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The missing repertoire

Filed under: — gavin @ 10 August 2006

There was a small flurry of activity last week when the report “Warm words: How are we telling the climate story and how can we tell it better?” was released by the IPPR (a UK based left-leaning think tank). Most of the attention was focussed on their attention-seeking description of the more breathless media depictions of climate change as ‘climate porn’. However, the report was actually more interesting than just that, but possibly in ways that the authors didn’t intend.

The basic point of the report was to present a textual analysis of the kinds of language (‘repertoires’) used in the media when discussing climate and to associate the different repertoire with the advocacy position of the users and the likely effectiveness of that language in swaying opinion. The report only examined the UK print media, but the classification system could certainly be used for the US, Canadian and Australian press as well, and potentially, more widely still.

The classifications will be familiar (in concept, if not in name) to anyone who has been following the climate story in the media. I paraphrase a little, but the basic outlines are split between the repertoires that accept the basic science:

  • Alarmism (‘It’s the end of the world’): Recent examples concern the apparently imminent death of the Amazon, the imminent 20ft rise in sea level, the impending collapse of the North Atlantic circulation etc.
  • Techno-optimism (‘we’ll work it out when we need to’): This can range from Patrick Michaels’ position (‘technology will make the whole issue moot’) to oil companies demonstrating their green bona-fides to hopeful calls for the innovative capacity of the population to come forward to deal with the issue.
  • Small actions (‘save the world by recycling and buying a hybrid’): This comes up repeatedly in the ‘what can you do’ sections at the end of special issues and documentaries.

and the various forms of denialism:

  • “It’ll be alright”-ism (strangely described as ‘Settlerdom’ in the report): Nothing to worry about, just the same old stuff ‘they’ are always pushing. The ‘common-sense’ man on the street attitude. Op-eds in the more tabloid papers mainly.
  • Comic nihilism: This is a predominantly British trait, but there are connections with, for instance, Jon Stewart. The examples seen in the report were fundamentally dismissive of the case for climate change, but I think this can go both ways. Satire can be quite a potent weapon whether directed at over-excited advocates, industry shills or self-important novelists.
  • Rhetorical scepticism (‘It’s a vast conspiracy’): Almost anything written by Sen. Inhofe or Melanie Phillips for instance.
  • Free market-ism (‘The economy must come first’): Slightly more respectable than the other denialists and is used by frequently in the US in relation to the Kyoto Protocol and lies at the heart of the Lomborg’s ‘Copenhagen Consensus‘.
  • Expert denialism (‘It’s the sun! or the urban heat island!’): This is the kind of stuff peddled by the think tanks (CEI, Marshall Institute etc.) and which occasionally makes it into the main stream press as second or third hand quotes in op-ed pieces. Mostly a web based phenonemon though.
  • Warming is good (‘Hooray for Global Warming‘): Some overlap with the expert denialists (as a back up strategy mainly), but heartily pushed by the (now defunct) Greening Earth Society and particularly by the Idso’s

In reading this list, I can find many examples of pieces that fall neatly into the boxes. But it strikes me that there is a huge missing category – and indeed one in which I think RealClimate might fall (along with some of the best reporting on the issue – Andy Revkin’s pieces for instance). That category is the straight ‘It’s serious (and interesting) but don’t panic’ repertoire. This is the language most often heard at scientific conferences and it surprises me that the IPPR authors didn’t find enough examples to give it a description all it’s own.

One reason why that is missing is probably because the focus of the authors was mainly on how discussions about climate change are used for advocacy purposes rather than simply informational ones. Thus straight science not used to advocate for any particular course of action gets ignored or mis-classified. For instance, a letter (third one down) from Tom Crowley complaining about some alarmist points in a piece by Lovelock is taken to be from a ‘warming is good’ advocate – certainly a classification Crowley (or most people reading his letter) would not agree with. This is, unfortunately, to be expected in a ‘scientized’ debate. Any criticism of a scientific argument used to support any particular action is taken to imply advocacy of the opposite action.

The conclusions of the report are directed towards the advocates rather than the scientists (the IPPR is a political institution after all). They suggest (I think correctly) that the denialist repertoires are having a decreasing influence and aren’t worth addressing head on – especially the wilder rhetorical stuff. We occasionally do tackle these issues here, because the points sometimes provide a useful lead-in to an interesting piece of science and can help prevent confusion among lay readers. But if we were political advocates we probably wouldn’t bother!

However, the IPPR’s more serious conclusions are that the ‘alarmist’ repertoire mostly breeds hopelessness or backlashes and that the range of ‘small actions’ being pushed as potential solutions are not matching the seriousness of the issue and hence lead to trivialisation of the problem among readers.

I think that we would concur that the more excited style of journalism (which is not universal by any means) doesn’t help foster understanding – but it can raise interest. And like the denialist pieces, it can serve as an entry point to a serious discussion (for instance on climate sensitivity in the wake of the ’11 C’ warming headlines a while back, or the Amazon drought recently). The increase of cynicism though probably outweighs the provocation to find out more.

When it comes to advocating solutions that match the degree of the problem, all of the repertoires are found lacking. That’s because reducing emissions is a difficult problem with myriad causes and there won’t be a simple straightforward fix. This is the hardest kind of problem to deal with in the media because it is inherently complicated and involves almost all sectors of society. At this point as well, the scientists (like us) who have lead the debate up to that point, generally step aside – since macro economic policy, international diplomacy and energy infrastructures are not their forte. (As an aside, the role for scientists doesn’t end once a problem has been identified – their contributions are required in order to assess the effectiveness of proposed policies – such as geo-engineering ideas, or balances between air pollution control and climate).

This lack of serious discussion about solutions may however be changing if these recent MIT Technology Review or Energy Journal (subscription) special issues are anything to go by, and as more people and institutions start to think about the problem. This was always going to be the hard part though.


120 Responses to “The missing repertoire”

  1. 1
    Ike Solem says:

    There could be another category: “Big actions” which would require a multibillion dollar investment in renewable energy production. One good way to do this is to take the ~30 billion in government subsidies that go to oil, gas and coal and transfer them to solar, wind and biofuel industries. This is called the “Apollo Initiative” ( http://www.apolloalliance.org/ ) and while it appears drastic, so does global warming. This approach could result in an entirely new energy infrastructure within perhaps two decades.

    There is also the need to make sure that the climate data collection goes on – and part of this means getting NASA to reorder it’s budget and priorities towards looking at the Earth more then just outwards. It does seem that the denialists simply don’t want to see the data collected, which, needless to say, is a terrible and dangerous policy.

    Nature has a good editorial on NASA at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v442/n7102/full/442485a.html, the title being

    “No more protection:
    Cutting NASA’s science budgets is one thing; rejecting the agency’s historic role in the study of Earth is something else entirely.”

  2. 2
    Eric (skeptic) says:

    I would only add the “it’s only models” form of denialism, probably a subcategory of rhetorical skepticism. IMO, it’s a counterpoint to the “it’s serious” advocates although they will argue a complete range of paleo and current observations support that position. My problem with models is they don’t model the weather very accurately, particularly small to medium scale convection. I’m also not convinced they model the large scale weather features well enough to forecast them. I believe that might also be due to lack of horizontal resolution. I would also like to see more complete models with better topography, soil moisture, vegetation, more vertical resolution. It’s also possible that a few more forcings need to be modeled (e.g. cosmic rays).

    I am convinced that models will overcome all these deficiencies within a decade or two with better science and a lot more computing power. Here’s my link where I obtained a lot of information about the uses and deficiencies of a particular model: http://www.ccsm.ucar.edu/publications/PhD%20and%20Masters%20Theses.htm

  3. 3
    Chris Rijk says:

    I think in each country, the stage of the debate will mostly be defined by what the main parties are saying. If all the main parties are seriously saying that AGW is a serious issue, then the debate in general would be rather different, compared say to the US at present. However, I’d say that the US is probably close to a tipping point – maybe in 2008, both main candidates will be trying to out-do each other in how seriously they take AGW. (I’m not the first to suggest it).

    Meanwhile, here in the UK, things are certainly getting interesting. The new leader of the Conservative Party decided to make a big push on “green” issues, to help de-toxify the party’s image. Apparantly the front-runner for their new party logo is an oak tree (a very English symbol). Things have definitely changed:
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,176-2300743,00.html

  4. 4
    Chris Rijk says:

    Oops, here’s a little additional to my previous post. For some context, the Conservative Party is (in theory) the main right-wing party (equivalent to the Republicans in the US). They’re also currently leading in the polls. I say “in theory” since “political cross-dressing” is rampant lately.

  5. 5

    Chris, do you really think that the new Tory leader will do anything about global warming once he is elected? Do you really think that the US oil industry will let Al Gore be the next US president? All that is needed is a new al-Qaeda plot and the Republican candidate, the oily queen, will romp home.

    Gavin may be right, that we are not at the tipping point yet. But I can’t see anthing that is going to stop us reaching it, especially when the current breed of scientists need to have their papers reviewed by their conservative peers, rather than being able to state the truth.

    That is what Lovelock found at the Hadley Centre. Each scientist knew that the tipping point for his speciality was just round the corner: Arctic sea ice, Greenland ice sheet, Alaskan glaciers, the Alpine glaciers, drought in Australia, the Amazon and the USA, fires in southern Europe, Australia, Calafornia and Alaska, desertification in India and China, acidification and coral bleaching in the oceans. Need I go on? But no one would believe them. Lovelock did, but that has only meant he is now called an extremist. So much for the idea that scientists don’t use ad hominem arguments :-(

  6. 6
    Dan Hughes says:

    I think changes to basic infrastructure, following the S-curve, generally require closer to 50 years than 20. It took about 40 years to get electricity to US households, for example. It has taken over 25 years to gain significant productivity improvements with micro-processor based equipment. Electricity had significant appeal and advantages to the existing alternatives. Replacing electricity generation with alternative sources will have much less appeal simply because the present system work so good. “… an entirely new energy infrastructure …” in 20 years is highly unlikely.

    Additionally, solar and wind, not being reliably available will always, and always is the correct word, require backup systems and may even require base-loaded systems to handle the basic power generation. Biofuels will require the destruction of land and use of energy and other resources in order to produce sufficient fuel.

    Can someone provide a source citation for the ~$30 billion subsidies to hydrocarbon-based fuels.

    Thanks

  7. 7
    Doug Percival says:

    I have a question and perhaps this is an appropriate comment thread on which to ask it.

    What is the scientifically legitimate worst-case scenario for global warming?

    In other words, ruling out fantastic nonsense like the movie The Day After Tomorrow, if we humans continue to burn more and more fossil fuels and increase GHG emissions in accord with the mainstream energy projections of the IEA, and the effects of this across the board all turn out to be at the worst-case end of the scale, and all the possible positive feedbacks kick in, what is the worst result that could happen — even if it is not presently considered the most likely result — that is supported by actual science?

  8. 8
    David B. Benson says:

    Doug Percival — I suppose your question is intended to exclude supereruptions of Yellostone or Mt. Toba. Then the worst thing I can think of just now is methane releases from all the hydrates in the oceans together with the melting of permafrosts, burning up all forests, and the like. Somebody else will have to estimate just how much warming this would amount to.

    The idea is that fossil fuel burning leads to all these positive feedbacks. Result?

  9. 9
    Mike Neuman says:

    Agree with #1 that “Big Actions” repertoire is missing from the classification. Raising federal fuel taxes substantially at the pump, for example, would be a big action that could result in many individual actions that, when all added all up, become fairly significant actions in terms of reducing greenhouse gases.

    I proposed a more positive approach to reducing fuel burning in transportation and energy use in the home back a few years ago. Under my proposal, the Government would offer annual rebates to encourage less driving, flying and energy use in the home. The less people drove, fly or used energy in their home during the year, the higher amount of the rebate they would get at the end of the year.

    This proposal was ignored when I first proposed it, except by the road building industry which saw the proposal as a threat to their future road building funding (which it would have been, naturally). Anyway, I’m considering reintroducing the proposal again, since global warming has clearly not gone away since I first made the proposal in 2000.

    Unfortunately, this kind of proposal needs more than one, two or a handful of people advocating for it, and none of the politicians I sent it to would touch it, not even with a ten-foot pole. It didn’t stand a chance then. Maybe now?

    http://www.danenet.org/bcp2006/neuman_gw_letter.pdf
    http://www.danenet.org/bcp2006/neuman_gw.pdf

  10. 10
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Re Alastair’s comments (#5) about (the denialists) needing a new al-Qaeda plot, & above post on categories — I’m thinking there could be a “conspiracy” category also from the environmentalist side, that is, if someone would care to bring such up in the media (or the independent media) — sort of a FAHRENHEIT 411 type of thing, but focused on AGW.

    Let me start something: I think it’s very “””coincidental””” that the evening in 1991 they were to show the rerun of HOT ENOUGH FOR YOU? on TV (a fine GW docu that got me started addressing the issue & about which I had written to all my gov reps to be sure & watch – including the now House Speaker), that Bush Sr. decided to launch Desert Storm. ‘Course HOT ENOUGH got permanently bumped, and the whole GW issue fizzled out of the public imaginaire. Coincident….I wonder ;)

    ‘Course there may be such a deep rooted conspiracy that nothing would show up in the media. We’ll never know, if all the Deep Throats have been slit.

    OTOH, who needs a conspiracy to squelch GW science/info? It’s in the short-term interests of nearly everyone to do so.

  11. 11
    Mike Neuman says:

    This is a shortened version of the proposal discussed in #9 above for those who prefer summaries.
    http://tinyurl.co.uk/snw3

  12. 12
    Richard Simons says:

    I think a difference between the Conservative Party in the UK and the Republicans is that the Conservatives include a significant proportion of hereditary landowners. I can’t say I approve of inherited wealth but it seems to have resulted in people who take the attitude that they are merely looking after the land for the following generations and who therefore take a long-term view of environmental matters.

  13. 13
    John L. McCormick says:

    RE: #7 Doug, I would begin with a serious look at NA grain yield this season. The following links take you to the NOAA Drought Monitoring page for Aug 1 and Aug 8

    http://www.drought.unl.edu/dm/monitor.html

    http://www.drought.unl.edu/dm/2006/drmon0801.gif

    It may not be todays front page news but the crop harvest in the heartland of the US and beef cattle going to market will make not only news but hardships for both farmers and consumers.

    A few more years of drought such as being experienced in the US grain states will further draw down global grain inventory which is currently at a 25 year low.

    Food shortages will not have to wait until a tipping point, or 2X CO2 or the 2 degree C increase. Famine and food shortages happen repeatedly around the world when price is the limiting factor for food. Drought worsening food availability now is, in my opinion, a consequence of global warming and we do not need scientists to verify that. Farmers measure the rainfall, survey the fields and call the bank.

    Gavin, an excellent thread and deserving high quality comments.

  14. 14
    Dan says:

    re: 2. One essential point: We are talking about *climate* modeling here, not *weather*. There is a fundamental difference. Comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges especially when it comes to modeling. The difference is an absolutely basic “Meteorology 101″ lesson. Completely different time scales, spatial scales, model inputs and obviously model outputs.

    BTW, in the US, weather forecast accuracy is documented at approximately 85 percent per NOAA’s Meteorological Development Lab.

  15. 15
    Bill Durbin says:

    As a non-scientist, but regular reader, I wonder often whether there are any political scientists out there who are attempting to address the likelihood, or lack thereof, of the United States government actually taking global climate change seriously enough to put some far reaching policies into place. Without such govermental action, it’s very difficult to avoid being genuinely morose. Does anyone know of any political scientists making a contribution. The ultimate issue in this particular post is a political one.

  16. 16

    I have long advocated consideration of worst-case possibilities to drive policy, so I appreciate Doug Percival’s question.

    Unfortunately, the question of what the worst case might be is not as clear-cut as it might at first appear. In order to identify a worst case, one requires some sort of metric of goodness or badness of outcome. Economists have one ready at hand; it involves discounting future costs the further into the future they lie. This effect is subsumed into an annula percentage rate, called the discount rate. That rate is set by the marketplace, and it reflects the probable value of investments. The idea is, basically, that a cost of, say, a thousand dollars a few decades is the equivalent of only, say a hundred dollars now, since we could “invest” a hundred dollars and gain a “return” of a thousand, to compensate for our losses.

    There are many things wrong with this line of reasoning as applied to global change issues. In particular, the collapse of the major ice sheets a couple of centuries hence is essentially discounted to pretty much a trivial cost, even though our moral responsibility to our distant descendants is not really discountable in that way. In addition, some costs (ecosystem decline, aesthetic decline, impacts of environmental decline on geopolitics, etc.) are not easy to reduce to dollars.

    Continued economic growth is essentially an assumption of the discount rate. This part disturbs me the most. While we may hope that economies continue to prosper, there really is no fundamental principle that guarantees it. Economists find immutable laws where in fact there are merely tendencies. If the worst case pans out, the entire growth assumption that is built into the discount rate becomes suspect to say the least.

    Unfortunately, there are no widely accepted alternative methods for measuring costs over the time periods we are discussing. So it’s not clear what the worst case might be in any formal sense.

    All that said, and leaving aside the way economists manage to sweep longer time scales under the rug, the purely environmental science question is also difficult, because it depends crucially on confidence intervals of a number of complex interacting phenomena. Most research focusses on the most likely outcomes rather than on constraining the most dangerous ones.

    Recent results appear to be constraining the temperature sensitivity of the system to greenhouse forcing to within a factor of less than two, but that leaves many open questions. Some of the largest involve feedbacks within the natural carbon cycle as conditions (especially temperature but also precipitation, storminess, and variability) change. Others involve unknowns about how quickly natural and artificial systems can adapt to unprecedented rates of change; how badly or well we fare depends to some extent on how well we and our surroundings can adapt.

    So, while I can’t answer the question I’d like to emphasize its importance. The expected cost of climate change is much larger than the cost of the expected climate change. This may be a rather subtle statistical point for politicians, businessmen and the general public to understand, but it seems to me rather crucial. The best way to explain it is by analogy to personal insurance policies. The probability that your home will be struck by, say, a tornado within your lifetime is small, but if you live in tornado-prone country you are likely to buy insurance against severe storms anyway. That is because the expected cost of tornados (say, to simplify, 98% chance of zero damage and 2% chance of total destruction) is 2 % of the value of your house. The expected cost is dominated by the unlikely event, not by the most likely outcome.

    Most public discussion not only accepts the rather inappropriate economic discounting framework, it also proceeds from an estimate of the costs of the most likely change, not a risk-weighted cost estimate. Both of these errors tend to understate the appropriate level of policy concern. This in turn exacerbates the potency of all the more obvious forces that result in our grossly inadequate climate change policies.

  17. 17
    Terry Aust says:

    RE # 13
    Does anyone know of scientific references to the likely redistribution of agricultural commodity production (eg major agricultural products) worldwide that will occur as a result of climate change. I am aware that a US agency has done some work for the USA but find I did not bookmark it.
    Thanks in advance.

  18. 18
    Chris Rijk says:

    Re: #5

    Chris, do you really think that the new Tory leader will do anything about global warming once he is elected?

    I dunno if you read that link in my last post, but there’s certainly some who’d like to put the “conserve” back into the Conservative Party. Exactly how serious and determined David Cameron is is hard to say. He hasn’t yet gone into much detail on what sort of polices he might persue either. However, he is doing a passable job on “lead by example” so far. And he’s certainly forced the Labour party and Liberal Democrates to play catch-up. Still, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if “Dave” does a better job on CO2 emissions than “Tony”, if he gets elected – and suddenly, after being in power for nearly 10 years, Tony Blair’s likely successor (for leader of the Labour party) has suddenly been talking about green issues.

    I’m not too worried about “oil money” in UK politics. Though Tony Blair seems a bit too friendly with nuclear power… (better than fossil fuels at least)

    Do you really think that the US oil industry will let Al Gore be the next US president? All that is needed is a new al-Qaeda plot and the Republican candidate, the oily queen, will romp home.

    Well, last I heard, Al Gore is not accepting campain contributions and told possible doners to donate elsewhere. I don’t think US politicians as a whole are bound to Big Oil – else certain projects in Alaska would have been passed long ago.

    If you want to think about things from a different angle, though oil companies are benefiting nicely from high oil prices, in all other respects they lose. Certainly their image is going down and down (and recent pipe problems won’t have helped) as consumers find it more and more expensive to drive. Higher energy costs are making consumers and companies more interested in better energy efficiency automatically. Certainly some are trying to use high prices to push for more drilling, but don’t think that appears to be too popular with the public.

  19. 19
    Chris Rijk says:

    Re: #7

    What is the scientifically legitimate worst-case scenario for global warming?

    Possibly something along these lines:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleocene-Eocene_Thermal_Maximum

    In an event marking the start of the Eocene, the planet heated up in one of the most rapid and extreme global warming events recorded in geologic history, currently being identified as the ‘Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum’ or the ‘Initial Eocene Thermal Maximum’ (PETM or IETM). Sea surface temperatures rose between 5 and 8°C over a period of a few thousand years, but in the high Arctic, sea surface temperatures rose to a sub-tropical ~23°C/73°F.[1] In 1990, marine scientists James Kennett and Lowell Stott, both then at the University of California, Santa Barbara, reported analysis of marine sediments showing that, not only had the surface of the Antarctic ocean heated up about 10 degrees at the beginning of the Eocene, but that the entire depth of the ocean had warmed, and its chemistry changed disastrously. There was severely reduced oxygen in deep sea waters, and 30 to 40% of deep sea foraminifera suddenly went extinct. Geologist Jim Zachos of the University of California, Santa Cruz has connected the Eocene heat wave to drastic changes in ocean chemistry that caused the massive worldwide die-off. More recently a synchronous drop in carbon isotope ratios has been identified in many terrestrial environments.

    What unleashed the PETM is unclear. Most evidence points to volcanic eruptions that disgorged gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, or coastal reservoirs of methane gas, sealed by icy soil, that were breached by warmer temperatures or receding seas.

    At the start of the Eocene, the Earth remained warm for about 80,000 to 200,000 years. On land, there was a massive turnover of mammals, as most of the primitive mammals that had developed since the end of the Cretaceous were suddenly replaced by the ancestors of most of the surviving modern mammal groups, all of them in small versions, adapted to Eocene heat. Plant life was characterised by the boreotropical flora, with extensive high-latitude forests composed of large, fast-growing trees such as Dawn Redwood as far north as 80°N. In 2005, the Arctic Coring Expedition found fossilized algae characteristic of subtropical waters averaging about 20C (the current average: -1.5C) in sediment cores taken on the Lomonosov Ridge between Siberia and Greenland. Atmospheric carbon levels then are thought to have been about 2-3,000 parts per million (ppm), compared with almost 380 ppm today.

  20. 20
    t says:

    I have read in various places that in order to do anything significant and meaningful to stop or at least avoid disastrous consequences from global warming that we need to cut emissions by at least 70%. This is rarely stated in most mainstream articles on the subject, but if true or highly probably true, needs to be said to give people an idea of the real scope of the problem.

    Clearly, once you have defined the problem or solution in this way, you cannot end the story by suggesting that all will be fine if we buy Priuses or install CFLs.

    While it is true that alarmist articles on this subjject due create a sense of hopelessness, there is some truth to these articles and it is a fact that the glaciers are disappearing and that massive amounts of sea ice is disappearing. It is also a fact that various species, both animal and plant, are beginning to be negatively impacted by warming.

    Putting aside some of the most extreme examples of alarmism, assuming they are actually that extreme, the cold, calm facts themselves give me cause for alarm. The situation, regardless of how described, does seem in fact hopeless given the fact that our government and people have done virtually nothing to address the problem. Kyoto, even if fully implemented, is a joke, and will be swamped by those non signatories like China and the United States.

    While the writers on this site often make me feel just a little bit more comfortable about what is going on, it does not change the fact that my grandaughter will inhabit a planet far different and more unpleasant one than the one I have experienced in my life time.

  21. 21
    John L. McCormick says:

    Terry, spend some time, on your own, looking up global ag production information and share it with us. Individually, we can evaluate sources to determine how comfortable we are with your data. But, send some data to us.

  22. 22
    Glen Fergus says:

    As an aside, the role for scientists doesn’t end once a problem has been identified – their contributions are required in order to assess the effectiveness of proposed policies – such as geo-engineering ideas.

    Geoengineering, surely, must be engineering, not science. Yes, one cannot have good engineering without good science, but the disciplines are not interchangeable. The trouble is that climate scientists, like the rest of the community, may assume they know best how to do the engineering. Therein, I suspect, lies a route to endless argument and inaction, and ultimately to a poor outcome.

    Science is about finding out how stuff is, and figuring how and why. Usually the process is progressive, and endless, because the knowledge is never quite perfect. Engineering is about doing stuff, now, always based on imperfect knowledge. The key lies in understanding how imperfect and allowing for that, so that the outcome is affordable and acceptable. The business of managing risk.

    A major problem with AGW science to date is that climate scientists are not giving us the answers we need to formulate adequate risk estimates, let alone suitable responses. Risk, in engineering, is a product of likelihood and consequence. What is the risk of +10C at 2xCO2? That may be a fundamentally critical geoengineering question. The likelihood of +10C at 2xCO2, apparently, is very low, but the consequence may be catastrophic, so what is the product of the two?

  23. 23
    Hank Roberts says:

    Google is your friend:
    +”United States” +”government subsidies” +petroleum +industry

    http://www.google.com/search?q=%2B%22United+States%22+%2B%22government+subsidies%22+%2Bpetroleum+%2Bindustry&start=0

  24. 24
    Ron Smith says:

    You left out one other category. The “It’s terrible but don’t worry, the aliens will fix it when they get here” group. More common than you might suppose, these people are often seen driving around everywhere in old cars and Combis with “Greenpeace” and “Hug the Whales” bumperstickers with enormous quantities of blue exhaust smoke pouring out of their tailpipes.

    Thank you for running a marvelous site although it is somewhat dismaying to see every topic winding up with the old “It’s happening./No it’s not. We’re causing it./No we’re not.” arguments.

    To me, all this is irrelevant to the issue. Surely, common sense dictates that mankind merely need ensure that we are NOT causing GW. It behooves all of us – rich or poor, industrialist or socialist, human or beetle – to have a cleaner, greener Earth.

  25. 25
    Erin Rikus says:

    As an Australian journalism student who has taken an interest in the work of the IPCC, I find myself with a strange dilemna. Lecturers tell us we need to give equal consideration to ‘both sides’ of the ‘climate change debate’ as though both sides are equally credible, which I personally fidn to be a complete and total distortion of the realities.

    Mainstream Australian media is pretty much only going to print set categories of global warming stories: 1)Boltian denialist rants (including such gems as ‘There can’t be a warming effect, Antarctic is seeing record amounts of snowfall’. 2)Nutcase scenarios – similar to Y2K type stories – ‘This scientist thinks there will be cyclones in Hobart by 2020 due to increased climactic instability’ also known as the ‘Day After Tomorrow’ style story.

    Cogent stories which explain the realities of climate change, even stories which simply announce the latest IPCC publication, may be written but are seldom published- the general view seems to be that the public doesn’t find it that interesting. The Age/Herald Sun/Australian are rarely going to give priority to a story that says something like:

    “The overall global temperature looks set to rise by around 3 degrees by the end of the century, according to a study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Chane.” News editors, generally get bored at things which seem too sciency or not controversial enough, and will go “So?” at this, not realising the actual importance of the story itself.

    This is where thinktanks win the PR war, because they apparently don’t need a scientific basis to retain credibility- hence the steady stream of articles telling us that the economists are all certain global warming isn’t going to happen, so no one needs to make any lifestyle changes.

    Referendums in Australia seem to indicate that people won’t accept changes that they don’t understand, or don’t see a pressing need for. The science of climate change seems to indicate, as I understand it, that human activity has caused/is causing an aggregate average temperature increase. I know scientists don’t like to talk policy, but realistically, if we are going to ask people to make real changes to their energy usage and habits, they need to understand the science better than they do. They need to understand why economists aren’t qualified to speak on weather patterns. They need to know things like that sometimes, it can be too cold for snow to form.

    I am not sure how this can be solved, actually. I thought about creating a website, and patiently refuting claims of the mainstream press (particularily those of Andrew Bolt), explaining the science but trying to make it much clearer so that people who don’t have a grasp on the basics of physics and climate can still understand. It is difficult to know where to start, though one thing is certain- this paradigm, in which credible, substantiable scientific consensus gets considerably less press attention than the odd anomalous publication – needs to be shifted in some way.

    -Erin Rikus
    (I hope this comment is acceptable to this forum, despite my lack of a science degree. :) )

  26. 26
    Mark A. York says:

    This is fascinating as a writer trained in journalism and a working scientist. One has to be careful not to alienate those who can be rescued. Or swayed to the truth. And I perhaps don’t have the temperment for that sort of mission, but many perfectly intelligent people because of politics have a tin ear when it comes to even the basic scientific reasoning required to grasp this problem. Given the choice, and I give them one, they head straight for the ideological fallacy of choice. It’s dismal, but if the leadership can be convinced we’ll get on with the task at hand: inventing the new energy paradigm. Time’s a wastin.

  27. 27
    Mark J. Fiore says:

    Comment #1 is very important. The Apollo Alliance is one of the best programs to implement. We need to give it more press. Also, comment #7, the answer, plain and simple is that a runaway greenhouse effect is quite possible. Melting permafrost, underground coal fires, release of methane from the ocean will all drive this effect once thermohaline current shuts down due to loss of Greenland ice cap. This runaway effect is not even “way out there” as a possible effect. It is a forseeable effect due to simple reinforcement and feedback mechanisms.The Apollo Alliance is the best plan I’ve seen. Please, everyone, support AB 32 here in California.Best wishes to our planet. Venus?

  28. 28
    Gar Lipow says:

    Re 6:

    When you talk about a 50 year cycle for replacing infrastructure you are talking about the natural cycle – what it would take if you left it to the “free market” (scare quotes because there is no such thing), possibly encouraged by carbon taxes and such.

    But a really strong public works policy, combined with regulation and green taxes could make the change much sooner. That is why I see the Apollo Alliance proposal only as a good start. Rather than spending 30 billion a year I think the right amount would be more around 300 billion a year. With that kind of expenditure we could replace energy consuming infrastructure as it wears out with more efficient infrastructure, and also phase in renewable sources.

  29. 29
    Robin Johnson says:

    Re #27: I think your use of the term “runaway” is a bit loose. Runaway greenhouse is typically meant to be runaway greenhouse – not just “really effing bad”. Runaway means the temperatures keep rising until the oceans boil away into space, eg Venus. If your gonna be alarmist, please be an accurate alarmist. You’ll get more folks to listen that way. Which is what you want, right?

  30. 30
    Gar Lipow says:

    >This lack of serious discussion about solutions may however be changing if these recent MIT Technology Review or Energy Journal (subscription) special issues are anything to go by, and as more people and institutions start to think about the problem. This was always going to be the hard part though.

    OK -obviously when you talk about solutions this is engineering and economics and agriculture and politics and business skills and hundreds of other fields. RMI (though I have my disagreement with some of their approaches) has spent decades on this issue and come up with brilliant stuff.

    I will add that when it comes to solutions if you simply add up all the efficiency and renewable technology we have now you will find that we can replace not just some, but all of our fossil fuel use by renewables and efficiency. If you do it over the course of 30 years, the overall market cost will be no more than we pay for fossil fuels now – even coal.

    The hard part is the politics. This stuff will NOT be provided by the “free market”. (One of my beefs with RMI who have been trying to bring change with business cases for decades.) So somehow we have to get a popular movement that pressures governments instituting serious programs – massive public works, strong regulations, and in the long run some form of green taxes with rebates.

  31. 31
    Alain Henry says:

    Ref 30: “This stuff will NOT be provided by the “free market”.”

    So true… I completely agree. This is also shown in the Enery Journal special issue. There is some hope, though, as international bodies such as the International energy agency says that our current energy system is not sustainable (even if i may not agree with their definition of sustainability). They have recently published a good “Energy technology perspectives 2006, scenarios and strategies to 2050″ (not free). See http://www.iea.org.

  32. 32

    The worst case scenario is that we wipe mankind from the surface of the planet along with most of the other life. We know that we can do this using nuclear weapons, and that has prevented it from happening. But, we all “know” that this is not going to happen through from global warming. “Hey, it is only Chicken Littles who think that.”

    That is the reason that it is not just possible, it is inevitable. By the time people accept that we are destroying mankind it will be too late to stop.

    Just look what is happening as a result of Hurricane Katrina – nothing. We all know that it is a sign of things to come, but we are still waiting until we are sure. When will that be? Presumably when ten category five hurricanes hit the US every summer. By then it will be too late to stop it. And how do we cool the planet down any way?

    Just look at what is happening in the Amazon. Two years of drought, and if we get another two it will die. What is the plan? Wait and see if we do get two more years of drought. It seems to me that the Amazon jungle is doomed, because we won’t believe it can happen until it has!

    It is just the same with the planet. We are not willing to believe that a tipping point exist. We will only be convinced of that when it has occurred. That will be too late!

    Of course this is not science, it is just common sense :-(

  33. 33
    Eric (skeptic) says:

    Dan #14, there’s only two ways to get accurate climate models, (1) model the weather accurately or (2) use accurate parameters for weather. The problem with the second choice which you seem to favor is that the weather parameter substitutions will change as the climate changes, particularly water vapor. The reason that climate models do not have the resolution of weather models is they can’t, not they don’t need to. That problem will be fixed in the next decade or two. The extra computing power, better science, and better real world measurements will fix the other deficiencies like soil moisture, topography and vegetation.

    As for the weather models accuracy, they are notorious for missing convection or convective feedback. Yesterday in the mid-Atlantic we had both including a substantial MCS in the morning missed by all the models. I had 0.75 inches of rain which kept highs lower than 80. Today that moisture will cause diurnal cumulus and likely some tomorrow as well. All climate affecting, all missed by the models.

  34. 34
    Dan says:

    re 32. No. I don’t know how to make this any simpler: The time scales, inputs and spatial resolutions of weather models are completely different than climate models. They serve completely different purposes. This is freshman year meteorology/climatology stuff. You are mixing up the fundamentals.

    As for accuracy of convection or convection feedback, you are not looking at the right models. There are models that handle convection quite well. Some are regional and some are fine scale. Broad scale models do not simply due to resolution issues. Again, you are missing the fundamental difference between climate and weather. Simply repeating what you think does not make it so. There are many sources of information you can seek on this basic information.

  35. 35
    Eric (skeptic) says:

    Dan, there is obviously no need for energy or ocean circulation calculations in weather models, perhaps that is what you are assuming. But as weather patterns change in response to warming from CO2 and other GH gasses, there simply cannot be an adequate parameterization of quantities like “albedo” to feed into energy and broad circulation models. They must be modeled accurately and they will, the climate model resolution will continue to increase whether you want it to or or think it is necessary or not. Along with the weather the climate models will incorporate better science for soil moisture, vegetation, etc. They will also benefit from more comprehensive and accurate initial conditions that will be measured in the real world.

  36. 36
    Pete Best says:

    I like this peice, I am assuming that the alarmism side of climate science comes from conference held in the UK at Exeter in 2005 that seems to be showing that climate change will occur on time scales much less than the IPCC models currently suggest. One such issue is glaciers whereby current models suggest 10,000 years for the Greenland one to melt but recent evidence of Type II (abrupt non linear, stochastic changes) climate change suggests otherwise, ie 100 years before we see large scale change.

    Recent books like Fred Pearces “the last generation” deal with the outcome of this conference and seems to indicate many climate scientists now believe or fear that Type II climate change is more normal than first thought and could lead to much quicker and disruptive change than previously thought possible including much quicker and stronger warming and hence melting than first thought.

  37. 37
    Beverley Bonner says:

    Another facet to this enormous problem is that diminished sources of water, decreased agricultural output that is bound to be a consequence of global warming is going to create more wars such as we now see in the arid mideast and Africa. Need for food and water are so often the basic causes of wars. Global warming is going to bring out the worst in hamanity’s primal needs.

  38. 38
    Dan says:

    re: 34. Yes. But that is a different subject than your earlier claim about models i.e., “…they don’t model the weather very accurately…I’m also not convinced they model the large scale weather features well enough to forecast them.” Climate model resolution will certainly increase. Just as weather models have. But that does not mean that climate (long-term) models will be used to forecast weather (short-term). Never have, never will.

  39. 39
    Eric (skeptic) says:

    Dan, they do already, see ESMF. I also underestimated the degree to which models are integrating, such as adding space weather to the climate/weather models. But I agree that I should not have said “don’t model weather very accurately” implying that I was confusing the two (currently mostly separate) types of models. But then you have essentially proven my point in #2, which is that exists other skeptics who consider current climate models inadequate and reject their conclusions. Those objections are being addressed and in another decade or two will be invalidated by science and technology.

  40. 40
    Dan says:

    Not quite. I think you have taken some important information about EMSF out of context. Per the EMSF web page, “The Earth System Modeling Framework (ESMF) collaboration is building high-performance, flexible software infrastructure to increase ease of use, performance portability, interoperability, and reuse in climate, numerical weather prediction, data assimilation, and other Earth science applications.”

    Building “software infrastructure” is not the use of climate models for weather forecasts.

    As for my “proving” your point in #2, I reject that out of hand. First of all, “proof” is a mathematical concept. Second, the fact that there are skeptics who consider current models inadequate and reject their conclusions is not consequential with respect to the peer-reviewed published results which show otherwise.

  41. 41

    Comment number 1 — Ike, I can’t access the Nature article from your link. Could you please post the author, date, and volume/issue of the journal? Thanks.

    Chris

  42. 42
    Eric (skeptic) says:

    Dan, what the unified modeling provides is fine-grained, quantitative replacement for the parameters that are coarsely and sometimes qualitatively added to climate models like albedo. There are many instances where qualitative hypotheses are made about certain feedbacks such as the extent and albedo of snow and ice. Then various quantitative inputs are used to adjust a single albedo or a set of very coarse albedos in the climate models to see what happens. With an integrated model like ESMF, the snow and ice and its albedo will be modeled on a fine grained basis along with albedo from weather feedbacks. These results will be far more accurate considering the often dramatic changes in weather (and thus snow and ice) due to CO2 and other GH warming and other forcings. Albedo is just one example, there are others, particularly the horizontal and vertical distribution of water vapor which can be modeled on a fine grained basis as it is affected by weather.

  43. 43
    Dan says:

    Eric, re: “far more accurate”. That is the key phrase. The facts are the climate models are quite “accurate” now. They have be shown to predict past climate variations well and within reason. The theory behind them is sound. Certainly the additional detailed, better-resolved parameters such as albedo and water vapor will improve models. But that is not to say they are not accurate now, per the numerous peer-reviewed literature, the IPCC reports, and this web site’s overseers.

  44. 44
    Dan says:

    I meant to add that none other than Gavin Schmidt (he of great http://www.realclimate.org fame!) is a member of the ESMF advisory board. :-)

  45. 45
    Eric (skeptic) says:

    Dan, as you probably expect, I disagree. The problem comes from the changes in weather patterns due to climate forcings. The forcings themselves are shown to be quite small (a degree or so C), most of the rest is water vapor feedback. But the water vapor distribution is very nonlinear due to weather. From my link in #2, there are many problems with models with both current weather patterns and more so as weather patterns change. One example is overestimation of convection such as in 3088067. Another example is 9983516. There are others, and they basically show that GCM models are not accurate now.

  46. 46
    Chris Rijk says:

    A bit of news: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4783199.stm

    Estimated monthly changes in the mass of Greenland’s ice sheet suggest it is melting at a rate of about 239 cubic kilometres (57.3 cubic miles) per year.

    The most recent estimate I could find for ice rate loss was 220 cubic km per year.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4780575.stm

    The UK must be better prepared for the health impact of heatwaves, as the effects of climate change means more will occur, experts have said.

    Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine say plans will have to be constantly updated.

    July this year was the hottest UK month since records began in 1960, with one day hitting a high of 36.5C.

    There’s no “AGW is a myth / nothing to worry about” quote for “balance” here…

  47. 47
    pat neuman says:

    Re: 33, 45

    Eric(skeptic) suggested that in order to get accurate weather
    predictions, two things are needed: (1) accurate weather models (2)
    relevant up-to-date model parameters for operational weather modeling.

    In an earlier post to realclimate I suggested that in order to get accurate hydrologic predictions, two things are needed: (1) accurate hydrologic models (2) relevant up-to-date model parameters for operational hydrologic modeling.

    The need to address climate change in operational hydrologic models and prediction was expressed in documentation (feedback) which I sent to the National Academies on March 21, 2004 (see email*).

    Documentation included the Excerpt below:

    Excerpt:
    ——–
    Earlier this year, my supervisor Dan Luna, Hydrologist in Charge
    (HIC), regarding climate change, said: “That subject is not part of the NCRFC/NWS mission.” I have shown that hydrologic climate change has already been occurring in the NCRFC area and therefore must be part of the NCRFC mission, in my view.

    In 2002 and 2003 I researched NWS cooperative climate data and flow data from the US Geological Survey. I used the results of my research in preparing my presentation for the CPC / DRI workshop.

    In 2000 and 2001, HIC Dean Braatz stated: “global warming was beyond the time window of our hydrologic forecast mission”. The statement was supported by NWS directors in giving final approval to suspensions I received that were directly related to my efforts in hydrologic climate change and model needs. I provided Mr. Braatz and others with data showing trends for earlier snowmelt runoff in the Red River basin, which indicated that climate warming was in the time window for the NCRFC mission, in fact already occurring.

    Please reply at your convenience concerning this request for your suggestions on if / how I might be able to continue work on hydrologic climate change in the Midwest and Northern Great Plains, at the NCRFC.

    Sincerely,

    Pat Neuman
    NCRFC Senior Hydrologist

    —– End of Excerpt ——

    email* Re: CLIMATE AND GLOBAL CHANGE AT THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES –
    NA report titled “Toward a New Advanced Hydrologic Prediction
    Service (AHPS)”
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ClimateArchive/message/2921

    Acronyms

    HIC – Hydrologist in Charge

    NCRFC – North Center River Forecast Center
    NWS – National Weather Service
    CPC – Climate Prediction Center
    DRI – Desert Research Institute
    AHPS – Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service

  48. 48
    Chris Rijk says:

    Re: #25

    As an Australian journalism student who has taken an interest in the work of the IPCC, I find myself with a strange dilemna. Lecturers tell us we need to give equal consideration to ‘both sides’ of the ‘climate change debate’ as though both sides are equally credible, which I personally fidn to be a complete and total distortion of the realities.

    This sort of thing is unfortunate. They’re literally saying that you MUST show both sides of the “debate”? Have you argued with them about this?

    Certainly, in many aspects of journalism, there may be “two sides”, one of which will turn out to be right in an event that hasn’t happened yet. Eg, two sports teams before a match, a case in court before a verdict has been reached, etc. Once the event has happened, then you have a fact that you can report without qualification (though fact-checking is important of course).

    But say you’re reporting on an election, before the results are in. If the opinion polls show it’s “too close to call”, then that’s one thing. But say opinion polls on election day are showing one candidate is getting 90%, the others are getting 5%, and the remaining 5% say don’t know. Is it still then reasonable to give equal weight to the candidates in all reporting?

    I’m no journalist, but the above is how I’d think about it, currently. (Obviously comparing scientific discussion with politial discussion is apples to oranges though…)

  49. 49
    Dan says:

    Eric, from 3088067, “The model is found to capture the relationship between water vapor concentration and total convective area reasonably,
    but it fails to reproduce the respective contributions from highly and less frequent convections. The deficiency lies in the fact that convection frequency is broadly overestimated in the model. The area coverages of different convective regimes are not simulated correctly.”

    No where in that abstract does it say or imply that the various climate model prediction are inaccurate within reason per the peer-reviewed literature. At face value, the author examined the NCAR model, identified a “deficiency” in convection frequency such that apparently the coverages of convective “regimes” are not “simulated correctly”. This small piece in the climate puzzle does not have weight to disregard or altogether throw out the various climate models outputs. Particular in light of their ability to reproduce climate changes.

  50. 50
    Eric (skeptic) says:

    Pat, I find the hydrologic models to be quite good at river level prediction in my area (Shenandoah in VA). Where they falter a bit is soil moisture modeling and measurement particularly at varying depths. Where they failed fairly dramatically in June was in the weather modeling particularly timing the end of convection in PA. As the trailing edge moved through my area they were still predicting 12 more hours of rain there when it was obvious that it would be 3-4.


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