Friday, February 8, 2013

Climate Change (re-updated)

With a monster storm bearing down upon an already battered and now quivering New England (a storm felicitously named “Nemo” -- nice touch), and with the ominous enigma of Global Climate Change  oppressing the national psyche,
tonight seems an opportune time to repost the below.

[Note:  For an even more bone-chilling essay, suitable to being read by flashlight while banshee winds wail withoutdoors, check out this:

For a mini-movie
of madness and salvation,
click here:


[Last posted 26 Nov 2012]
Today's ironic update:

Le Qatar est l'hôte de la dix-huitième conférence des Nations unies sur le climat.

[Earlier post:]

Just a couple of observations.

(1) Logical

That the planet has entered a period of climatic instability, seems reasonably well-established, both anecdotally, and by more systematic scientific analysis.
That said instability has been caused by human activity, to   (a) some  (b) a significant  (c) an overwhelming  extent,  are distinct propositions, each necessarily  (and progressively) less certain.  -- Nothing disputable is being asserted here:  for any propositions P, Q, the joint assertion "P&Q" is (if anything) less certain than either proposition asserted separately.  Remarkably, there are experiments apparently demonstrating that many people do not recognize this.  But that would get us into the psychological.  Those who cannot appreciate the point, are invited to turn on the television.

However --  a point generally overlooked in the chatter on the airwaves (we shan’t dignify it with the name of ‘debate’) is this:  None of these latter propositions need be true, for the solution to the empirical problem (aetiologically agnostic)  to require human activity -- such as reduction of certain greenhouse-gas emissions, or giant mirrors in space, or what have you.
In exactly parallel fashion:  If a patient is in pain, it need not be the case that this pain was inflicted by some ruffian, for us to be able to do something about it.  And though the pain is  in any case  not the result of an aspirin- or opiate-deficiency, still it may be mitigated by the administration of such analgesics.
People are concerned about the economic costs of dealing with climate change, as well we should be.  But the need for action, and the kind of action needed, is logically largely independent of the politically fraught question of the exact degree of "blame" to be assigned to human activities.
An elementary observation, but often lost.

A note to Teabaggers:  Ignore the big words in this post, and think about poor Mr Bear

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The term "climate change", which has been gaining curency, is preferable to the previously popular (and more visualizable) "global warming".  For even if a slow secular rise in temperatures is the motor of the various changes that eventuate, it is but a small part of the resulting human experience.  Moreover, the rise per year looks trivial on paper, next to the much larger daily fluctuations.  The point is not that, on some particular day, instead of being a sizzling eighty-one, the mercury hits a sizzling eighty-one-and-a-half, but that more heat is being dumped into a hydrodynamic system, which feeds local instabilities, and may nudge changes in overall pattern.
Indeed, as a (counterfactual) thought-experiment:  Imagine rotating the climate-sphere partway around the globe, while keeping all the numbers (temperature, humidity, etc.) initially fixed.  Now nothing has statistically changed, but on a human level (agriculture, housing, transportation -- everything),  it would wreak havoc.  

Another serious problem, not related to heat per se, is that the process, rather than being self-regulating (as has fortunately been the case for much of what goes on over the earth) is in some ways self-accelerating.  "Warming" sounds like just bumping up the thermostat, a linear process.  But warming melts snow and ice-caps, which in turn decreases the earth's albedo, and (moreover) releases greenhouse gases from melting tundra: a vicious circle.  If ice were black, we'd be in luck.

(2) Psychological

(i)  The attempts by such scoundrels as Rick Perry or Donald Trump, to impeach the basic honesty of a significant proportion of climate scientists, is -- putting it at a minimum -- implausible simply on psychological grounds.   The motivations for scientists include recognition by their peers, the discovery of truth, the fun of solving puzzles, not having to wear a necktie, etc.  Very few get into the game for hope of fame or fortune;  and nobody goes into climatology (meteorology, geology….) for such reasons.  Certainly such folk are to be trusted, within their area of expertise, at least as much as casino magnates and Texas politicians, outside of theirs.
[Note:  Informed criticism of the consensus, such as that by Freeman Dyson, is certainly in place;  the consensus has been wrong before.  I am myself skeptical of modeling in general, and of long-term extrapolation over nonlinear, chaotic systems. But that is not the level at which the likes of Trump and Perry operate.]

(ii)  The frantic opposition of the wingnuts of the Right, to scientifically uncontroversial propositions, is in some ways puzzling.  If you actually own a polluting plant, or are captain of a polluting industry, your opposition is comprehensible, though reprehensible.  But most naysayers are by no means in that position.   The ferocity of their denial  cannot well spring from cool economic calculation;  there is something else going on, at a deeper level.  Something broken;  something sick.

Thus -- antedating the current climate debate by many decades -- consider the case of Ronald Reagan, as described by one who know him well, having written more than one biography about the man, Lou Cannon:

Reagan attracted … attention with his discovery that trees and other vegetation were primarily responsible for air pollution, and with his wildly incorrect ‘suspicion’ that the Mount St. Helens volcano had released more sulfur dioxide into the atomosphere ‘than has been released in the last ten years of automobile driving’.”
-- Ronald Reagan (1991), p. 129

Note further that these were not the impromptu ravings of some dipso in a bar, but the considered public pronouncements of someone very much in the public eye.  They cannot thus be easily dismissed.

RFI:  I had thought that the classic line “If you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all” had been spoken by Reagan’s ecocidal Secretary of the Interior James Watt (you’ve got to credit the Gipper with a gift for irony, in that appointment);  but the Web consensus attributes it to Reagan.   Anyone have facts?

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Miscellaneous anecdotal attestations of shifting weather-patterns (other than a slow secular rise in average temperatures):
Weird storms expected through Monday in Southland

[Update 26 July 2012]  Oof!  And now this.
(Several astute Readers' Comments here, btw.)

This is a genuine threat.  Already in the south of Patagonia, people can't be outdoors for more than a couple of hours without being exposed to a harmful dose of radiation.

-- Oy veh, and now this!
"From highways in Texas to nuclear power plants in Illinois, the concrete, steel and sophisticated engineering that undergird the nation’s infrastructure are being taxed to worrisome degrees by heat, drought and vicious storms.
On a single day this month here, a US Airways regional jet became stuck in asphalt that had softened in 100-degree temperatures, and a subway train derailed after the heat stretched the track so far that it kinked — inserting a sharp angle into a stretch that was supposed to be straight. In East Texas, heat and drought have had a startling effect on the clay-rich soils under highways, which “just shrink like crazy,” leading to “horrendous cracking,” said Tom Scullion, senior research engineer with the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. In Northeastern and Midwestern states, he said, unusually high heat is causing highway sections to expand beyond their design limits, press against each other and “pop up,” creating jarring and even hazardous speed bumps.
Excessive warmth and dryness are threatening other parts of the grid as well. In the Chicago area, a twin-unit nuclear plant had to get special permission to keep operating this month because the pond it uses for cooling water rose to 102 degrees; its license to operate allows it to go only to 100. According to the Midwest Independent System Operator, the grid operator for the region, a different power plant had had to shut because the body of water from which it draws its cooling water had dropped so low that the intake pipe became high and dry; another had to cut back generation because cooling water was too warm."

[Update 4 August 2012] :
"This is not a climate model or a prediction but actual observations of weather events and temperatures that have happened. Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change."

[Update Sept 2012]  For discussion of a cinematic reflection of Climate-Change Anxiety, click here:

[Update 23 Nov 2012] Paul Krugman weighs in on the Republican mindset:

[Update 27 Nov 2012]  Zum Thema;


Was für Krimi liest wohl Dr. Sigmund Freud?
Schauen Sie mal!

[Update 10 Jan 2013]   As wildfires rage:

   "Deep purple" now represents the heat dome.

[Update 18 Jan 2014]  A chilling -- or rather searing -- anecdote about the toll of rising temperatures:

At the Australian Open, It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Stupidity

[Update 19 Jan 2014]  

HERE’S a scary fact about America: We’re much more likely to believe that there are signs that aliens have visited Earth (77 percent) than that humans are causing climate change (44 percent).

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