Friday, April 29, 2011

drudge disinformation

--climate happenings are at blisterdata--

Sharpened 4-30

Drudge report, a popular US news site, couldn't resist spinning the weather crisis in denialist fashion.  Below headlines such as survivors pick up the pieces, now come the floods, storm death passes 300 in South, and deadliest swarm of twisters since 1974, the site added (screenshot above): SORRY, AL: tornadoes whipped up by wind, not 'climate change' ...

Drudge report discloses the American Disenlightenment.  Its spin shows the cognitive impairment of climate skepticism.  The disinformation begins with a mock apology. "AL" refers to Al Gore, not Alabama.  The idea is to use the weather crisis for linking climate change to the author of An Inconvenient Truth; a link forged by lobbyists, hardened by their Republican serfs, and reinforced by Drudge.  Thus climate change does not stand on its own, but stands and falls with an eccentric loser of a bygone presidential election.  The purpose is to present a globally emerging reality as if it wasn't; as if it were nothing but a mental disorder, an idée fixe, Al Gore's demon baby.

The rest of the headline is equally revealing. A key to American Disenlightenment is its Humean bent: empiricism expressed as skepticism, which impairs its victims to make connections and to think holistically.  Just as the American Disenlightenment is a reality-disconnect in moral terms -- as a narcissist repudiation of the other, manifest in the Republican virtue of selfishness -- so it is a reality-disconnect in causal terms: a divorce of behavior from its consequences.  Moral and causal disconnects are mutually reinforcing.  As the egoist hopes to 'get away with it,' and as the narcissist trusts he deserves to get away with it, the skeptic insists that, really, there is nothing to get away from, there is no constant conjunction between what seems cause and what seems effect, and that, therefore, there is perfectly good reason for expecting to get away with it.

The self-serving disciples of David Hume can see this tornado and trace it to that wind being whipped up.  But cognitively confined to the ostentatiously observable, they cannot trace this to the powersurge that comes with a warming climate.  Since climate is around us, it is white noise and perceptual background, thus not really visible and therefore not really real.  Hence Drudge puts it in quotation marks: not climate change, the reality, but "climate change," Al Gore's idée fixe .

Yet for all of this, Drudge's disinformation is now on the defensive.  You'd think that with the corporate resources at their command, denialists could do better.  The journalists of the article titled "Tornadoes whipped up by wind, not climate: officials" quote an assistant professor at Mississippi State University as their lead authority.  That faculty's comments are the hook of the news: Dr. G. Dixon is cited as denying the link between the particular event of tornadoes here and now, and the general event of climate change overall and everywhere.  Dixon is a good scientist in doing so: he is echoing the consensus that attribution of freak weather to climate change can be done only with difficulty, and only rather recently

A look at Dixon's work shows he's on the level.  He's not a denialist.  But the journos who cite him make it seem as if he were, as if blaming a weather catastrophe on climate change is, to quote, "a terrible mistake," thus underscoring the headline that, indeed, "officials" like Dixon are telling us that "tornadoes [are] whipped up by wind, not by climate."  The monster storms lashing the South are thus a 'teaching moment,' to differentiate climate and weather.

What follows are quotes from meteorologists who explain the how-to of tornado formation.  Scroll further down in the article, and you come across a real skeptic: a Mr. Fugate at FEMA, described as an "administrator," who "also dismissed Thursday climate change as a factor in the deadly tornadoes." So here's a skeptic at last ... and he is an administrator.

The article ends with a quote from a Mr. Imy at NOAA, who repeats the conventional wisdom that such upticks of freak weather are still within statistical norms.  Imy is presented as another authority (dude works for NOAA), but googling shows he doesn't have a Ph.D. ... he's a weather forecaster.

So what's happening here?  Drudge's disinformation demands another post, on attribution, but here's the upshot.  First, single weather events hardly signify climate change.  For the most part, and for the time being, the former are lost in statistical fog and do not qualify as evidence for climate change.  Which doesn't matter, since the evidence comes from elsewhere--not single factoids and discrete events constitute confirmation, but the aggregate of factoids or series of events does.  Just as one swallow not yet a summer makes, one incident does not constitute a trend.  Local weather events do not point to global climate change as evidence.

Second, climate change contributes to single weather events.  This is obvious--the warming of the atmosphere has consequences all over, and therefore also locally.  On the other hand it isn't obvious, because global events do not directly translate to local events.  A regional bridge connects them.  Global warming causes regional changes such as the soaring temps and high pressure zones in the Arctic Circle, and such as the greater surface heat on the Gulf of Mexico.  Regional changes in the Arctic cause more frequent southbound flows of unusually cold air.  Regional changes in the Gulf cause more frequent northbound flows of unusually hot air.  When two such air-flows collide, as they did this week, a highly energetic storm blooms in the Southern US, locally spawning EF5 tornadoes more than 1 km wide and moving at 300 km/h.  Global climate change points to local weather events as consequence.

The disinformation is to smear all this together as if affirming the one entailed denying the other: because local weather events don't point to climate change as evidence, we can rest assured that they also won't arise as consequence.  (The missing premise such reasoning would need to get off the ground is that there is no other evidence, which, as we know, is false.)  The beauty of manipulation is you don't even have to make this explicit.  All the manipulator needs to do is to imply it through good timing.  Just when a consequence of climate change occurs, Drudge assures us that this is not evidence, thus stick to your carbon lifestyle and be good little sheep.

Sixty-eight months left.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

powersurge spring

--climate happenings are at blisterdata--

A new climate events post is at blisterdata.  The past decade was the hottest ever; last year was the hottest year on record; and this springs may shape up to be the most extreme spring on the books.  Extremes are quantifiable in terms of storm and flood damage, and loss in livestock and crops.  Historic storm clusters are a continent-wide unifier of Spring 2011 in the U.S., but the global unifier of this season appears to be drought.

In the American Southwest, Texas and Oklahoma are hard hit.  One should feel compassion for people who are suffering, but how sorry can one feel when it's their fault? The southwestern states are massively Republican populated by majorities of climate deniers.  And now the Southwest may turn into a Dust Bowl, quite ironic, really, since research shows that regional climate would have been ready to cycle back to a long-term wet period had the Americans curbed their emissions.  As Fawcett et al. (Nature 470) put it (p. 518): "in the absence of anthropogenic forcing, the region should be entering a cooler and wetter phase."  I guess it wasn't meant to be. 

In Europe, spring 2011 has morphed into a century drought, and no, the reports of the sand storm in Germany that caused the deadly eighty-car pileup on the Autobahn were no hoax -- welcome to the 21st century.  In Africa, the drought in Somalia is on the global radar screen, but as soon as you dig deeper, you'll find reports of livestock deaths and crop damage in Kenya, Malawi, Niger, and Uganda--basically the spring's too dry all over, from coast to coast.  In Asia, drought is the name of the game in China and Vietnam.  For different reasons (floods and frost), North Korea lost most of its crops as well.  Closer to home, there is severe drought in Cuba, of all places.  South of the border, parts of Mexico are burning because it is so dry.  And drought keeps worsening in the Middle East, especially in Syria, where all hell is breaking loose anyway.

Climate change spawns failed states.  Libya has entered failure mode now, and even if the rebels win, there's no guarantee the tribes will want to stick together.  The outcome of failure is territorial disintegration, displacement, and dieback.  Roots and reasons of failure vary, but judging from the lessons of the Middle East, the process appears to kick in with economic polarization, with the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer.  The next step is fiscal impotence; the inability of the government to provide basic services because of too little tax revenue -- the poor can't pay, and the rich won't pay.  The third step is privatization of government services and the creation of a state-in-a-state: since firefighting, emergency services, police, and schools become dysfunctional, the rich pay for private substitutes, with most costs sunk into security.  Governments in such a predicament are weak, and not only that; they are brittle; one hard knock, like a heat wave, a drought, or a price spike, and they shatter and disintegrate.

Sixty-eight months left.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

two wins: China & Lovelock

A new climate findings post is up at blisterdata.  I scrolled through recent issues of Nature and checked out items published elsewhere, as in Geophysical Research Letters and Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.  Two things stick out.

One is China's new five-year plan (links in "mitigation").  It seems the communist leadership "gets it".   COP-15 raised question marks about China's conduct, but it now appears that the communist government is now willing to do what it takes.  Whereas the U.S. is bungling postcarbon opportunities, China is not.  While powershift is happening in Washington, D.C., with B McKibben consoling the crowd that this so very centrist president is just not that into you, and with V Jones stating that the national political establishment is stuck on stupid, the new Chinese plan stipulates the reduction of energy intensity by 16 % and of carbon intensity by 17 % until 2015. (This is not enough to stay at the 2 C mark, but it's close, and far better than what the Americans are doing.)  Non-fossils are to be boosted from the current 8 % to more than 11 %, and forest coverage is to expand to 22 %.  (The postcarbon shift is doable, since China has the know-how, but the forest expansion may not be, what with the ever drier climate.)  The plan also decrees the increase of efficiency of irrigation to 53 % and the reduction of water use per unit of industrial growth by 30 %.  (If the last goal is met, then China's industrial base will be as sleek as that of Europe.)  That this is not just words is shown in the mass transit investments I blogged about last time.  With a financial effort two orders of magnitude greater than that by the U.S., China puts its money where its mouth is.

Another is James Lovelock.  As a philosopher in awe of the progression from Spinoza and Leibniz to Kant and Hegel, I root for the Gaia Hypothesis.  Every time I come across another instance of Gaia going mainstream, I'm as happy as a clam.  The review by Lucht, of Lenton and Watson, works for me.  Tim Lenton and Andrew Watson published Revolutions that Made the Earth with Oxford 2011.  The authors substantiate Lovelock's contention (spelled out in The Ages of Gaia), that life forms and the planetary environment are the joint product of co-evolution.  Wolfgang Lucht, who teaches Sustainability Science at the PIK and at Humboldt University, compares this substantiation of the Gaia Hypothesis to a culture-changing insight akin to the Copernican revolution.  In Nature no less.

Surely it would be nice to end on this happy note. 

Unfortunately, Gaia and The Ages of Gaia were followed by The Revenge of Gaia and The Vanishing Face of Gaia.  And my data trawling netted findings that fit either of these sequels.  (Those findings are mentioned in Nature and published in Geophys. Res. Lett.)  About the vanishing face, it appears that the 2010 Amazon drought has led to a widespread decline in greenness.  The rainforest is in crisis, and the eventual savanna is now just around the corner.  About Gaia's revenge, it turns out that rising arctic ocean temperatures cause gas hydrate destabilization.  This is news of the balls-crawling kind: the clathrate gun points now at us.  While the authors hasten to assure the reader that the methane release won't kick in as climate forcing for a century, it will augment acidification within years.

So eat these tasty fishies while they still swim.

Sixty-eight months left.

Monday, April 11, 2011

fading into ignorance

--climate happenings are at the blisterdata--

Saying that the American disenlightenment is deepening doesn't even come close.   The fading substance of policy is painful to watch.  This may be symptomatic of the closing of a once open society, and perhaps this is normal when an old order yields to an oligarchy, but it's still a bummer.

Exhibits of this disconnect from logic and reality are the budget woes, the energy policy, and the climate hearings.  These three items are locked in a fateful interplay that pushes America even deeper into self-destructive ignorance.  I refer, of course, to HR 910, the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011, which failed in the Senate, which the White House intends to veto, and which the House of Representatives approved.  The point of HR 910 is to strip the EPA of power to regulate GHGs, because such regulation "hinders the economy and job growth".

So here you have it: because of its failed gamble on oil wars in the Middle East, the US is now strapped of cash, the very cash that would have paid for creating a postcarbon economy.  Now, the Middle East revolutions drive up the price of crude; Time Magazine is tripping out on the saving powers of oil shale, and the real issues are being swept under the rug.

Exhibit A: Budget Woes

The ballooning of the federal budget is typical of empires in decline.  Those that don't end in violence end in bankruptcy.  The combination of military overreach, domestic luxuriation, and falling revenue spelled the demise for the ambitions of Portugal, Spain, Holland, and England.  America is on track to repeat their histories.  Well then: if budget woes are the problem, then the rational solution, you'd think, would be to increase revenue by raising taxes on those who have more than enough, and rein in spending on the greatest expenses.  All budget woes would disappear as soon as we taxed the 400 Americans who have the same wealth as half of all Americans combined the way they would be taxed if they were Germans or Swedes or Fins, and as soon as we slashed the military research budget and the defense budget by half or two thirds.

Such a solution would balance the budget while leaving the status quo unchanged.  Even if they had to pay more taxes, the superrich would still be super rich.  Even if its funds were cut by two thirds, the US military would still be (by far) number one in the world.  Then a shift towards a post-carbon society would be affordable.  But no: none of this is on the table.  Rational proposals, such as the people's budget by J Sachs (Columbia), are utterly taboo in the current political culture.

Exhibit B: Energy Policy

Another instance of the ongoing weirdness is the neglect of wind.  As Lester Brown points out in Plan B (p. 113), the US has enough land-based and offshore wind energy to satisfy its national energy needs several times over.  Merely exploiting the wind energy of both coasts would meet all our needs.  As mentioned in an earlier post, using the wind that blows in North Dakota, Texas, and Kansas would do the same too.

Such a national construction effort of vast wind farms would eliminate unemployment, help with poverty, and boost the economy, thus giving us some breathing space while we figure out how to transition to a steady-state economy.  Ways to go forward, via a Cinderella economy, are already being devised, for instance by T Jackson (Surrey).

An example of how to do such a large-scale project is China's daunting push for high speed trains.  As the NYT reported, the People's Republic is engaged in a program of constructing 8,100 miles of high-speed rail lines and more than 11,000 miles of traditional fast railroad lines, at a cost of $ 750 billion, some $ 365 billion for high-speed rail alone.  By comparison, the US can afford only $ 8 billion for high speed.  But a plan that could compete with China's vision would of course be the American equivalent of a socialist enterprise or state capitalism.  Never mind that the Apollo Program that put men on the Moon was just that.  Thus market ideology trumps ecological pragmatism.

Exhibit C: Climate Hearings 

But let's now turn to the worst example, the most compelling illustration of how far the American disenlightenment has already progressed. The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (23 R, 17 D), held a Hearing on Climate Change on 31 March.  Witnesses were J S Armstrong (Penn), R Miller (Berkeley), J Christy (Alabama), P Glaser (corporate/lawyer), D Montgomery (corporate/economist), and K A Emanuel (MIT).

Armstrong argued that the "validity of the manmade global warming alarm" requires evidence of three items: knowledge of rising temperatures, knowledge of harmful effects, and knowledge of cost-effective regulations that would be better than doing nothing, "in effect, a three-legged stool".  He concluded that we don't have such knowledge, the science done violates all sorts of "forecasting principles", and the "alarmists" are wrong. 

Muller argued that the big national climate analysis centers, NOAA, NASA, HadCRU, are biased in their data selection; even though there are so many weather stations, they only pick data from where it's really hot.  Well, OK, maybe not, and maybe "some of the most worrisome biases are less of a problem" than he had first thought, but the message was clear: the alarmists are biased.  The only question is how severe their prejudice is: are the alarmists more biased, or less biased?

Christy, the Alabama professor, argued that the Hockey Stick is a fraud; the EPA misrepresents evidence; ClimateGate shows what's going on, and the IPCC consists of a clique of evildoers who think Christy is an idiot.

Attorney Glaser, in true tobacco-lobbyist style, channeling his forebears who cast doubt on cancer research, argued that the EPA's analytic approach is one-sided; it lacks "independent and objective peer review," and its conclusions must be doubted.

The economist Montgomery then did a cost-benefit analysis, as economists are wont to do, with the result that reducing carbon emissions will cost much more than politicians would want to pay.

Emanuel was the token critic, the only man of integrity among the lot, who expressed the scientific consensus.  But the damage was done; MIT prof was checkmated by the skeptics.  Sure enough, the House Committee issued a press release (Mar 31) headlined that the witnesses "highlighted flawed processes used to generate climate change science." 

Two weeks before the House Hearings, reacting to a similarly rigged Congressional Climate Hearing, Nature issued an editorial titled Into Ignorance. This is the state of the Union now.  The oligarchs are taking over, the corporate-political complex wages war on science and education, and Obama, who once said he wanted to change it all, is timid. 

Sixty-eight months left.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

three new findings

At last, another climate findings post is at blisterdata. 

My apologies for the long lull (the previous findings-post dates from January).  I was editing the climate issue of Journal of Global Ethics, which is forthcoming in May, I think.  Chen Xia (Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing) and I co-authored a paper for that issue on Daoist climate ethics.

The climate findings column still needs more links to the peer-reviewed material.  Since January, it looks to me that three new data streams have come into view. 

First, the American Disenlightenment, a coin termed by Kevin Philips in his American Theocracy, is becoming a climate topic.  I've published on the cognitive flaws of US culture last year and how they yield climate denial, but this was a piece of cultural critique.  Now come the empirical researchers.

Second, declining food productivity is more and more appearing as the weak link.  I see now a real upsurge of research on the warming planet and plummeting crop yields.

Lastly, and most dramatically with regard to scientific progress, there is now work done on attribution; that is, on the causal relation of global climate change overall and specific freak weather consequences.  Up to last year, it was considered "unscientific" to make such causal attribution.  The consensus was that concrete events vanish in statistical fog.  Now the first challenges are being published. Of course they're still 'controversial,' as they say, but the topic is on the table.

Sixty-eight months left.