26 December 2011

2011 Awards

I have decided to give a few awards this year to highlight those whose work I find stimulating, eye-opening or essential. Feel free to submit your own nominations in the comments.

Best Book I Read in 2011

The Hungry World, by Nick Cullather, was actually published in 2010, but I did not get to it until this year. The book tells the complex story of the inter-relationship of US Cold War politics and the so-called Green Revolution in Asia.

It is not an easy book, and it does not have a simple linear narrative. But it is chock full of original historical research, skews multiple myths and provides an insightful look into how technology, politics and culture intersect at the level of global geo-politics.

This book has provoked a lot of thinking on my part this year and has influenced my ongoing research trajectory more than any other.

Best Institutional Blog

The Lowy Interpreter is a blog run by The Lowy Institute for International Policy, which is located in Sydney, Australia.  The blog describes its perspective as follows:
We seek a global audience, but our perspective is Australian. Like the Institute itself, The Interpreter has a strong commitment to analytic integrity. Its editorial stance is independent, non-partisan and directed towards informing and deepening the debate about international policy.
They succeed admirably in that ambition, making it a daily stop for me.

Best Group Blog

Actually, I don't even know if VoxEu qualifies as a blog -- they call themselves a "policy portal." Whatever it is, VoxEu has, word for word, one of the best one-stop-shops for high quality and provocative policy analysis anywhere on the web.

A project of the Centre for Economic Policy Research, VoxEu seeks to:
. . . promote research-based policy analysis and commentary by leading scholars. The intended audience is economists in governments, international organisations, academia and the private sector as well as journalists specializing in economics, finance and business.
Every day I find something new, interesting, challenging or unexpected on their homepage, and it never seems to stop, making it another daily read for me. In fact, in just a few minutes I'll be blogging on a fascinating piece I found there just today.

Best Individual Blog 
I don't know where he gets the energy or the patience, but Andy Revkin's Dot Earth at the New York Times is an institution in media coverage and commentary on the environment and climate change in particular. Over the years, Revkin has taken heat from just about everyone in the climate debate -- me included;-) -- and he has continued to produce daily (and sometimes hourly) content that can be found nowhere else. Revkin's email chains are legendary and are a key tool to get experts talking among one another, which serves his blogging but also the community itself. Revkin has moved slowly but steadily toward asserting his own voice, which I hope continues. For me, 2012 will see a dramatic turn away from climate as I devote most of my time to a new book, but DotEarth will be one key way that I'll keep touch.

Congrats to all the winners! ;-)

The Worst NYT Story on Climate Ever?

UDPATE 1/2/12: The NYT doubles down in a Dec 31, 2011 editorial:
A typical year in the United States features three or four weather disasters costing more than $1 billion. In 2009 there were nine. Last year brought a dozen, at a cost of $52 billion, making it the most extreme year for weather since accurate record keeping began in the 19th century.
How many times does it have to be explained that you should not use economic damage as a proxy for climate patterns? Apparently very many!

Regular readers will know that I think that the print media overall has done a pretty good job on covering the science of climate change, if not always getting the politics right. They will also know what I think about the "debate" over climate change and extreme events (above). But every once in a while I see a story that is so breathtakingly bad that it is worth commenting on. Today's installment comes from Justin Gillis at the New York Times and was published on Christmas Eve. The article is so bad that it might just be the worst piece of reporting I've ever seen in the Times on climate change.

Where to begin? How about the start.

The NYT laments that the work of attributing the cause of extreme events in NOAA is "languishing":
Scientists say they could, in theory, do a much better job of answering the question “Did global warming have anything to do with it?” after extreme weather events like the drought in Texas and the floods in New England.

But for many reasons, efforts to put out prompt reports on the causes of extreme weather are essentially languishing.
Set aside the unattributed "scientists say" -- a favorite construction of Gillis and the Times. The article fails to explain that NOAA already has a robust effort in place focused on climate attribution and which has put out recent assessments about phenomena as varied as the 2011 US tornado season and the 2009/2010 mid-Atlantic coast snowstorms. No one from that effort was quoted in the article nor was any of their work (perhaps because it utterly contradicts the narrative of the story).

The article repeats the tired statistic that the number of billion dollar disasters have increased in recent decades:
A typical year in this country features three or four weather disasters whose costs exceed $1 billion each. But this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has tallied a dozen such events, including wildfires in the Southwest, floods in multiple regions of the country and a deadly spring tornado season. And the agency has not finished counting. The final costs are certain to exceed $50 billion.
The article does not explain that $1 billion in 2011 is about the same as $400 million in 1980 (XLS). Nor does it explain that a $50 billion total in losses for 2011 is about exactly the same as the total in 1980, after adjusting for inflation -- however, as a proportion of the overall economy those 1980 losses were 250% larger than those experienced in 2011. That is, the equivalent 1980 losses in 2011 would be $125 billion (XLS). The article completely ignores relevant peer-reviewed research on the subject (see here also).

The article fails to cite the recent IPCC report which covered this exact subject, concluding (PDF):
Long-term trends in economic disaster losses adjusted for wealth and population increases have not been attributed to climate change, but a role for climate change has not been excluded.
The IPCC SREX report has a lot of other things to say about extremes, which also contradict the narrative of the story. Also neglected is the US government's own review of extreme events in the US, which found no long-term trends.

The article is extremely sloppy when discussing tornadoes:
Tornadoes, the deadliest weather disaster to hit the country this year, present a particularly thorny case.

On their face, weather statistics suggest that tornadoes are becoming more numerous as the climate warms. But tornadoes are small and hard to count, and scientists have little confidence in the accuracy of older data, which means they do not know whether to believe the apparent increase.
Tornadoes are not in the least bit "thorny." You wouldn't know from reading the article that the most powerful tornadoes - the F3,  F4 and F5s which cause almost all of the damage and fatalities -- have actually decreased over the past 50 years (so too has damage, but be careful about interpreting this data). Nor would you know that the NOAA Climate Attribution effort has recently looked at the 2011 tornadoes and found no evidence of causality from increasing greenhouse gases:
So far, we have not been able to link any of the major causes of the tornado outbreak to global warming. Barring a detection of change, a claim of attribution (to human impacts) is thus problematic, although it does not exclude that a future change in such environmental conditions may occur as anthropogenic greenhouse gas forcing increases.
The NYT article relies on a very few people from the usual small circle of folks cited in such articles to say the usual suggestive things - Ben Santer, Jeff Masters, Peter Stott. Not one researcher is cited who actually publishes peer-reviewed work on tornadoes, economic impacts of disasters, or the long-term history of US weather extremes. However, somehow Congressional Republicans show up as the bad guys in the usual good guys-bad guys framing on this topic. No budget numbers are presented nor any specific discussion of what is going on in NOAA. Ink blot.

I still believe that the print media overall does a good job on a difficult subject, but every once in a while you see an article so detached from reality that it is worth noting.

Now, I'm back to my nap by the fruit table;-)

21 December 2011

Should Dangerous Research be Published?

AAAS Science Insider reports on the debate over whether potentially dangerous research should be published in scientific journals. This particular case centers on research on the transmission of  bird flu in two papers submitted to Science and Nature:
Two groups of scientists who carried out highly controversial studies with the avian influenza virus H5N1 have reluctantly agreed to strike certain details from manuscripts describing their work after having been asked to do so by a U.S. biosecurity council. The as-yet unpublished papers, which are under review at Nature and Science, will be changed to minimize the risks that they could be misused by would-be bioterrorists.

But the stricken details may still be made available to influenza scientists who have a legitimate interest in knowing them under a new system the journals and U.S. government officials have been actively debating for some time.

The two papers have both been reviewed at length by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSSAB), and both have been the subject of intense global media attention the past 2 months. They have also triggered debates among scientists, security experts, and officials within various branches of the U.S. government.
The science advisory board to HHS recommended that the papers not be published in full, and the agency that it advises concurred. Both teams of scientists disagreed with the recommendations, but nonetheless agreed to remove details from their papers.

Science has responded by asking for a plan from the US government for how the research results would become available to qualified individuals:
Our response will be heavily dependent upon the further steps taken by the U.S. government to set forth a written, transparent plan to ensure that any information that is omitted from the publication will be provided to all those responsible scientists who request it, as part of their legitimate efforts to improve public health and safety.
Nature appears to concur.

In 2003, a group of scientific journal editors issued a Statement on Scientific Publication and Security (here in PDF) which offers very little in the way of concrete guidance for such situations. This is a topic that deserves a bit more thought and clarification.

How Bad Decisions Happen

Popular Mechanics has a chilling report on the cause of the crash of Air France 447, which was the result of a sequence of bad decisions by the crew. The fight recorders recovered from the bottom of the ocean reveal confusion and poor judgment among the pilots.  Despite being warned by the planes automatic systems more than 75 times that the plane was in a stall, the pilots never acknowledged the warning.

The article introduces a distinction between "normal law" which are the restrictions placed upon the plane by a computer to disallow any decision that takes it out of its flight envelope. However, Flight 447 was operating not in "normal law" but in "alternate law" -- PM explains:
Again, the stall alarm begins to sound.

Still, the pilots continue to ignore it, and the reason may be that they believe it is impossible for them to stall the airplane. It's not an entirely unreasonable idea: The Airbus is a fly-by-wire plane; the control inputs are not fed directly to the control surfaces, but to a computer, which then in turn commands actuators that move the ailerons, rudder, elevator, and flaps. The vast majority of the time, the computer operates within what's known as normal law, which means that the computer will not enact any control movements that would cause the plane to leave its flight envelope. "You can't stall the airplane in normal law," says Godfrey Camilleri, a flight instructor who teaches Airbus 330 systems to US Airways pilots.

But once the computer lost its airspeed data, it disconnected the autopilot and switched from normal law to "alternate law," a regime with far fewer restrictions on what a pilot can do. "Once you're in alternate law, you can stall the airplane," Camilleri says.

It's quite possible that Bonin had never flown an airplane in alternate law, or understood its lack of restrictions. According to Camilleri, not one of US Airway's 17 Airbus 330s has ever been in alternate law. Therefore, Bonin may have assumed that the stall warning was spurious because he didn't realize that the plane could remove its own restrictions against stalling and, indeed, had done so.
The tragic sequence of decisions on board Air France 447 will no doubt help to make flying even safer than it is today, and should also serve as a case study in decision making more generally. Many poor decisions can be attributed to a confusion between an expectation that one is operating under some conditions akin to "normal law" when the actual decision context is better characterized in terms of "alternate law."

Have Markets Misvalued Energy Companies?

A few weeks ago Nicholas Stern had an op-ed in the FT in which he claimed that markets are failing to reflect the risks of aggressive climate policy or climate impacts into the share prices of energy companies. Richard Tol and I submitted a short op-ed in response which was not published, so we publish it here.
Have Markets Misvalued Energy Companies?

Roger Pielke Jr. and Richard Tol

Writing in the Financial Times (Dec. 9) Lord Stern of Brentford suggests that the financial markets have grossly misjudged the valuation of companies that produce fossil fuels, writing, “the market has either not thought hard enough about the issue or thinks that governments will not do very much.” Stern argues that the misjudgment poses a “risk to the balance sheets of large companies – or to the planet, or both.”

Have markets misvalued energy companies? While markets are of course not perfect, for two reasons we believe that in this instance there is no evidence to suggest that the valuation of fossil fuel producers has been grossly misjudged.

First, let us assume that governments around the world decide to take swift and effective action to reduce emissions. Would this mean that fossil fuel companies would go out of business in the near term? No.

Consider the case of Apple. Apple’s revenues depend upon selling products that will be obsolete within years and historical relics in a generation. That does not stop the company from being among the most highly valued in the world. If the world transitions to carbon free energy supply, the big energy producers of today are likely to play a big role.

Under all scenarios for future energy consumption the world is going to need vastly more energy and – whether governments act to decarbonize or not – vastly different types of energy too. Energy majors are so highly valued not simply because of the fossil fuel reserves they own, but because they have the expertise to supply energy at a massive scale along with a track record of successful and rapid innovation, with the ongoing shale gas and ultradeep oil revolutions as the latest examples.

Second, what if governments fail to deeply cut emissions? Might the impacts of unmitigated climate change lead to a dramatic reduction in the valuation of fossil fuel companies?

According to the work of Nick Stern himself this seems highly unlikely. In his famous review of climate change Stern argued that unmitigated climate change might reduce global GDP by as much as 20% by 2100. Using Stern’s own numbers for the most extreme impacts would mean that instead of growing by 2.5% per year to 2100, GDP would grow by 2.24%, with the largest effects occurring at the end of the century. This hardly seems cause for a dramatic revaluation of fossil fuel companies today.

The impacts estimated by Stern on behalf of the British government are very pessimistic compared to the estimates found in the academic literature. Furthermore, changes in the growth rate of the economy have a muted impact on the growth in energy demand.

Indeed, future demand for energy is largely insensitive to whether governments decide to act on climate change. The more than 1.5 billion people without reliable access to electricity will demand access regardless. A world with unmitigated climate change could in fact be more energy intensive, for instance if more people demand air conditioning. In either case the future for energy companies would be bright.

Humans affect the climate system and it is important for policy makers to respond. But it is unlikely that efforts to second guess the market valuation of energy companies will contribute to such responses. Of course, if Nick Stern really believes that energy companies have been grossly over-valued he could put his money where his convictions lie. Who knows, he may one day be the subject of the sequel to the Big Short.

Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor at the University of Colorado. Richard Tol is a professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin and at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.

19 December 2011

The Government Role in Shale Gas Innovation

Writing in the Washington Post over the weekend, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus explore the government's role in the technological innovations that have led to the shale gas revolution:
Whatever one thinks about shale gas today — we worry about its environmental consequences — there’s no denying the extraordinary economic return on taxpayer investments. Shale gas is likely to allow the United States to go from net gas importer to a net gas exporter over the next decade.

While details vary, the story is basically the same for nuclear power, natural gas turbines, solar panels, and wind turbines — pretty much every significant energy technology since World War II. That’s because the private sector alone cannot sustain the kind of long-term investments necessary for big technological breakthroughs in the midst of volatile energy markets and short-term pressure to produce profits.

No doubt, government energy innovation investments could be made more efficiently and effectively. But it would be a mistake to imagine that we’d be better off without them.
The details of government innovation policy matter a great deal of course, as such policies can lead to success or failure. And the consequences of innovation are often themselves disruptive and may require actions in response.

Any effective approach to innovation will move beyond the simplistic debates that spring up over whether the government or the private sector is the source of all that is good and the other is the source of all that is evil. Both have important roles to play.

Comments welcomed on this post on the the details of the S/N op-ed, technology of shale gas and specific innovation policies. But please take generalized arguments for or against government or the private sector elsewhere, Thanks!

About that Durban Deal

India has pulled the rug out from under those who would try to spin the outcome of the Durban Climate Conference as some sort of step towards an international agreement to limit emissions. The Indian Environmental Minister Shrimati Jayanthi Natarajan, had this to say before the Indian parliament upon returning from Durban:
India has always taken a stand that India cannot agree to a legally binding agreement for emissions reduction at this stage of our development. Our emissions are bound to grow as we have to ensure our social and economic development and fulfill the imperative of poverty eradication.

Some Parties led by the European Union wanted to delete the option relating to ‘legal outcome’ which was originally mooted by India., We successfully resisted this pressures and in turn suggested a similar expression ‘agreed outcome with legal force’ which found acceptance with all the Parties. The post 2020 arrangements, when finalized, may include some aspirational CoP decisions, binding CoP decisions, setting up of new institutions and bodies, and new protocols or other legal instruments as necessary to implement the decisions covering various issues with various degrees of binding-ness as per domestic or international provisions of law under the Convention.

I must clarify that this decision does not imply that India has to take binding commitments to reduce its emissions in absolute terms in 2020.
So much for the spin.

16 December 2011

Innovation Policy Lessons of the Vasa

My latest column is out for Bridges.  Read it here.

As as usual, have a look at the entire edition.  Bridges is one of the finest science and technology Policy publications anywhere.

Politics Versus Innovation

The dim bulb saga continues. Congress in its wisdom, has decided to try to score some political points by revisiting an issue that was largely dormant in a political sense and largely resolved in a policy sense. That issue is of course light bulb standards. In the Omnibus Budget bill, which has nothing to do with light bulbs, a rider has been attached to overturn the 2007 efficiency standards signed into law by the Bush Administration.

What does the lighting industry say about this turnabout?
The lighting industry has been gearing up since 2007 -- when the standards were originally enacted -- to make light bulbs that meet the requirements.

All five of the major light bulb manufacturers are already selling new incandescent bulbs that give off the same amount of light as a traditional 100-watt bulb using about 30 percent less energy. And while they are not planning to pull those bulbs from the shelves if the controversial language is enacted, they are faced with numerous questions moving forward.

"Eliminating funding for light bulb efficiency standards is especially poor policy as it would leave the policy in place but make it impossible to enforce, undercutting domestic manufacturers who have invested millions of dollars in U.S. plants to make new incandescent bulbs that meet the standards," a group of dozens of lighting manufacturers, efficiency groups and environmentalists said in a letter yesterday to senators.
The opposition to the standards comes from the Tea Party right, but is supported by many Republicans and not too-strongly opposed by many Democrats. But even some Republicans object:
"In the real world, outside talk radio's echo chamber, lighting manufacturers such as GE, Philips and Sylvania have tooled up to produce new incandescent light bulbs that look and operate exactly the same as old incandescent bulbs and give off just as much warm light," Republicans for Environmental Protection Policy Director Jim DiPeso said in a statement. "The only different is they produce less excess heat and are therefore 30 percent more efficient. What's not to like?"

Blocking the standards effectively serves as a slap in the face to light bulb manufacturers, who have been working since 2007 to produce the new bulbs.
Republicans may think that they are making an important political statement about being anti-government, but in reality they are making a strong statement about being anti-innovation, anti-jobs and, ultimately, anti-growth.

***For more, see my op-ed from earlier this year on the role of efficiency standards (put in place by government, industry and the two working together) in stimulating innovation.

15 December 2011

Prediction Evaluation: Carbon Price Edition

On June 16, 2008, the head of Deutsche Bank Asset Management opined in the FT that carbon allowances on the EU ETS were soon to hit 100 Euros:
The price of European carbon allowances (known as European unit allowances, or EUAs) has risen only modestly this year, to about €27 ($43, £21) a tonne. But market pressures are building that could take the price to €100 a tonne or higher. . .

The markets have an uncanny ability to find the weak hand. Those emitters with too few allowances to cover their carbon output are going to get squeezed by the lack of supply, and a rise to at least €100 looks inevitable.
How did that prediction do?

The graph at the top of this post shows carbon allowances are this week at record lows, at about 7 euros.  The vertical line on the left side of the graph shows the carbon allowance price when the Deutsche Bank prediction was made.

Today, a number of large companies in Europe, presumably in possession of a large number of allowances, petitioned the EU to "prop up" the market:
Royal Dutch Shell, Philips and more than a dozen other top international companies have made an urgent plea to Brussels to prop up the flailing European Union carbon market after another week of plunging prices. . . 
In a move to file under "unintended consequences" the group of companies has also asked the EU to think twice about efforts to improve energy efficiency:
Brussels should also rethink the “distorting” impact some of its other policies are having on the carbon market, the companies said, especially an energy efficiency measure the European parliament is due to vote on next week.

Forcing large industrial plants covered by the EU emissions trading system to become more energy efficient would further dampen demand for ETS allowances . . .
I wonder if anyone predicted that outcome?

Conclusion of Roundtable at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Over at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, my final installment in the Roundtable with Robert Socolow and Randy Olson is up today.  The subject, you may recall, is how scientists should react when "When Politicians Distort Science."

Here is an excerpt from my piece today:
I'd like to return to discussing Socolow's central claim that science is under attack and needs defending from the anti-science brigades.

In short, I find the evidence for such a claim sorely lacking. In these cynical times, science is among the few institutions in society that is held in high regard. (Others include the military and first responders to disasters.) The most recent survey of public attitudes about science by the National Science Foundation found that 84 percent of Americans expressed support for government funding of basic research, and Americans have more favorable attitudes toward the promise of science and technology for our future than do Europeans. Further, Americans ranked scientists higher in prestige than 23 other occupations (and at a level similar to firefighters), a view that has remained virtually unchanged in the 35 years that the NSF has conducted its surveys.

These data hardly show an institution under attack or even a loss of support for science. Yet Socolow warns ominously that "an age of darkness could lie ahead" and worries about the "alienation of large segments of the public from the scientific enterprise." I have a hard time making sense of such general expressions of extreme concern, which are by no means unique to our exchange.
Please head over there, have a look at the contributions from all three of us, and feel free to return here to discuss or debate. And a special thanks to The Bulletin for hosting and to Olson and Socolow for an interesting exchange!

Nothing Else Matters

In political debates there exists the interesting phenomenon of the single-issue advocate. The single-issue advocate in the most extreme form cares about one issue and one issue only. The clarity of focus held by the single-issue advocate helps him or her to paint the world into blacks and whites, those who are evil and those who are not. Issues related to science and technology seem to have more than their fair share of single-issue advocates in areas such as medicine, environment, agriculture, energy and so on. But like anything else, in the extreme focus goes from a virtue to a vice.

Here is an example in an op-ed in The Balitmore Sun today, focused on what else, but climate change:
If 1.4 degrees gets us a soon-to-be-ice-free Arctic and nearly nonstop extreme weather worldwide, what will 11 degrees bring us?

Well, it's safe to say AIDS would be the least of our worries in such a world. We could even find a cure for AIDS — eliminate the disease completely — and it wouldn't matter in a world 11 degrees warmer. We could cure cancer itself and it wouldn't matter. Instead of good health, we'll have the nightmare of chronic food shortages, persistent new diseases like malaria and dengue fever spread across North America, and untold misery and death from heat waves in cities like St. Louis, where high temperatures could be well over 100 degrees 25 days every summer.

Withdrawal from Iraq? What does it matter? We could disband the Pentagon completely and end all wars everywhere, and it wouldn't matter with 11 degrees. We wouldn't have peace. Violence, instead, would be our daily fare: violent weather, violent ecological upheaval, violence to our civilization.

The economy? An envoy from God himself could bestow jobs on every worker and forgive all debt — from credit cards to the federal budget deficit. But it would be no good with 11 degrees. Wall Street will be under several feet of water, and our commercial infrastructure — harbors, bridges, airports, rails — will literally bake, erode, buckle and break.

Of course I'm not opposed to our nation's current efforts to end disease, reduce war and increase wealth. It's just that the policies don't make sense without a simultaneous national effort to avoid 11 degrees.
You hear that? Seeking to end disease, reduce war and increase wealth "don't make sense" unless the government adopts some crash effort on reducing emissions. Nothing else matters.

What would such a crash effort involve according to some prominent single-issue advocates in the environmental community?

At Grist, Dave Roberts explains that sharp emissions reductions "would require substantial institutional reform and possibly even a period of economic contraction."  And Joe Romm explains of climate change, "It is indeed humanity’s self-destruction. We must pay any price or bear any burden to stop it."

In one of Andy Revkin's email chains yesterday, I tried to draw out Dave Roberts and Joe Romm to specify more clearly what they meant by "economic contraction" and "bear any price."  Although the discussion was certainly cordial, neither was forthcoming with a direct reply.

Romm went so far as to argue that of course no one argues for economic contraction (apparently not reading Roberts' post or The Climate Fix;-).  Of course he'd say that and Roberts would avoid answering -- single-issue advocates who argue that nothing else matters (including human suffering) except mounting a major response to their issue sound absolutely nuts.

14 December 2011

BBC: Economics Graphs of the Year

The BCC has a neat feature that policy wonks will love -- 11 top economists select their "graphs of the year." My selection from those 11 is shown above. It shows dramatically some of the policy illusions that we have lived under for much of the past decade or so, and which have unraveled dramatically in recent years. Policy analysts, politicians and the public have big jobs ahead in 2012.

12 December 2011

Valued Skills and Offshoring

At VoxEu David Hummels and colleagues provide an overview of a recent paper which explored the effects of the offshoring of jobs on demand for skills, and in particular the value of a college education, focused on a Danish case study.

They reach some interesting conclusions.  First, while they find that offshoring leads firms to increase wages of the college-educated and decrease the wages of those without a college degree, there are some surprising findings at a more detailed level.

Perhaps most surprising is the finding that a more globalized workforce leads to a premium for communication and social science skills:
When we examine the effects of offshoring on wages for different knowledge groups, we find that offshoring has the largest positive effect on occupations that require communication and language (premium of +4.4%), followed by social sciences (+3.7%), and maths (+2.7%). The premium for natural sciences and engineering is close to 0. This may seem curious given the policy emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) education in many advanced economies, but if science and maths are universal languages, jobs requiring them can be done anywhere with an educated workforce.

The primacy of communication in our results is broadly consistent with findings on immigration and economy-wide task specialisation by Peri and Sparber (2009) and Ottaviano et al. (2010) that highlight natives’ comparative advantage in language and communication tasks. We find that offshoring firms not only retain workers doing communication-intensive tasks, but that these workers actually become more valuable when offshoring rises. Why? One possible explanation is that offshoring increases interactions between domestic workers and foreign workers from different cultural backgrounds, and those differences raise the cost of communicating within the firm (Lazear 1999). Having domestic workers with finely tuned communication and language skills and social scientists with knowledge of other cultures and societies may be useful in overcoming offshoring-induced costs of cross-cultural dealing.
The paper also argues that the negative effects of offshoring disproportionately (negatively) affect a small number of workers, with positive effects experienced by many more. The negative effects can be observed in the ranks of both the college- and non-college-educated workers.

The summary concludes:
All this suggests that getting a degree is perhaps less important than what you study and who you work for. Rather than focus on educational attainment as an end in itself, policy might better focus on specific skills that are valuable in a globalising world. Unfortunately, policymakers appear to be leaning the wrong way with their emphasis on the so-called STEM disciplines. We find that rising offshoring leads firms to value these knowledge sets less than communication, language, and social science skills.

But the most profound earnings effects are found in workers displaced due to offshoring. Unlike the normal job gains and losses that occur as firms grow and fail, globalisation shocks can result in sharp reductions in demand, economy-wide, for specific tasks. Re-attaching to the workforce may then require a more fundamental retraining of these workers. It remains an open question whether the programmes in place to retrain workers are adequate to the task.
The full paper can be found here.

Ward vs. Pielke: Round XVI

Just over a week ago the FT published Bob Ward's latest letter to the editor.  In it, Ward spins the UEA emails as "simply" showing scientists frustrated with the irrationality of politics. Ward writes:
So the hacked emails simply provide a snapshot of the frustrations that many scientists experience when they interact with the public debate and the media and find that arguments are framed not on the basis of the strength of the evidence presented, but instead on the rhetorical skill of the protagonists.
Ward is either uninformed or purposely employing some "rhetorical skill" as he is misrepresenting what the emails actually say.

In a letter published on Saturday in the FT I respond:
From Prof Roger Pielke.

Sir, Bob Ward’s letter (December 3) explains that the unauthorised publication of emails from the University of East Anglia “simply” shows scientists expressing frustration at the irrationality of political debates. Unfortunately, the emails cannot be explained away so innocently. For instance, one exchange shows two lead authors of the 2007 assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) conspiring to keep peer-reviewed research that I had led from being cited in their chapter on extreme events. Our work had challenged their views on the subject of hurricanes and climate change.

This exchange, and others, revealed scientists in influential positions exhibiting an unhealthy orientation toward influencing political debates as well as making decisions about science based on rather petty academic rivalries. Of course, such dynamics are always a risk when science meets politics, which is why major scientific assessments are, in principle, designed to minimise the outsized influence of a small clique of contributors.

As Christopher Caldwell (“Why Climategate is a catastrophe for good science”, November 26) explained in the column to which Mr Ward was responding, trust in science is a matter of the credibility and legitimacy of scientific organisations that represent the authority of science in public settings. Denial of the troubling issues raised by the emails – as Mr Ward has done – will not make the problems of the IPCC go away, much less contribute to renewed trust in the institutions of climate science.

Roger Pielke, Jr, Professor, Environmental Studies, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, US
Ward, who serves as a spin doctor for the climate science community, does not seem to realize that if you are caught out in public saying things that are demonstrably untrue, then your credibility will suffer. Even though Ward is a PR official at LSE, his statements reflect poorly on the Grantham Institute which employs him and the climate science community more generally.

Do the folks who routinely adopt an approach based on heavy spin really take the public for fools? It is a bad strategy to take, as the public is far smarter than they are often given credit.

A Skeptic Reviews The Climate Fix

[UPDATE: WUWT has decided to take down their post. But the internet has a deep memory -- Here it is for those interested.]

If you are visiting here from Watts Up With That, welcome. Here is a link to my book, which was reviewed at WUWT, by a guest poster Shub Niggurath and approved by Anthony Watts (the latter included as an update at the request of AW).

Before I launch into a response, let me first say that while critiquing my book is fair game, critiquing my interest in sport!?  Over the line;-) For the good folks at WUWT I have provided a sporting interpretation of their review above. Enjoy! And now a few thoughts in response . . .

The "substance" of the review is disappointing, as it is mainly an extended ad hominem attack on me based on my claim that the debate over the science of climate change is pretty much over as far as public opinion is concerned, and further, that continued such debate is utterly irrelevant to the broader policy debate. Of course, those who seek to politicize science in the name of climate politics exist on both sides of the debate and both find fault in the argument that science is a weak lever in political debates. With a broad agreement like that, it is no surprise that climate science has become so politicized.

Here are a few excerpts from the review:
You can forever hang around making half-baked public statements to draw attention, and simply wave away questions with “The answers are in my book”. . . Roger Pielke Jr has been doing that for a while. . .

While the first two chapters are rambling one can hack away at the fluffy text . . .

Pielke the Junior informs the reader that when his dad was writing basic encyclopedia articles on climate he was not interested in the science and was instead running behind girls and playing soccer . . .
The review then goes on an extended discussion of several reports that are not discussed in my book but which the author does not like. The author then returns to discussing me, and this line is particularly fun:
Calling it disingenuous would be going easy. Pielke Jr is not alone in this either. As he reports in his book Bill McKibben, a Pielke favourite, managed to convince ‘mostly poor’ 92 island nations about the risk of global warming. . . 
The author, with ad hom to spare, gets my colleague Max Boykoff into the act (fortunately he is unaware of Max's sporting interests;-):
The absurd consequences of such stage-managed opinions and the resulting neuroticism is clearly evident in a paper by Max Boykoff, one of Pielke’s colleagues at his Colorado institute.
The author can't even figure out what he is writing about. To make the case that the public does not want to take action on climate change, he attacks what I call the "iron law of climate change":
[T]he so-called ‘iron law’ is an enormous non-sequitur, and just a small outcome of a more general ‘iron law of scams’.
Um, OK. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out that logic;-)

I appreciate it a great deal when people take the time to read my books, as there is a lot of competition out there for the attention of readers. WUWT has published a review that says more about WUWT than it does any of the arguments in my book. Nonetheless, perhaps they might bring it to the attention of a few readers who are interested in what the book actually says, and for that I am grateful.

09 December 2011

Friday Fun: Tomorrow's Headline Today

survey solutions
The best case scenario for those wanting success at the Durban Climate Conference is going to be the kicking of the can way down the road. From a policy perspective the outcome is largely irrelevant to emissions of carbon dioxide for the foreseeable future. (Though a complete collapse might help;-)

But the outcome does have some interesting implications for President Obama and the 2012 presidential contest. In that light I've designed a little poll where you can prognosticate on the joint outcome of the Durban conference and how it will be spun in the US media.

Stern's Strange Argument

Apple is one of the world's largest companies, according to its market capitalization, even briefly exceeding ExxonMobil earlier this year. How can this be? Think about it. Every single product that Apple produces today will be obsolete in near future. Not many people carry around a first generation Ipod, or work on an Apple IIe. The certain death of Apple's product line must present economists and financial experts with a great paradox. Therefore, shorting Apple's stock seems like a no-brainer, right?

Well, wrong. Obviously.

But this is the exact line of argument that Nicholas Stern of LSE (author of the Stern Report of 2006) presents in today's FT on the apparent "contradiction" between the valuation of fossil fuel companies and government polices focused on emissions reductions:
There is therefore a profound contradiction between declared public policy and the valuations of these listed companies, based on their fossil fuel reserves, which appear to assume that the world will not get anywhere near its targets for managing climate change.

This contradiction is important. It means that the market has either not thought hard enough about the issue or thinks that governments will not do very much – or somewhere between the two. This presents problems for markets’ assessment of risk; for governments’ credibility; and for regulators, whose approach appears to contradict their own governments’ policies.

This argument makes no prediction of where the world may go. It points to a logical contradiction between what many governments are saying and what markets appear to believe – implying severe risks both to the markets themselves and to the environments that shape lives and livelihoods across the world.

We should recognise that this kind of tension affects not only producers of fossil fuels, but also the industries that use them intensively and the fiscal position of governments holding large reserves.

Surely honesty and transparency require that this contradiction and its implied risk to the balance sheets of large companies – or to the planet, or both – be recognised and tackled.
There is no contradiction here. The world will continue to burn fossil fuels until there are better alternatives available. Governments can certainly help to make markets work better, for instance by eliminating counter-productive subsidies, but such action faces severe political obstacles in many parts of the world. Obviously there is zero risk of governments turning the lights out.

Further, governments are not going to make the price of fossil fuels appreciably more expensive -- not if they wish to stay in power.  This of course is the "iron law" of climate policy.  If and when we see the end of fossil fuels -- whether due to scarcity or substitution or both -- no more means the end of fossil fuel companies than the certain obsolesce of today's Apple product line means the end of Apple.

That is economics and innovation 101.

08 December 2011

About that War on Science, Obama Edition Continued

There is no war on science, of course, but I do have some fun with it. The latest example on this front in the Obama Administration comes from the Department of Health and Human Services and involves abortion politics with a presidential election coming into sight. The issue is politics as normal, but both sides insist on framing it in terms of science, and it is that framing (as opposed to the decision itself) that results in politicized science in this case.

HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius has chosen to reject the advice of experts in FDA on the safety of over-the-counter "emergency contraception":
In a surprise move with election-year implications, the Obama administration’s top health official overruled her own drug regulators and stopped the Plan B morning-after pill from moving onto drugstore shelves next to the condoms.

The decision by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius means the Plan B One-Step emergency contraceptive will remain behind pharmacy counters, as it is sold today — available without a prescription only to those 17 and older who can prove their age.

The Food and Drug Administration was preparing to lift the age limit on Wednesday and allow younger teens, who today must get a prescription, to buy it without restriction. That would have made Plan B the nation’s first over-the-counter emergency contraceptive, a pill that can prevent pregnancy if taken soon enough after unprotected sex.

But Sebelius intervened at the eleventh hour and overruled FDA, deciding that young girls shouldn’t be able to buy the pill on their own — especially since some girls as young as 11 are physically capable of bearing children.

“It is common knowledge that there are significant cognitive and behavioral differences between older adolescent girls and the youngest girls of reproductive age,” Sebelius said. “I do not believe enough data were presented to support the application to make Plan B One-Step available over the counter for all girls of reproductive age.”
The reaction to the decision on the left and the right is utterly predictable:
It was the latest twist in a nearly decade-long push for easier access to emergency contraception, and the development shocked women’s groups and maker Teva Pharmaceuticals, which had been gearing up for over-the-counter sales to begin by month’s end.

“We are outraged that this administration has let politics trump science,” said Kirsten Moore of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, an advocacy group. “There is no rationale for this move.”

“This decision is stunning. I had come to believe that the FDA would be allowed to make decisions based on science and the public’s health,” said Susan Wood of George Washington University, who served as the FDA’s top women’s health official until resigning in 2005 to protest delays in deciding Plan B’s fate. She said, “Sadly, once again, FDA has been over-ruled and not allowed to do its job.”

But the decision pleased conservative critics of the proposal.

“Take the politics out of it and it’s a decision that reflects the concerns that many parents in America have,” said Wendy Wright, an evangelical Christian activist who has helped lead the opposition to Plan B.
Both sides are wrong -- the decision is of course political and has been informed, but not dictated, by science. Expert opinion on safety is one, but only one, factor in the HHS decision. Setting a legal age-threshold for buying the morning-after pill is no different than setting a legal age threshold for buying alcohol.

07 December 2011

The Economy, Stupid ... or is it Innovation?

We've had a nice discussion of jobs and equity, on earlier threads, but I am going to cut to the chase. It's the economy stupid, to quote Bill Clinton's 1992 election campaign.  Addressing persistent unemployment will be a function of accelerating economic growth.

At The New Republic William Galston explains the size of the "jobs hole":
Despite the modest economic recovery since the recession ended in mid-2009, total employment remains more than 5.5 million below the level of 2007 and about 1.6 million below where it was when President Obama took office. . . To regain full employment (5 percent, which happens to be the same as the level when the recession began) with the pre-recessionary labor force participation rate, we would need 150.7 million jobs—10.1 million more than we have today. That’s a reasonable measure of the hole we’re still in, two and a half years since the official end of the recession.
If growth is indeed the key to reducing persistent unemployment, then I think we can eliminate several of the problem definitions that I presented from ITIF earlier this week:

1. A classic Keynesian contraction (implication: government stimulus)
2. Financial crises are different (implication: wait it out)
3. Regulatory uncertainty (implication: finalize legislation, lighten regulatory burden)
4. Unskilled workforce (implication: train workers, streamline immigration)
5. Not enough innovation (implication: invest in R&D, innovation-friendly policies)
6. Too much innovation (implication: put brakes on productivity growth)
7. Weakened U.S. competitiveness (implication: strengthen manufacturing, invest in skills, R&D)

These five remaining problem definitions are like the blind man and the elephant -- where in this case the elephant is innovation policy.

Should the tag line for the 2012 election be -- It's innovation, stupid?

What Are the Odds?

It is early 2006, and you are asked what the probabilities are of 6 years in a row of US hurricane seasons with no landfalls of intense (Cat 3+) hurricanes. No such event had ever been observed.

What would you say? Here is what I'd have said:

1. From 1900 to 2005 there were 69 of 106 years with intense hurricane landfalls (data in graph above from NOAA).
2. That means that, based on the entire record, the odds of a single year with no such landfalls is 0.349 (i.e., 1 - (69/106)).
3. The odds of six such years in a row is thus (0.349 ^ 6) (to the sixth power)

. . . or 0.18% or 1 in 553.

What would you have said?

06 December 2011

OECD on Income Inequality

OECD has a new report out on income inequality.  The report concludes:
Today in advanced economies, the average income of the richest 10% of the population is about nine times that of the poorest 10%. Even in traditionally egalitarian countries – such as Germany, Denmark and Sweden – the income gap between rich and poor is expanding – from 5 to 1 in the 1980s to 6 to 1 today. It’s 10 to 1 in Italy, Japan, Korea and the United Kingdom, rising to 14 to 1 in Israel, Turkey and the United States and reaching more than 25 to 1 in Mexico and Chile.
Why should we care about income inequality?
Rising income inequality creates economic, social and political challenges. It can jeopardise social mobility: intergenerational earnings mobility is low in countries with high inequality such as Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States, and higher in the Nordic countries, where income is distributed more evenly. The resulting inequality of opportunities will affect economic performance as a whole. Inequality can also fuel protectionist sentiments. People will no longer support open trade and free markets if they feel that they are losing out while a small group of winners is getting richer and richer.
An interesting finding from the analysis is that one reason that income inequality has increased has been a diversification of the labor force, with globalization playing a minor role:
[R]egulatory reforms and institutional changes increased employment opportunities but also contributed to greater wage inequality. These reforms were carried out to strengthen competition in the markets for goods and services and to make labour markets more adaptable. The good news is that more people, and in particular many low-paid workers, were brought into employment. But the logical consequence of more low-paid people in work is a widening distribution of wages.
What does OECD recommend?  Better jobs.
The most promising way of tackling inequality is through boosting employment. Fostering more and better jobs, enabling people to escape poverty and offering real career prospects, is the most important challenge for policy makers to address.
Boosting employment may help lift the bottom, but it does not address issues at the top. The OECD tiptoes around the issue of taxes and the super wealthy. 

Comments to USA Today on Air Capture Debate

I am quoted in USA Today in an article on a new paper by House et al. which says that the costs of chemical air capture of carbon dioxide are larger than has been estimated by other researchers. Air capture technologies (chemical, biological, geological) are discussed in Chapter 5 of The Climate Fix

Below are my full comments to the reporter. Note that in the comments below I refer to the paper as Herzog et al. below, Herzog is the last author on the paper and a long-time critic of chemical air capture.  Herzog calls his academic opponents "snake oil salesmen" and argues that his paper will help to argue against those who say "you don’t have to change anything about your lifestyle" to reduce greenhouse gases. 

I have bolded the parts of my correspondence to the reporter which were quoted in the USA Today article:
This paper is the latest in an ongoing and healthy debate between academics who think that chemical air capture will be less expensive (David Keith, Klaus Lackner) and those who think it will be more expensive (Herzog et al.).  This debate has been going on in the literature for a while. Like a lot in the climate debate there is thus something there for everyone.

I am not an engineer nor do I have a horse in this race, but I will say that insofar as engineering projects are concerned debates about costs are best resolved through experience not theory.  So if Keith and Lackner can build an air capture process that is cheaper than argued by Herzog (which they are trying to do), they win the debate, and if they can't, then Herzog wins. I do know that our record of technological forecasting in many areas, especially as related to costs, has never been very good, so I take all such studies with a grain of salt.

More generally, chemical air capture, as described by Herzog et al. is only one potential technological approach to air capture -- there are also other chemical processes discussed in the literature, and even biological approaches and geological approaches. So the infeasibility of any one approach doesn't doom the whole enterprise of trying to brute force remove CO2 from air.

In the future, we may indeed one way want to remove CO2 from the air using such brute force methods, and cost will certainly a key variable in that decision.  But from where I sit, debates over cost will be decided by real world technologies not academic papers. That said papers such as Herzog's are welcome and important because they do help to shape what technologies are tested and what bars of performance they are expected to meet (and not meet).

Finally, Herzog et al. reach the same conclusion that I do in my book The Climate Fix -- regardless of the costs of chemical air capture, to have any hope of stabilizing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere at a low level requires the near complete decarbonization (a real word;-) of our energy production system.
If unclear or you have a follow up just let me know!

All best,


PIK Responds

The PR office of PIK, the research institute in Germany where Stefan Rahmstorf is employed, has responded to my post last week on the court case between Rahmstorf and a journalist.  PIK sends this email, which they say is on-the-record:
Dear Dr. Pielke,

it has been brought to our attention that on your weblog http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2011/12/journalist-fights-back-and-wins.html you claim that Prof. Rahmstorf "was convicted of defaming a journalist". I am sorry to say that this statement is not correct.

What in fact happened is that a journalist, Irene Meichsner, applied for a court injunction which was granted in part by the court last February. It has been a civil lawsuit, of course, and the court simply decided that Stefan Rahmstorf should not repeat two sentences he wrote in his blog months before that (and which already had been removed by him from the blog because the journalist asked him to do so). In German law, defamation would mean something very different.

Could you be so kind to correct this as soon as possible?

Kind regards,

Jonas Viering
(PIK PR-officer)
In response I have updated my post.  The opening sentence originally said:
In Germany, there is news today (here) about a prominent climate scientist who earlier this year was convicted of defaming a journalist, Irene Meichsner.
I have revised it as follows:
In Germany, there is news today (here) about a prominent climate scientist who earlier this year saw a court rule against him and in favor of a journalist, Irene Meichsner.  The basis for the lawsuit was what one observer of the German media calls "personal defamation" by Rahmstorf against the journalist.
 I have noted this update at the top of the post.

05 December 2011

Where do Jobs Come From?

The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation has just issued a report on anemic U.S. job growth in which it provides a concise overview of various diagnoses for persistently high unemployment.  The report outlines seven different explanations:

1. A classic Keynesian contraction (implication: government stimulus)
2. Financial crises are different (implication: wait it out)
3. Regulatory uncertainty (implication: finalize legislation, lighten regulatory burden)
4. Unskilled workforce (implication: train workers, streamline immigration)
5. Not enough innovation (implication: invest in R&D, innovation-friendly policies)
6. Too much innovation (implication: put brakes on productivity growth)
7. Weakened U.S. competitiveness (implication: strengthen manufacturing, invest in skills, R&D)

Number 7 is the favored diagnosis of ITIF. But, what if all seven are in some way correct? That is how it looks to me.

This debate is not unique to the present crisis or the United States. Consider that every year for the next decade India is expected to add to its workforce a number of workers equivalent to the entire population of Sweden. Over the next decade the global economy will have to add jobs at the rate of the total German population every two years (based on the rate of job growth of the last 20 years). Job growth is an important and shared global priority.

Where do jobs come from? How do we get more? These are questions that I'll be exploring in the near term, starting from some very basics, mainly to sort out some of these issues in my own mind. Assistance welcomed.

Walter Lippmann and "Genuine Debate"

Walter Lippmann was one of the greatest American political writers of the last century. Here are a few excerpts from his 1955 book The Public Philosophy that remind us that the politicization of information is far from a new concern. He also emphasizes not just the importance of open debate in response, but that there is no viable alternative in democratic systems.

I've posted this up before and will surely do so again sometime.

On the transformation of the complex to the simple in public discourse:
. . . when the decision is critical and urgent, the public will not be told the whole truth. What can be told to the great public it will not hear in the complicated and qualified concreteness that is needed for a practical decision. When distant and unfamiliar and complex things are communicated to great masses of people, the truth suffers a considerable and often a radical distortion. The complex is made over into the simple, the hypothetical into the dogmatic, and the relative into the absolute. Even when there is no deliberate distortion by censorship and propaganda, which is unlikely in time of war, the public opinion of masses cannot be counted upon to apprehend regularly and promptly the reality of things. There is an inherent tendency in opinion to feed upon rumors excited by our own wishes and fears. [p. 27]
On balance in the media and in public debates Lippmann is quite clear about maintaining conditions that foster debate and the exchange of perspectives.
. . . when the chaff of silliness, baseness, and deception is so voluminous that it submerges the kernels of truth, freedom of speech may produce such frivolity, or such mischief, that it cannot be preserved against the demand for a restoration of order or of decency. If there is a dividing line between liberty and license, it is where freedom of speech is no longer respected as a procedure of the truth and becomes the unrestricted right to exploit the ignorance, and incite the passions, of the people. The freedom is such a hullabaloo of sophistry, propaganda, special pleading, lobbying, and salesmanship that it is difficult to remember why freedom of speech is worth the pain and trouble of defending it.

What has been lost in the tumult is the meaning of the obligation which is involved in the right to speak freely. It is the obligation to subject the utterance to criticism and debate. Because the dialectical debate is a procedure for attaining moral and political truth, the right to speak is protected by a willingness to debate. . . .

And because the purpose of the confrontation is to discern truth, there are rules of evidence and of parliamentary procedure, there are codes of fair dealing and fair comment, by which a loyal man will consider himself bound when he exercises the right to publish opinions. For the right to freedom of speech is no license to deceive, and willful misrepresentation is a violation of its principles. It is sophistry to pretend that in a free country a man has some sort of inalienable or constitutional right to deceive his fellow men. There is no more right to deceive that there is a right to swindle, to cheat, or to pick pockets. It may be inexpedient to arraign every public liar, as we try to arraign other swindlers. It may be a poor policy to have too many laws which encourage litigation about matters of opinion. But, in principle, there can be no immunity for lying in any of its protean forms.

In our time the application of these fundamental principles poses many unsolved practical problems. For the modern media of mass communication do not lend themselves easily to a confrontation of opinions. The dialectical process for finding truth works best when the same audience hears all the sides of a disputation. . . Rarely, and on very few public issues, does the mass audience have the benefit of the process by which truth is sifted from error – the dialectic of debate in which there is immediate challenge, reply, cross-examination, and rebuttal.

Yet when genuine debate is lacking, freedom of speech does not work as it is meant to work. It has lost the principle which regulates and justifies it – that is to say, dialectic conducted according to logic and the rules of evidence. If there is not effective debate, the unrestricted right to speak will unloose so many propagandists, procurers, and panders upon the public that sooner or later in self-defense the people will turn to censors to protect them. An unrestricted and unregulated right to speak cannot be maintained. It will be curtailed for all manner of reasons and pretexts, and to serve all kinds of good, foolish, or sinister ends.

For in the absence of debate unrestricted utterance leads to the degradation of opinion. By a kind of Gresham’s law the more rational is overcome by the less rational, and the opinions that will prevail will be those which are held most ardently by those with the most passionate will. For that reason the freedom to speak can never be maintained merely by objecting to interference with the liberty of the press, of printing, of broadcasting, of the screen. It can be maintained only by promoting debate.

In the end what men will most ardently desire is to suppress those who disagree with them and, therefore, stand in the way of the realization of their desires. Thus, once confrontation in debate is no longer necessary, the toleration of all opinions leads to intolerance. Freedom of speech, separated from its essential principle, leads through a short transitional chaos to the destruction of freedom of speech. [pp. 96-101]
The antidote to concerns about "frivolity" and "mischief" in public debates is not to try to silence or demagogue one's opponents, but rather to invite them to participate in a "genuine debate."  Today, on many topics genuine debate seems to be more often avoided than engaged.

02 December 2011

About Those Skeptics

In last weekend's FT, Simon Kuper had a provocative and on-target column about the role of so-called skeptics in the climate debate.  Kuper writes;
It’s tempting to blame “climate sceptics” for the world’s inaction on man-made climate change. (The United Nations’ latest summit, starting in Durban on Monday, won’t save the planet either.) Greens often talk as if the enemy were not climate change itself, but a self-taught band of freelance sceptics. No wonder, because fighting culture wars is the fun bit of politics. However, this fight is pointless. The sceptics aren’t the block to action on climate change. They just wish they were. Instead, they are an irrelevant sideshow.

Sceptics and believers quarrel about the science because they both start from a mistaken premise: that science will determine what we do about climate change. The idea is that once we agree what the science says, policy will automatically follow. That’s why the Nobel committee gave Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change a peace prize.

Mysteriously, though, the policy still hasn’t followed the science.
I would go even further than Kuper to argue that the demonization of skeptics is a key strategy in elevating the importance of science in the political debate. If it wasn't for the alleged risks that skeptics pose to our future, we'd have to instead be arguing about things like values, goals and priorities, which are messy and carry with them none of the imputed authority of science. It is in the interests of both skeptics and their opponents to argue about science, because it suggests that their debate is somehow directly relevant to policy action. It is not.

The debate over climate science is over and has been won by those who assert a human influence on the climate system. This then is what victory looks like. (For supporting evidence on the science and opinion, see chapters 1 and 2 of TCF). The larger reality of course is that global climate policy is no longer about science, if it ever was, and is today about far more practical topics.

Kuper concludes:
The sceptics and the apathetic will always be with us. There’ll never be full consensus on climate change. But if governments could only act when there was unanimity, no law on anything would ever be passed. The US invaded Iraq, bailed out banks and passed universal healthcare with much less consensus than exists over climate change. In short, the sceptics are not the block to action.

Rather, the block is that the believers – including virtually all governments on earth – aren’t sufficiently willing to act. We could do something. But shouting at sceptics is easier.
He is right.

I am often asked why I don't spent more time bashing skeptics (the answer is obvious). For those who wish to engage that topic or bash skeptics themselves, this post is for you.  Have at it!

01 December 2011

A Journalist Fights Back and Wins

UPDATED 12/6: This post has been updated and PIK has responded.

In Germany, there is news today (here) about a prominent climate scientist who earlier this year saw a court rule against him and in favor of a journalist, Irene Meichsner.  The basis for the lawsuit was what one observer of the German media calls "personal defamation" by Rahmstorf against the journalist.

The case (described in detail in English here) has to do with Meichsner's reporting of errors in the IPCC 2007 report in early 2010 in the Frankfurter Rundschau. The scientist, Stefan Rahmstorf (known in the US as a blogger at Real Climate and whom I've occasionally sparred with) is a German government advisor who strongly attacked Meichsner for her coverage of the IPCC. His attacks prompted the Frankfurter Rundschau to subsequently correct Meichsner's reporting, apparently based solely on Rahmstorf's say so, such was his authority.

Meichsnner, believing that she had done no wrong, sued. The Cologne court then decided in her favor, concluding that Rahmstorf's attacks were unsupported by evidence and even libelous.

Interestingly, in the US, Rahmstorf's efforts to take down the journalist were uncritically celebrated by no less than the New York Times, which helps to illustrate both a bandwagon effect in coverage of climate by journalists who see themselves on the "same side" as the scientists and also the extensive deference than scientists are granted by the media. Given the court outcome, I wonder if the NYT will be correcting its earlier coverage?

A German magazine on science journalism provides a detailed discussion of the case and its significance (translated from German) and summarizes this episode as follows:
This particular case deserves special attention first of all because a freelance journalist has successfully defended herself against the malice a renowned scientist poured on her. It may motivate other journalists not to put up with absolutely everything in disputes over the quality of their work but to defend themselves, even if this involves an enormous effort. . .

[T]he malice, which Rahmstorf shows for the author of the article, seems like personal defamation that has no place in public disputes. Not even – or, should I say, especially not - when it comes to a subject as important as climate change. Much of Rahmstorf's way of behaving in this case is reminiscent of what he has always argued against so eloquently: the facts are polished until they support a predetermined interpretation. This case is only superficially about facts that may be true or false. Rather, it is about the importance which is assigned to specific facts in the reporting on climate change. These interpretations are not sacrosanct. There is no one who can or would want to deny Stefan Rahmstorf and other climate scientists the right to criticise interpretations they consider inappropriate and to counter them with others. But anyone who, like Rahmstorf, fails to distinguish carefully between facts and interpretation and applies the one-dimensional criterion of right and wrong to both, enters the arena of a public battle of opinions. Disguised as a scientific expert, he is really a political agitator. He does not fight against false factual claims, but against unpopular interpretations, and in this case he also employs unfair means, as the verdict of the Cologne court documented. The fact that Rahmstorf has now changed or entirely removed certain passages from his blog post of 26 April 2010 without informing his readers about it, all fits into the picture.

The moral of the story is not very encouraging - because Rahmstorf has had considerable success. The move that led to the article being withdrawn by the FR made it onto the front page of the New York Times, as Rahmstorf, obviously rather gratified, tells his readers in his blog of 25 May. His initiative is mentioned in the New York Times as one of several successful attempts by climate researchers to publicly correct grossly distorted or false reports. In some cases this may be justified. In this particular case, it is nothing less than a demonstration of how to try and suppress unwelcome interpretations using an authoritarian concept of truth and with the help of a media conspiracy theory based solely on isolated cases and thus basically void of empirical substance.
I have seen from the inside many efforts by a small set of prominent climate scientists to bully and suppress -- behaviors which continue even after the release of the UEA emails. Such behavior is seemingly emboldened by the protective shield that many in the media hold up to protect climate scientists from criticism, no matter how legitimate.

If nothing else, the German court case should be taken as a warning by scientists in any field that efforts to slander opponents sometimes backfires. Perhaps some journalists might see virtue in one of their own protecting her reputation from an illegitimate attack.

What of Irene Meichsner?
Irene Meichsner – who had to fight her legal battle for her reputation on her own - has had enough of climate issues for the time being. She no longer writes about this subject.
I know exactly how she feels.