Posted tagged ‘climate’

Carbon TV: Steve Colbert meets Eric Roston

July 30, 2008

In case you missed it last night — you can see it here.

Colbert is the energizer bunny. Eric did a good job — but Stephen definitely made him work.

Closing line (Colbert’s) “This book is made of carbon.”

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Update and pointer on the ongoing carbon fest/Postrel roast.

May 2, 2008

I just want to call attention to Eric Roston’s latest post on the news of a research paper on ocean circulation and possible northern hemisphere cooling for the next decade or so.

Eric makes one key point — that those who would either seize on or deny this result because of a preconceived commitment to a policy prescription miss the real nature of science: that it is an ongoing, self-destroying, self-renewing enterprise. (He also makes the point that the mass media, and especially advocates, have a terrible time figuring out what each new iteration of scientific understanding actually means, especially in as complicated a subject as climate.)

Read Eric. To what he said I’d add just one point, something that Steven Postrel failed to grasp in the provocation that got this whole exchange of posts going.

That is: the central issue in the uncontrolled experiment we are doing by injecting carbon pollution into the atmosphere is not the precise change in global average temperature that will result, nor specific predictions about the fate of this locality or that.

Rather, it is about the ever increasing uncertainty about weather and climate that accumulates as wholesale changes in the bulk chemical composition of the atmosphere work their way through the physics, chemistry and biology of climate.

As I discussed below at too great length, the problem with climate change now, whether natural or anthropogenic, is that human beings have built an enormous, complex, and in many ways very vulnerable material infrastructure on certain assumptions about the stability of climate.

Current carbon profligacy casts those assumptions into doubt. We thus face both the daily costs of weather and more persistant patterns that do not conform to our expectation (Katrina; prolonged droughts; etc), and the costs of insuring ourselves against less and less accurately quantifiable risks of future climate events.

That uncertainty ultimately becomes something else: the fact of a climate regime different from the one within which we have built our cities and planned our farms. The Dust Bowl, or the collapse of the Sahel provide recent examples of the kinds of consequences we may expect from such an effect: not just suffering, but movement — the migration of peoples that traditionally produce stress at least, and armed conflict at worse.

The imperative both to understand climate dynamics and to avoid turbocharging whatever transformation is going on, derives from a healthy caution in the face of confounding the fundamental human belief that the world will behave tomorrow pretty much as it does today.

Update: Eric Roston’s name spelled correctly, again with apologies.

Image: Dallas, South Dakota, May 13, 1936. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Really Stupid Ideas: John McCain – Environment – Global Warming edition

April 17, 2008

I begin to think that John McCain and George Bush made major — and really scary — speeches on Tuesday and Wednesday in the hope that any serious examination of what they actually said would disappear in the intensity of the very serious ™ examination of Obama’s hatred of small town America and Hilary’s capacity to distinguish between the sound of AK 47 and Dragonov fire.

But they both said very interesting — stupid, but interesting — stuff, and if we wait for media grandees to help us figure it all out,….it could be a while.

Bush, of course, decided to punt action on global warming not just to the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania, but three or four down the road.  I’ll probably blog about it, but the real story is not the last President, still desperately trying to burnish his already impressive claim on the title of worst President evah.

The real concern now has to be the thinking of those trying to take his place.  And here, McCain has given us all real, renewed cause for worry bordering on panic.

McCain delivered his much anticipated speech on his economic “plan” (sic) on Tuesday.  There was an extraordinary amoung that was frightening in both his analysis and his policy proposals (that’s a grand term for what was rather a grab bag of half formed ideas).  I’ll blog a soon — I really ought to do it with my next post — about the real killer for American science (and probably our lng term economic health and national security too, now that I think of it) within the fine print of what he said.  What makes this one scary is that it stands a chance of being enacted if McCain does become President.

But the real insight into the kind of thinking that McCain would bring to the Presidency came in one of the more obvious non-starters, his proposal to enact a gasoline tax holiday through the summer driving season, Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Now there are all kinds of reasons that this is a really dumb idea.  People have pointed a lot of them out.  It would drain the already underfunded Highway Trust Fund.  (That is: if you liked this, you love driving on John McCain’s infrastructure.)  It will be a windfall for the oil refining companies.  (What a surprise, given the recent history of Republican transfers of wealth from American consumers to oil company owners.)  It would kill jobs, bash mass transit, and save the average driver — wait for it — twenty eight bucks a year.

All of that is true, and probably is sufficient reason why this is going nowhere, at least for now.  But I’ve been surprised that what seems to me the biggest and most obvious point.

McCain has been praised as the first major Republican candidate to take global warming seriously.  That claim is incompatible with this proposal.  Flat out.  One or the other wins.  If McCain wants to combat global warming, then he has to support policies to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.  If he wants to encourage driving by making the use of cars cheaper, then by all means cut the gas tax — but Katie Bar The Door for the global climate system.

There is no rocket science here, and there are no loop-holes.  Virtually every thinking economist says that the most efficient way to cut carbon emissions is to impose a carbon tax.*  The only existing even vaguely broad such tax is the gas tax.  A genuine commitment to controlling global warming would raise that tax, and make it truly universal across different emissions sources; alternatively, a cap-and-trade system could perform the same goal, making the cost of polluting the atmosphere an explicit element in the total cost of any economic transaction.

The one thing you really don’t want to do if you have any serious concern about climate change is to provide yet more encouragement for people to drive.

So which do you think McCain would save, if he had to throw a tax cut or an environmental stand under the bus.  Bets?  I didn’t think so.

At least we learned something from the whole affair; McCain is an environmentalist in precisely the same way that George Bush was compassionate and a conservative.

*See this NYT article if you want a backgrounder on carbon tax vs. cap-and-trade schemes..  For broad, digressive, funny and incredibly well informed analysis of global warming and the follies of our leaders, see Eric Roston’s blog Carbon Nation.  I’m a little embarassed to plug it here, because he has just posted a truly generous review of a book I published almost two decades ago. (Yours, for only 2 cents on Amazon!  — the price dropped two cents since I last grumbled.)  Also, look for Eric’s book coming out in a couple of months.

Image:  André Huppertz, Painting – 2.  Licensed under a GNU Free Documentation License.

The Carbon Crisis, 1663 edition

January 19, 2008

Well, not really. But in this post over at Carbon Nation, Eric Roston, author of the forthcoming The Carbon Age, writes kindly about my first book, Ice Time, published way back in 1987. He uses that work as a stepping stone to describe some of the pre-history of climate research, linking to a review of 19th century attempts to measure atmospheric carbon.

To extend Eric’s time line, I dug into some of the notes and found the reference to what I believe is the birth of systematic meteorology in the English speaking world. In 1663, Robert Boyle suggested that Robert Hooke, then the fledgling Royal Society’s curator of experiments, start keeping a daily record of London’s weather.

Hooke responded with enormous energy, inventing or improving the basic suite of meteorological inventions — the thermometer, the barometer, rain and wind gauges and other, more specialized devices. He used them to make reliable, standardized measurements in London, and then realized that if he could persuade others to do the same, a picture of a national climate, and not just local weather would emerge. So he published in the proceedings of the Royal Society what amounted to a call to arms, asking the gentlemen of England to rise from their beds and take up their thermometers.

Which they did — most notably, John Locke, rather more famous for other works. Locke’s far-too-exciting political life killed the project after a few months in the 1660s. But beginning in December, 1691, now safely returned from his Dutch exile, he took it up again, making meticulous, daily measurements of the weather afflicting the Essex manor to which he had more or less retired. His weather records ultimately appeared as part of the nation’s stock of knowledge in in 1704 in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

My favorite detail from this story of the birth of a science: Locke used a thermometer made by the celebrated watchmaker Thomas Tompion. Tompion has his own place in the history of standards as the first craftsman known to have used serial numbers to keep track of his productions.

Reading that over, I realize that this may seem like inside baseball. But I love this stuff — after all, someone had to start tracking their work in this way. And it turns out that we know who did.

Image: Thomas Wyke, “Thames Frost Fair,” 1683-4. Source: Wikipedia Commons.