfer market value of each team, assuming that higher valued teams will beat lower valued teams. This approach outperformed 90% of the million ESPN entries and all but 11 of the 84 entries in RogersBlogGroup.

It would be fair to say that the TeamWorth approach is not really a naive forecast as it requires some knowledge of the worth of each team and some effort to collect that data. On the other hand, data shows that the market value of players is correlated with their performance on the pitch, and it is pretty simple to fill out a bracket based on football economics. This exact debate has taken place in the context of El Nino predictions, where evidence suggests that simple methods can outperform far more sophisticated approaches. Similar debates take place in the financial services industry, with respect to active management versus market indices.

One dynamic of forecast evaluation is that the notion of the naive forecast can get "defined up" over time as we learn more. If I were to run another world football prediction now, there would be no excuse for any participant to underperform a TeamWorth Index -- excerpt perhaps an effort to outperform the TeamWorth Index. Obviously, matching the index provides no added value to the index. In my one of my own predictions I tried explicitly to out-predict the TeamWorth Index by tweaking just a few selection, and I fell short. Adding value to sophisticated naive strategies is extremely difficult.

There are obviously incentives at play in forecast evaluation. If you are a forecaster, you might prefer a lower rather than higher threshold for skill. Who wants to be told that their efforts add no (or even subtract) value?

The situation gets even more complex when there are many, many predictions being issued for events and the statistics of such situations means that chance alone will mean that some proportion of predictions will demonstrate skill by chance alone. How does one evaluate skill over time while avoid being fooled by randomness?

That is the topic that I'll take up in Part II, where I''l discuss Paul the Octopus and his relationship to catastrophe modeling.

14 July 2010

Sport as Academic Laboratory

My latest column for Bridges is out, and in it I discuss how sport can serve as a useful laboratory for examining questions related to decision making, ethics, politics, prediction and more. I even discuss the outcome of the recent World Cup prediction competition that I ran here over the past month. Here is an excerpt from my essay:
Sports provide a valuable context for evaluating expertise, and not just among athletes but among those who purport to understand the dynamics of sporting events. For instance, ESPN, the US-based sports media enterprise, hosted a competition for predictions of the outcomes of the 2010 World Cup. Of the more than 1,000,000 entries submitted, only 10 percent would have improved on naïve predictions based on the transfer market-value of each team, i.e., assuming that the higher valued team would win each game. In fact, the "expert" predictions offered by the financial services firms Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, and UBS fell only at the 61st, 67th, and 35th percentiles in the ESPN competition, respectively, all behind a naïve forecast based on FIFA World Rankings, which scored at the 70th percentile. What might this say about these firms' ability to predict market outcomes?
Have a look, I welcome your comments. You can also hear the column as an mp3.

And as usual, please peruse the entire issue.

Bjorn Lomborg's Bad Habit

[UPDATE 16 July: Bjorn Lomborg sent around his op-ed to his email list, with the following in the header:
Please find below Dr. Lomborg's latest Project Syndicate article “Affordable Green Energy" about a smart way to tackle global warming. Part of the article draws on some of the excellent work of the Breakthrough Institute. Readers can find out more about the Breakthrough Institute at http://www.thebreakthrough.org/
It is a welcome corrective.]

Bjorn Lomborg has a bad habit of taking other people's ideas and presenting them without attribution. I pointed this out in 2007:

Bjorn Lomborg writing in The Guardian 7 February 2007:

Imagine if the director of the CIA published a new assessment of Iran, saying: “I hope this report will shock people, governments into taking more serious action.”

I wrote here on Prometheus 25 January 2007:

Imagine, by contrast, if the Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, another organization with an agenda to be “policy neutral,” were reported in the media to say of the agency’s latest assessment on Iran, “I hope that the report will shock people, governments into taking more serious action.”

In his latest op-ed he cribs from the ideas of the Breakthrough Institute without any attribution.
Here is Lomborg:
This belief in the potential of technological progress strikes some climate activists as naïve or even delusional. But is it really? Consider one of the miracles of the modern age – the personal computer. These devices didn’t become household items because governments subsidized purchases or forced up the price of typewriters and slide rules.
And here is Nordhaus and Shellenberger in 2007:
The kind of technological revolution called for by energy experts typically does not occur via regulatory fiat. We did not invent the Internet by taxing telegraphs nor the personal computer by limiting typewriters.
It is really, really great to see Lomborg move from climate skeptic to geoengineering advocate to realizing the importance of technological innovation for decarbonizing the economy. But he could at least give credit where credit is due.

13 July 2010

Cuccinelli's Fishing Expedition

The latest salvo has been fired in the ongoing legal battle between Kenneth Cuccinelli, Attorney General for the State of Virginia, and the University of Virginia over Michael Mann's email records (background here and here). In a brief filed today in opposition to the University's petition for dismissal (PDF), Cuccinelli does the following:

1) Fails to show that there is any prima facie evidence of fraud, at best only fudge, and really, only that Mann's work has been contested. Oddly, Cuccinelli cites the various recent reviews of the implications of the released East Anglia emails, none of which presented any evidence of fraud associated with the work of Mann. Does he really think that those reviews support his case?

2) Reveals that the University has no emails in any case (interesting factoid, but not relevant to the current petition)

3) Essentially admits that he is on a fishing investigation by trying to invoke a Catch-22 (p. 16):
The distinction between relevant to an investigation as opposed to relevant to a violation is significant.
What Cuccinelli is in effect saying here is that even if he doesn't have any real evidence to suggest that a violation of Virginia statute has occurred (see #1 above), the important criterion is if the information that they have asked for is relevant to an investigation. And of course, they have opened an investigation. Simply by opening an investigation means that they can demand information relevant to that investigation. If it sounds like a Catch-22 that is because it is.

Cuccinelli cites previous case law as follows (p. 17), to suggest that they don't need to show that a violation has occurred to request the information from the university:
The “reasonable cause” standard requires less than the probable cause standard and does not require a showing that a violation has in fact occurred.   As stated by the Commonwealth, “[a]t this point in the investigation it is not necessary for the Commonwealth to prove that any customer has actually been deceived;  that is to be established at trial. . .
What, you might ask, comes after the ellipses (and was not included by Cuccinelli in his brief)? The following rather important qualification:
Rather, what is important is that the Commonwealth has made its prima facie case of reasonable cause to investigate.
Cucinnelli has not, in my inexpert opinion, established a "prima facie case of reasonable cause" -- far from it. Cuccinelli argues that his lack of proof is what justifies the investigation. Good luck getting that bizzaro logic and misleading application of case law past a judge!

What more do you need to know to see that this is pure and simple a fishing expedition?

4) Shows without a doubt that he has no clue as to what "post-normal science" actually means it practice. It does not mean fraud. (Misinterpretations and misunderstandings of post-normal science appear to be shared across the political spectrum.)

I am not a lawyer, of course. But I'd be very surprised to see a Virginia court rule in favor of Cuccinelli.

Here We Go Again

[UPDATE 16 July: Three days after contacting Chris Field, I have yet to receive a response. I interpret his silence as a message of nolo contendre. Should he respond in the future I'll be happy to share his response.]

I see that four climate scientists, including the incoming head of IPCC WGII, Chris Field, have written up an op-ed for Politico calling for political action on climate change. That they are calling for political action is not problematic, but the following statement in the op-ed is a problem:
Climate change caused by humans is already affecting our lives and livelihoods — with extreme storms, unusual floods and droughts, intense heat waves, rising seas and many changes in biological systems — as climate scientists have projected.
I have sent Chris Field an email as follows:
I read your op-ed in Politico with interest. In it you state:

"Climate change caused by humans is already affecting our lives and livelihoods — with extreme storms, unusual floods and droughts, intense heat waves, rising seas and many changes in biological systems — as climate scientists have projected."


I am unaware of research that shows either detection or attribution of human-caused changes in extreme storms or floods, much less detection or attribution of such changes "affecting lives and livelihoods". Can you point me to the scientific basis for such claims?

Many thanks,

I'll report back how he replies. Suffice it to say that it would not be good form for leader of the IPCC to be making political arguments using scientifically unsupportable statements.

12 July 2010

Remember the "War on Science"?

During the Bush Administration, a lot was made about how Republicans were waging a "war on science." The Bush Administration was particularly ham-handed and certainly tried to use (and abuse) science in support of its political agenda. There is no dispute about this. For many years I have disputed the notion that such actions were simply characteristic of Republican leadership which might be addressed at the ballot box, returning science to its proper place, rather than via more systemic policy reform. With the election of Barack Obama and a significant Democratic majority in Congress we can test this hypothesis.

Today's Los Angeles Times provides some evidence that the Obama Administration is itself ham-handed and trying to use (and abuse) science in support of its political agenda:
When he ran for president, Barack Obama attacked the George W. Bush administration for putting political concerns ahead of science on such issues as climate change and public health. And during his first weeks in the White House, President Obama ordered his advisors to develop rules to "guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch."

Many government scientists hailed the president's pronouncement. But a year and a half later, no such rules have been issued. Now scientists charge that the Obama administration is not doing enough to reverse a culture that they contend allowed officials to interfere with their work and limit their ability to speak out.

"We are getting complaints from government scientists now at the same rate we were during the Bush administration," said Jeffrey Ruch, an activist lawyer who heads an organization representing scientific whistle-blowers.
What are some of the complaints being levied against the Administration?
[I]nterviews with several scientists — most of whom requested anonymity because they feared retaliation in their jobs — as well as reviews of e-mails provided by Ruch and others show a wide range of complaints during the Obama presidency:

In Florida, water-quality experts reported government interference with efforts to assess damage to the Everglades stemming from development projects.

In the Pacific Northwest, federal scientists said they were pressured to minimize the effects they had documented of dams on struggling salmon populations.

In several Western states, biologists reported being pushed to ignore the effects of overgrazing on federal land.

In Alaska, some oil and gas exploration decisions given preliminary approval under Bush moved forward under Obama, critics said, despite previously presented evidence of environmental harm.

The most immediate case of politics allegedly trumping science, some government and outside environmental experts said, was the decision to fight the gulf oil spill with huge quantities of potentially toxic chemical dispersants despite advice to examine the dangers more thoroughly.

And the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based organization, said it had received complaints from scientists in key agencies about the difficulty of speaking out publicly.

"Many of the frustrations scientists had with the last administration continue currently," said Francesca Grifo, the organization's director of scientific integrity.

For example, Grifo said, one biologist with a federal agency in Maryland complained that his study of public health data was purposefully disregarded by a manager who is not a scientist. The biologist, Grifo said, feared expressing his concerns inside and outside the agency.

Most of the examples provided by Ruch, Grifo and others come from scientists who insist on anonymity, making it difficult for agencies to respond specifically to the complaints. Officials at those agencies maintain that scientists are allowed and encouraged to speak out if they believe a policy is at odds with their findings.
Of course, during the previous presidency if you supported the policies of the Bush Administration, you might have found it easy to look away from issues of scientific integrity. Similarly, if you support the policies of the Obama Administration you might choose to remain silent about the continuing issues of scientific integrity. This sort of selective concern exacerbates the pathological politicization of science. Distinguishing partisan politics from issues of scientific integrity is important, but unfortunately, difficult to do.