Archive for April 2008

More On Steven Postrel’s Climate Issues…

April 30, 2008

Issues, as in he has ‘em, and it matters because his ill-informed comments (and I’m trying to keep the discourse on a reasonably polite level, as Dr. Postrel himself has done) actually capture a much broader pathology in the realm of those who oppose taking climate science and its predictions seriously.

Last night, I posted my much too-long and still incomplete response to Dr. Postrel’s comments further down this blog — but I also pinged my internet-friend Eric Roston, to see if he wanted to have a crack at the same material that I saw, frankly as nonsense born of a dangerous brew of ignorance of the field and an ideological predisposition to a given outcome.

I did so because while I have written at length about climate change — I did so mostly two decades ago. I have complained (to Eric among others) that what’s most depressing about that is how little I would have to change in my basic take on the subject now, and you can see Eric’s treatment of that claim here.

But the point is that Eric, a former Time magazine science/tech correspondent is now the author of the forthcoming The Carbon Age (Macmillan, July, 2008), and is much more deeply immersed in the current science and policy literature than I ever was. So when in doubt, call in the expert — and here is Eric’s first whack at Postrel’s argument. I should warn you — it ain’t pretty (that is to say, Eric fired for effect, and he got it).

Update: Eric Roston’s name now spelled correctly (with apologies).

Image: Francisco de Goya “Bravo Toro,” 1824-1825. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Does Climate Change Matter: Steven Postrel Edition

April 29, 2008

Last week I blogged at length (too much! sayeth the mythical average reader) about McCain’s gas tax holiday and the evil consequences for hopes to rein in carbon pollution/climate change.

In doing so I linked, approvingly, to Steven Postrel’s analysis of the relative policy and economic consequences of a carbon tax vs. a carbon cap-and-trade system to limit and/or roll back carbon emissions in the US. At the same time I snarked a couple of times (reasonably politely, I thought) about this bit of Postrel:

Let’s suppose you’ve been swept up in the recent frenzy and decided that it actually makes sense to apply coercive regulations to reduce human carbon dioxide emissions. Let’s further suppose that you’ve caught up to the 21st century and know that imposing specific technology standards on particular sources of emissions is a sign of policy incompetence: You know that market-ish mechanisms can do a much better job than technology standards of allocating clean-up tasks to the lowest-cost producers; you know that market-ish mechanisms provide incentives for private innovation in emissions control while technology standards stifle better ideas.

Congratulations! You are now about where the public policy debate has fallen these days — naive about the quality of the natural science involved but possessing a sound insight about the smartest way to do a foolish thing. (Italics added — TL)

The essence of my snark was that Postrel was out of his competence — and wrong — by suggesting that the science of carbon pollution and climate change was poor.

In the comments thread to the second of my provocations in this direction, Dr. Postrel responded with a courteous and thoughtful defense of his claim, along with a slightly more irascible re-response to another commenter (and old friend of mine) who took issue with some of what he said in his first micro-essay.

Postrel’s comments are worth reading, as they are clear, internally coherent, and provide as sound a brief precis of the arguments for the do-nothing approach as anything I’ve read.

And what makes them important, IMHO, is that they thus succinctly express several of the most significant errors of that approach.

So — as Werner Wolf fans may remember, Lets Go To The Videotape!

By way of adjusting the frame of his argument, Postrel begins his first comment with a slight but significant shift. He says that climate scientists’ “judgment about what can be done with their scholarship is very much in question. Not just at the level of prediction, but at the level of policy evaluation and control.”

Well that’s open to debate — and I’ll take a crack at that below. But note the tricky little sidestep there. In his own post on taxes v. cap and trade, he clearly indicts “the quality of the natural science.” Here, called to the mat on that, he says, in effect, no– not really — it’s just when climate scientists apply their knowledge to domains beyond the reach of their pretty little heads that we get into trouble.

OK — he didn’t say that; but the implication is clear, and its clearly not what he said in his initial post, so my snark still stands.

But so what? Rhetorical sleight of hand is always nice to expose, but Postrel goes on from this claim, to argue the implications of his assertion that climate scientists — along with those who believe what the vast majority of them are telling us — are foolish naifs, and it is here, I think that his more serious errors become apparent.

Postrel’s first argument in favor of doing nothing rests on what he calls thought experiments. (They aren’t really — in the shameless self promotion department, see my account of thought experiments in the hands of someone who knew how to create a hypothetical that actually penetrated to the heart of an issue.)

Postrel asks “if there were a provable natural trend toward cooling would anyone be arguing for increased CO2 emissions to balance and stabilize the climate? Answer: When pigs fly.”

There are several problems with this, and with the parallel straw man question on natural warming. First, the rhetoric: Postrel asserts, absent evidence beyond his own assessment of human nature/political process, that humans would not attempt to control nature to their own advantage. “Because I said so” (a loose translation of “when pigs fly”) is neither persuasive nor accurate in this case.

(By the way — Postrel took my old friend and trenchant blogger Lovable Liberal to task for an alleged confusion of the distinction between rhetoric and argument. I’d say the phrase “When pigs fly” settles the case in LL’s favor — though I’m happy to allow my friend to wield the blade of his Harvard philosophy degree to discipline Dr. Postrel on this matter in his own time and space.)

But beyond the fact that Postrel advances as argument a mere ex cathdra claim, the problem here is that he is clearly wrong on the facts. Human beings have routinely intervened in large ways and small to alter climate/environmental conditions to their benefit in the context of natural, cyclical change. See John McPhee’s The Control of Nature for some classic writing on the subject — but examples are legion, and stretch back at least to Sumerian attempts to irrigate their corner of the fertile crescent.

More broadly — and more to the larger issues with Postrel’s case — there is both a moral and a practical argument to be made that the “experiments” Postrel proposes are in fact arguments of either ignorance or bad faith.

Bad faith first: It seems reasonable to test the assumption behind the question. Postrel asserts by implication that reasonable observers should see no difference between a “natural” and an intentionally, consciously chosen act. Is that so? Ask yourself whether you feel or reason a difference between a natural process that alters ecological conditions and actions undertaken by humans now fully aware of the fact that their acts have consequences for people and ecosystems who/that derive no benefit from the original action.

I think that it is obvious that there is such a difference, and I think the recognition of that distinction is deeply ingrained in our law, customs, cultures, systems of belief and so on.

(For an example in the realm of both law and belief consider the Talmudic discussions of responsibility and compensation required when an ox causes damage depending on what knowledge the owner had of the propensity of his animal to cause injury.)

Hence my use of the term “straw man” for what Postrel would rather label more grandly a “thought experiment.” It fails to achieve that status both because, at least in Postrel’s hands, it becomes a question that assumes its answer (airborne pork and so on) — and because it rests on a false assumption of the equivalence of the question with the situation to be explored.

Now to the issue of ignorance. Why might it be a good idea to intervene now, when it would not have been, say 70,000 years ago, (when, we have just been informed, homo sapiens may have flirted with extinction brought on to poor adaptation to an undeniably natural climate change)?

Because, (more relentless self promotion alert) as I discussed here, before Jared Diamond and John McPhee did the same to much greater effect, the current anthropogenic climate change has one crucial difference from all the natural variation humans have endured throughout their evolutionary history.

That change?

We’ve built a whole lot of stuff in the way since the last Ice Age ended.

Over the last several hundred years we have constructed critical infrastructure on the assumption that the climate regime is going to stay more or less constant over time. We’ve done that all over the world, of course, and while there are some technological fixes available to the rich (see the Dutch engineering of their sub-sea level coastal fortifications), more broadly, we’ve got a lot of life, wealth and property invested in the notion that the ocean will stay more or less where it is.

And of course, it isn’t just coastlines we need to worry about. Global warming is not just an issue of sea level rise; it presents, as Postrel does accept, a much broader range of possible consequences.

Climate change affects rainfall, storm severity, longer term patterns of drought and damp and so on. Global agriculture on industrial scales are built on climate assumptions. Land use and distribution reflect generations of dispute and resolution on the question of access to climate resources and so on. Radical change in the climate regime — an expansion of drought areas, shift of rainfall patterns and so on — might not, as Postrel and others have argued, produce a net loss of ecosystem capacity world wide. But such shifts do devastate human constructions built on a set of beliefs about the climate that are no longer true.

Put this another way: Hurricane Katrina was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. Rather, it was a natural event — category 3 or 4 hurricanes are going to hit in the western gulf with a certain frequency; that’s just the way that part of the system goes.

What made Katrina a human disaster was the fact that since the last major hurricane came that way, New Orleans in all its modern glory and inadequately engineered levees had grown up in the way. Take that and spread it all over the globe, and you have the reason why modern anthropogenic climate change is scarier than the Little Ice Age was. The broad argument we should do nothing because the climate has always varied fails to take into account this change from then to now.

This has gone on long enough. Just a couple more errors to pick at, and then I’ll stop, not having exhausted the problems with Dr. Postrel’s much more elegantly brief original comment.

His argument on the difficulty of agreeing on a temperature (“hubands and wives can’t agree on thermostat settings in their living rooms!”) is another straw man. The question is whether we should slow or reverse the forcing agent of climate change. The target, if any, is an atmospheric concentration of CO2, not a temperature. The straw man gets even more hay-like when you consider the issue is not even purely about hitting some admittedly at least partly arbitrary target: it is about at least slowing the pace of change to make possible what Postrel says he wants.

What’s that?

Adaptation to climate change.

Here, Postrel shows a glimmer of the real risks involved, the fact that so much of human built society depends on ecosystem assumptions that carbon pollution calls into question. But his call for engineered solutions to the effects of climate change, rather than approaches to alter the underlying driver of the shift another way of saying that rich nations, the source of most carbon pollution to date, will ride out whatever storms there may be while the poorer ones suffer.

That may be a depressingly realistic assessment of the likely outcome (particularly under the current administration) — but it’s ugly, and I suspect, poor policy as well.

Poor people rendered desperate move. Such motion causes conflict. Conflict is not always, but is often vastly more costly even for very distant, and seemingly uninvolved parties than resolving the causes of conflict before the shooting starts. I’m sure acute readers can think of other costs ecosystem change impose on the rich.

Postrel closes with the hope that we would look for other technological solutions to climate change besides simply reducing carbon emissions — mentioning a scheme to reduce the earth’s albedo (reflectivity) by injecting particles into the upper atmosphere.

Maybe I’m being uncharitable here, but I read that as he being willing to experiment with the global ecosystem properties to ameliorate the consequences of another, larger, less controlled experiment the human species is currently conducting. I’m not against technological approaches to climate change, where appropriate but I can’t see why Postrel favors one experiment over another here. (I know — presumed cost — but his claim that changing the earth’s albedo is inevitably cheap seems to undervalue the risk involved in such a what-the-hell tech fix.)

I haven’t exhausted all I’d say about Postrel’s comment, but given that this response is already several times longer than his original thoughts, I’ll rumble to a halt here.

We do agree on one thing: creating policy that does the least harm with the greatest possibility of good is exceptionally difficult. But he has inferred from that difficulty that the principle of least harm thus leads us to no or minimal policy response to our ongoing, uncontrolled experiment with not only our own lives, but those of everyone and everything else on earth.

With all due respect, I think that this is, strictly speaking, nuts.

Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, “Hunters in the Snow,” 1569. (One of my favorite works of art and an iconic image from the Europe of the Little Ice Age). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Program Notes: NY Times/Ansel Adams edition

April 29, 2008

The Gray Lady of 43rd St. (no more!) has posted a nice taste of Ansel Adams’ Yosemite photos.  The commentary comes from one of Adams’ assistants, but it’s the photos that carry the day.

This isn’t exactly science, I’ll admit — but I’m with John Muir on this one.  It’s worth being reminded of the wellsprings of scientific imagination.  Here’s Muir  on an afternoon storm in the valley:

About noon, as usual, big bossy cumuli began to grow above the forest, and the rainstorm pouring from them is the most imposing I have yet seen.  The silvery zigzag lightning lances are longer than usual, and the thunder gloriously impressive, keen, crashing, intensely concentrated, speaking with such tremendous energy it would seem an entire mountain is being shattered at every stroke, but probably only a few trees are being shattered, many of which I have seen on my walks hereabouts strewing the ground.  At last the clear ringing strokes are succeeded by deep low tones that grow gradually fainter as they roll afar into the recesses of the echoing mountains, where they seem to be welcomed home.  Then another and another peal, or rather crashing splintering stroke, follows in quick succession, perchance splitting some giant pine or fir from top to bottom into long rails and slivers, and scattering them to all points of the compass. Now comes the rain, with corresponding extravagant grandeur, covering the ground high and low with a sheet of flowing water, a transparent film fitted like a skin upon the rugged anatomy of the landscape, making the rocks glitter and glow, gathering in the ravines, flooding the streams, and making them shout and oom in reply to the thunder.

How interesting to trace the history of a single raindrop!  It is not long, geologically speaking, as we have seen, since the first raindrops fell on teh newborn leafless Sierra landscape.  How different the lot of these falling now!…(Italics added)

(John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra, Houghton Mifflin, 1979, pp. 124-126)

Muir was no scientist.  A great naturalist, a founding environmentalist, a passionate advocate, but not a scientist.  But I read in him the joy in nature that makes me, at least remember why scientific discovery does more than please my curiousity; following Muir, the recognition of order within beauty moves me too.

Ansel Adams’ photgraphs say it better.  Enjoy.

Image:  Ansel Adams “The Tetons and the Snake River,” 1942 Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the National Park Service. (79-AAG-1)  Not one of the Yosemite images, of course, but it is one of the great ones nonetheless.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Program Notes: Frontline catches … (wait for it) …

April 28, 2008

George W. Bush in a lie about climate change.

So — I am in the middle of an ever-growing post to respond to Steven Postrel’s comments on this post, and I just can’t get it done before red wine and rib steak have their way with me tonight. Tomorrow — I almsot promise.

But I can’t leave the blog to grow yet more lonely, so to keep the climate change thread going, let me draw your attention to this truly depressing report from PBS’s invaluable series, Frontline.

What struck me about the program when I caught it on broadcast was the reminder that in 2000, George Bush ran to the left of Al Gore on controlling carbon emissions, promising a hard cap on emissions to respond to the imminent danger of global warming.

It took just months, as Frontline documents with a devastating interview with the EPA commissioner of the time, former New Jersey Gov., Christine Todd Whitman, for Bush, ably prodded by Dick Cheney, to reverse course and abandon any pretense of caring about climate change for what has turned out to be two terms as the worst president in American history.

The significance of this report lies beyond its worth as a depressing exercise in recent/contemporary history. John McCain has garnered support, or at least praise, for his seeming commitment to the reality of climate change and the need for action to control the human-produced carbon pollution that is broadly understood as the prime engine of global warming.

But people inclined to buy the rather thin gruel that McCain has offered so far (at least on his website) should have heard a warning shot when McCain called for a gas tax holiday, as I blogged here. There is no way to reconcile a measure that provides incentives to drive with a genuine commitment to controlling carbon emissions.

And then I saw the Frontline report (titled “Hot Politics” by the way), and I realized that I had been baited and switched before, by the man who has designated McCain as his political heir. Trust this man on climate science at your own (and your children’s, and everyone else’s) risk.

Usually, I illustrate this blog with fine art. But there is really only one possible artistic commentary here.

Enjoy:

Friday (Isaac) Newton Blogging: Newton — gourmand.

April 25, 2008

Apologies to all for the hiatus in this blog feature. The reason, beyond the normal clutter of late term stuff, is that I did, this week, finally ship the manuscript of my upcoming book, Newton and the Counterfeiter to my various publishers. Premature plug: look for it early next year, probably Feb., from Houghton/Harcourt (whatever they are calling that merged entity) of, for our British friends, from Faber.

So, that’s a relief. How much so can only be truly grasped by those of my fellow writers who have watched deadlines grow more elastic, while the lines around editors’ tightened lips grow less so. (My two editors, both magnificent, were delightfully and surprisingly humane when I decided I needed to rip apart the first two thirds of the book and rebuild.)

So, now, I will resume at least slightly less sporadically, these occasional detours into the marginalia of Isaac Newton’s life.

There is an icon-making quote in Newtonia, the question the Marquis d’ Hopital asked one of the great man’s acquaintances: “Is he like other men?”

That’s one of those questions that is supposed to answer itself: no, of course. And to be sure, there has been centuries of Newton hagiography to support the notion. Given the lack of much in the way of autobiographical writing by Newton himself, it has proved fairly easy to map onto Sir Isaac pretty much any desired iconography, whether Alexander Pope’s laconic “Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night/God said ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was Light” or Frank Manuel’s Freud-influenced portrait of a soul twisted by a fatherless, loveless childhood.

But, it’s not just in the area of love — as I blogged here — that Newton was in fact a man like other men. He was not, no matter how often he has been portrayed as an asensual ascetic, without his ordinary pleasures.

How do we know — given the lack of self-revelation in all the millions of words the perhaps-graphomane Newton committed to paper?

Because if we do not have private glimpses of his feelings, we do have some of his accounts. As you might expect for someone of Newton’s deep (i.e., not like most other men and women) passion for precision, his personal books are models of detailed completeness. Two of his early notebooks, both available online, contain records of his expenditures down to the penny.

You find there that Newton liked to eat and he liked to drink, at least occasionally.

In 1666, he lists one pound against “At the Taverne severall other times &c;” early 2 shllings went to the Cambridge white lion; more for Whitewine; white wine & sugar; China Ale. (He also bought beer — but that was more of a staple than a luxury, given the quality of the water supply in towns of any size at all.)

He liked to eat, some delicacies: marmolet (marmolade), “cheries,” apples and pairs, “a chickin,” custard, cakes and bread.

And even though this is a fairly mundane list of extras for a hungry young scholar to add to the board he would have received at Trinity College, evidence from late and early in his life confirm that he took pleasure at his table.

Late – there are accounts for dinners he gave that show he was fully prepared to feed his guests well, and pour enough drink to ensure that they would be as unsteady as they wished to be on their way home from the house at 23 Jermyn Street.

And early: check out the list of confessions in one of his youthful notebooks. Among the desperate admissions of neglect of God: “Not loving Thee for Thy self;” “Setting my heart on money learning pleasure more than Thee” — and of his capacity for rage: “Punching my sister;” “Wishing death and hoping it to some;” and most terrifying, “Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them;” you can find seven admissions of the overweening desire for something to eat: “Robbing my mothers box of plums and sugar;” “Making pies on Sunday night;” and, twice, simple “Glutony.”

Newton was, of course, unlike others in any number of ways. Beyond his raw mental power, he could indeed completely ignore his body when occasions demanded. He told his niece once that his cat grew fat on meals he forgot to eat when he was deeply consumed by an idea. He was capable of sustained work and the self-enforced solitude required for his most intense efforts to a level that his contemporaries found extraordinary. He did not seem to need much in the way of physical companionship.

But the point is none of this makes him some celestial creature — not the nearer-to-the-gods-than-any-mortal-man of Edmund Halley’s introductor poem to the first edition of the Principia. Rather, he was in fact a man, an extraordinary one, but still, one of us. IfHe ate, drank, slept (sometimes) conversed (with selected companions) drank in taverns, and liked apples – to eat, even if not, perhaps, to ratiocinate upon

Image: Franciso de Goya y Lucientes, “Still Life with Hen and Fish,” 1808-1812. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Really Stupid Ideas: Hillary update.

April 24, 2008

Matthew Yglesias has a more subtle take on Hillary’s “me too” on McCain’s gas tax holiday folly.

He points out that Obama’s principled rejection of the obviously stupid idea is correct on the merits, but bad politics in an arena where the religion of tax cuts still holds sway.

His close reading of Hillary’s apparent support for McCain’s environmentally and economically foolish proposal  suggests that she does not in fact have any desire to see such silliness turned into law.  Rather, he points out that she includes a careful, devastating qualifier in her support:  that the holiday should only be enacted if the money thus lost to the Highway Trust Fund could be made up.  As she (and everyone else) have suggested no way the funds could be magicked from some other source, this amounts to a rejection of a proposal she can get the credit for supporting.

I buy that. I even buy Matt’s view that this is the smart politics.

But at the same time, Clinton is still giving McCain cover:  the underlying fact of the matter is that a gas tax holiday is incompatible with a commitment to take climate change seriously.

To simply ignore the ignorable (as this proposal is, at least for the upcoming summer) allows the ongoing national self delusion to persist.  If we truly think that global experiments with atmospheric change are a bad idea, then we have, among much else, to burn less gas.

When Clinton says “sure — as long as we’re fiscally responsible” — she keeps climate change where it has been for the last eight years:  off the table.  Just imagine, now, the counterfactual:  suppose Clinton had said that she supported the gas tax holiday — as long as we came up with an offset for the carbon thus released.

One can dream.

Image:  William Hogarth, from his series “Humours of an Election,” 1754-5.  The work of art depicted in this image and the reproduction thereof are in the public domain worldwide. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Words to live by…

April 23, 2008

The general rule to remember is that if some discipline seems less developed than your own, it’s probably not because the researchers aren’t as smart as you are, it’s because the subject is harder

(courtesy of Paul Krugman.)

This is why as I snarked yesterday, economists/business strategists might want to be a little more circumspect in the scorn for wooly headed climate scientists.

Image:  “Mathematics concept collage.”  Licensed under a GNU Free Documenation License, version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons. 


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