Monthly Archives: April 2015

Transparency vs. Harassment

Michael Halpern, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and climate scientist Michael Mann have written an editorial for Science, “Transparency and harassment.”

Open records laws hold Universities and other public institutions accountable, protecting against biasing influences such as we might see from funding sources. (See: Cry for me Willie Soon).

Over the last couple of decades, interpersonal conversations among researchers have shifted from the milieu of vibrating air molecules in a room (or transformed into electrical signals and transferred over a phone) to electronic form. Today, a very large part of the conversation ongoing among research colleagues, or teachers and students, ends up in emails or other forms of eCommunication.

Activists of any stipe have increasingly been using open records laws and regulations to access these private conversations, as well as early drafts of papers and other information. Halpern and Mann make the point that “[t]hese requests can attack and intimidate academics, threatening their reputations, chilling their speech, disrupting their research, discouraging them from tackling contentious topics, and ultimately confusing the public.”

They ask what is the appropriate way to attain transparency while at the same time not stifling research or producing an uncontrolled form of political weaponry ripe for abuse?

Not only is excessive and invasive use of open records procedure intrusive and intimidating, it is also costly. There have been several instances, cited by Halpern and Mann, of institutions spending significant resources on addressing requests for information, a cost that is paid whether or not the information is actually accessed in the end. And, when this goes to court, the costs go up. In one case, Mann’s institution was hit with information requests that came ultimately as a result of a congressional investigation. Halpern and Mann report that in this case,

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that excessive disclosure could put the university at a “competitive disadvantage,” and cause “harm to university-wide research efforts, damage to faculty recruitment and retention, undermining of faculty expectations of privacy and confidentiality, and impairment of free thought and expression.”

Halpern and Mann suggest that institutions such as Universities get up to speed, and get their researchers and faculty up to speed, to know how to properly handle information requests, “not to determine the appropriate response, but to help employees understand how access to correspondence could be misused.” If this is done, there may ultimately emerge a set of standards that fill in the logic gap between fair and reasonable disclosure and normal collegiate conversation. In short, Halpern and Mann are asking for a modernization of disclosure and transparency law and procedure, with the ultimate goal of creating legitimate public trust in science and avoiding the stifling effects of misuse of open records law.

The editorial is here, but it may be behind a paywall.

Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change, Must Read Book

Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming by Michael Mann and Lee Kump is everyperson’s guide to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The IPCC issues a periodic set of reports on the state of global climate change, and has been doing so for almost two decades. It is a massive undertaking and few have the time or training to read though and absorb it, yet it is very important that every citizen understands the reports’ implications. Why? Because human caused climate change has emerged as the number one existential issue of the day, and individuals, corporations, and governments must act to implement sensible and workable changes in behavior and policy or there will be dire consequences.

Dire Predictions is a DK Publishing product, which means it is very visual, succinct, and as is the case with all the DK products I’ve seen, well done. This is the second edition of the book, updated to reflect the most recent IPCC findings. The book gives a basic background on climate change, describes scientific projections and how they are developed, discuses impacts of climate change, and outlines vulnerability and modes of adaptation to change. The book finishes with a panoply of suggestions for solving the climate change crisis. Since Dire Predictions reflects the IPCC reports, it can be used as a primer in understanding the much more extensive and intensive original document, but it can also be used entirely on its own. I would recommend Dire Predictions for use in any of a wide range of classroom settings. It could be a primary text in middle school or high school Earth Systems classes, or a supplementary text in intro college courses. Anyone who is engaged in the climate change conversation and wants to be well informed simply needs to get this book, read it, and have it handy as a reference.

See: An interview with Michael Mann by yours truly

Lee Kump is a professor in Geosciences at Penn State, and author of a major textbook “The Earth System.” Michael Mann is Distinguished Professor of Meteorology and Director of the Earth System Science Centre at Penn State, and author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines (as well as countless scientific publications). Mann has been on top of the climate change issue for years. His work in the late 1980s, with colleagues, produced the famous “Hockey Stick” graph which had two major impacts. First, it made the link between the recent century or so of direct observation of Earth’s surface temperatures (with thermometers and/or satellites) and the “paleo” record made up of proxyindicators of temperature, an essential step in placing modern climate change in long term perspective. Second, using this connection, Mann and colleagues showed that recent global warming, known to be primarily caused by human released greenhouse gas pollution, was already extreme and likely to get more extreme. Since then, Mann has been a key scientist involved with the IPCC, and has carried out many important research projects.

See: New Research on Tree Rings as Indicators of Past Climate

I asked Dr. Mann to address a handful of questions I had about Dire Predictions.

Question: Some might think of the title of the book as a bit extreme, even “alarmist,” to reference a term we often see used by climate science deniers. I assume you chose it carefully. Why “Dire Predictions: [subtitle]” instead of “Understanding Climate Change: [subtitle]”?

Answer: This was a mutual decision between the authors (Lee Kump and myself) and the publisher. The publisher felt this title both communicates the nature of the content of the book and the larger message of urgency; The predictions really are “dire” for the worst case scenarios, i.e. if we fail to act on climate change.

Question: What are the biggest changes, or perhaps most interesting changes, between the first and second edition, such as new research? Did any of the initial projections get less dire? More dire?

Answer: The main difference is that the book reflects the latest science as reported in the most recent (5th) IPCC assessment report. Some spreads remained unchanged, i.e. we felt there were no significant developments in the science since the last report (and last book). But in other cases, there were some substantial developments, i.e. we felt compelled to talk about the “Faux Pause” since it has gotten so much attention, and the issue of equilibrium climate sensitivity is discussed in more depth. The concept of the “Anthropocene” is dealt with more explicitly. And the issue of recent cold eastern U.S. winters and what it really means, and the unprecedented current drought in California are discussed.

Question: It seems that for decades the climate science has been settled sufficiently to realize that release of fossil Carbon will have serious consequences. Yet policy and technology changes to address this have been slow. Is this simply because such things take a long time, or have the efforts of science deniers been successful in slowing down action? How much better (or less dire) would things be in, say, 2050 had people, corporations, and governments accepted climate change as a serious matter 20 years ago? In other words, how much damage has science denialism done?

Answer: Oh, that’s a fundamentally important point. There is a huge “procrastination penalty” in not acting on the problem, and we’ve presumably committed to billions if not trillions of economic losses by not having acted yet. But there is still time to avert the worst and most costly damages, so there is an urgency of action unlike there has ever been before. This is something we tackle head on in the book.

See: Michael Mann Answers Questions From Dangerous Children About Ian Somerhalder

Question: Since you finished working on the second edition, are there any new research findings you wish you could somehow add to the book? Or, any changes in what is emphasized?

Indeed. As you know, Stefan Rahmstorf, I and others recently published an article in Nature Climate Change demonstrating that the AMOC (North Atlantic ocean circulation, the so-called “conveyor belt”) may be weakening even faster than the IPCC models indicate. Yet, we have downplayed that topic (though it is mentioned in a brand new spread on “Tipping Points”) because the consensus has leaned toward this being one of the less likely tipping points to occur in the decades ahead. This is a reminder that science is often fast-moving, and in this case, had we waited a year to publish the 2nd edition of DP, we might have chosen to actually give the AMOC collapse issue even more attention!

See: A list of climate change books

Question: I’m wondering if the projections for sea level rise in Dire Predictions are conservative with respect to more recent research. Also, there seems to be a more clear and explicit link between climate change an ware or social unrest. Would these issues also have more attention if you had another shot at the book?

Answer: We do discuss the sea level rise and the fact that iPCC projections here (and for many other variables) have been historically too conservative. There is some discussion now about the role of water resources in national security and conflict, and the huge advances that are taking place in renewable energy (that is something that has changed dramatically since the first edition—and a reminder of the reasons there are for cautious optimism).

Also of interest:

Gangs in #Baltimore Did Not Band Together To Go After Cops

You all heard that gangs in Baltimore had banded together to go after cops. But if you did hear that, you heard wrong. Gangs are universally vilified, and the term “gang” is also used by law enforcement and their other as a euphemism. (For people it is OK to shoot, apparently.) The reality of gangs is far more complex than usually understood.

Anyway, I thought you might like to see this:

Originally posted by WBALTV 11: Members of the Black Guerrilla Family, the Bloods and the Crips talk to 11 News, saying they did not make a truce to harm police officers.

Comparing models and empirical estimates Part II: interview with Brown

I recently posted an overview of a new climate study, Comparing the model-simulated global warming signal to observations using empirical estimates of unforced noise, by Patrick T. Brown, Wenhong Li, Eugene C. Cordero & Steven A. Mauget. That study is potentially important because of what it says about how to interpret the available data on global warming caused by human generated greenhouse gas pollution. Also, the since publication the study has been rather abused by climate contrarians who chose to interpret it very inaccurately. This is addressed in this item by Media Matters.

My post on the paper describes the basic findings, but at the time I wrote that, I had a number of questions for the study authors. I sent the questions off noting that there was not a big hurry to get back to me, since the climate wasn’t going anywhere any time soon. Lead Author, Patrick Brown, in the mean time, underwent something of a trial by fire when the denialosphere went nuts in the effort to misinterpret the study’s results. I guess I can’t blame them. There is no actual science to grab on to in the effort to deny the reality or importance of anthropogenic climate change, so why not just make stuff up?

Anyway, Patrick Brown addressed all the questions I sent him, and I thought the best way to present this information is as a straight forward interview. As follows.

Amidst the reactions I’ve seen on social media, blogs, etc. to your paper, I see the idea that your study suggests a downward shift in the (severity of, literally, GMT) resulting from greenhouse gas pollution than what was previously thought. However, I don’t think your paper actually says that. Can you comment?

Reply: You are correct, our paper does not say that. How much warming you get for a given change in greenhouse gasses is termed ‘climate sensitivity’ and our study does not address climate sensitivity at all. In fact, the words ‘climate sensitivity’ do not even appear in the study so we are a little frustrated with this interpretation.

It seems to me that between RCP 4.5, 6 and 8.5, you are suggesting that they differ in their ability to predict, with 6 being the best, 4.5 not as good (but well within the range) and 8.5 as being least good, possible but depending on conditions maybe rejectable.

Reply: Yes and this is just over the recent couple decades, our study does not address how likely these scenarios will be by next year or 2050 or 2100.

At this point I think the following characterizes your work; 1) Taking a somewhat novel look at models and data, what we were thinking before seems by and large confirmed by your work; The central trend of warming with increased greenhouse gas is confirmed in that models and data are by and large aligned in both central tendency (the trend line) and variation. Is this correct?

Reply: We found that models largely get the ‘big picture’ correct when it comes to how large the natural chaotic variability is. We already knew the multi-model mean was not getting the trend correct over the past decade-or-so but we knew that this could have been due to random natural variation. Our study just quantified how large the underlying global warming progression could be given that we saw little warming over the recent past.

Your paper seems to confirm that the more likely scenarios are more likely and the less likely scenarios are as previously thought, possible but less likely. More extreme scenarios have not been taken off the table, though there may be refinement in how we view them. Is that a fair characterization?

Reply: Yes.

The amount of noise in the climate system (EUN) is sufficiently high that much of the observed squiggling around a central trend line is accounted for by that noise and does not require questioning the models (that is my rewrite of "We find that the empirical EUN is wide enough so that the interdecadal variability in the rate of global warming over the 20th century does not necessarily require corresponding variability in the rate-of-increase of the forced signal” in your paper) Is it correct to say that unforced squiggling/EUN/noise would naturally go away with longer sampling intervals (going from years to decades, for example) but these results suggest that even interdecadal variability is likely a result of noise, not forcing.

Reply: Yes, we do not rule out that forcing may be responsible but we are saying that this inderdecadal variability doesn’t necessarily require forcing.

Would it be accurate to say that your paper speaks mainly to the nature of variation observed temperature over time, the squiggling of the signal up and down along a trend line, in relation to variation that is seen in models?

Reply: Just to clarify, in the paper we refer to the component of GMT change that is due to external radiative forcings (e.g., greenhouse gasses) as the ‘signal’ and the component due to chaotic unforced variability as ‘noise’. We don’t necessarily expect either of these to be linear or to follow a trend line. We estimated how large the noise was and used this estimate to see what we might be able to infer regarding the underlying signal, given recent observations.

Noise in this signal is presumably dampened by averaging out the numbers over time (widening the sampling interval, if you will) so as we go from years to decades we get a straighter line that should be more in accord with the correct model. Your paper seems to be suggesting that natural/internal variation (EUN, noise) often operates at a scale larger than we would dampen by looking at the data at the decade-long scale. Is that correct? If so, is it the case that an excursion (such as the so called pause/hiatus) that is 10–20 years long does not fall out of the range of expectations (of noise effects) according to your work?

Reply: Yes. No recent trend was completely outside of the range of possibility – even for RCP8.5. However, it’s naturally the case that a steeper signal (like RCP8.5) is less likely than a slower progressing signal (like RCP6.0) over a time period of no warming.

There seems to be some confusion about your conclusions regarding RCP8.5. Does this paper suggest that RCP8.5 should be rejected? Or does it suggest that it is less likely than previous work suggests?

Reply: First it must be said that we were not looking at how likely RCP8.5 is in the long run. We are simply asking the question “if it hasn’t warmed in 11 years (2001–2013) how likely is it that we have been on RCP 8.5 during that time? We find that it is not very likely but still possible.

Asking this a slightly different way (to address the confusion that is out there) does your paper confirm that 8.5 is less likely than RCP 6.0 as previously thought? If RCP 8.5 is less likely than previously thought does this mean that the entire probability distribution estimate for climate sensitivity needs to be shifted downward, or, alternatively, does it only mean that the upper tail is less fat than previously thought, and if so, how much less fat?

Reply: We may have seen less warming than RCP8.5 because the forcings have been overestimated in RCP8.5 relative to reality over the past decade. If forcings have been overestimed than we expect less warming, even with high climate sensitivity. Because of this possibility, our study cannot make conclusions about the climate sensitivity distribution.

Schurer et al did something similar to what you’ve done here a couple of years ago. Comparing their work and yours the question arises, can you get adequate constraint on the forced and internal variability separately from the paleodata and paleo-forced simulations? Or is there too much noise in the two systems that differencing between two noisy data sets is affected by too much noise amplification? In other words, you have partitioned the problem into model outputs vs. empirical, while Shurer separate between forced and internal. Does your (relatively orthogonal) take an additional risk?

Reply: It is certainly a challenge to know how much can be inferred from the paleo record. Our goal, however, was simply to use the paleo-record in a sensible way to estimate the magnitude of unforced variability. We feel that we adequately account for uncertainty in this estimation as we came up with over 15,000 different estimates which sampled uncertainty in different parameters.

Finally, your study goes up to 2013. The year 2013 (or thereabouts) may be considered as part of a sequence of years with little increase in surface temperature. However, starting in March 2014 we have seen only very warm months (starting earlier than that, but excluding February). Predictions on the table suggest 2015 will be warm, and actually, 2016 as well. If it turns out that 2014, 2015, and 2016 are each warmer than the previous year, and your entire study was redone to go to the end of 2016, would your results change? If so, how? (I?m thinking not because the time scale of your work is so large, but I need to ask!)

Reply: The study was submitted before the 2014 datpoint was added to the record which is why it stops there. If by 2016, we are back in the middle of the distribution for RCP8.5 then it would imply that we might be back on the RCP8.5 scenario. This wouldn’t actually change the results of the study since the study was only concerned with what had already occurred. New data will not change that it did not warm from 2002–2013 so our probability calculations of how likely it was that we are on RCP8.5 over those 11 years would not change.

What is scientific consensus?

A group of scientists attending a major conference get together in a bar. They talk, but they agree on nothing because they are critical academics. The server comes along to take the beer order and says, “I noticed you all are constantly arguing. What are you arguing about?”

“Sensitivity,” one of them says. “It is the number of degrees C the Earth’s surface will warm with a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere. Is it 2, 3, 4? … We cant settle on a number”

The server considers their plight for a moment. Suddenly, she rips several sheets out of her order book and hands one to each of the scientists. She notices they all already have pens and mechanical pencils in their shirt pockets.

“Each of you write down a number for sensitivity. Don’t share. I’ll look at them all and if they are all the same number I’ll bring you your beer for free for the rest of the evening.”

The scientists comply. She looks at their numbers. They are all the same. Despite the quibbling they all had the same sense for what the number for climate “sensitivity” likely is. They get free beer for the evening.

Scientific consensus is what most scientists will nitpick about but ultimately agree on if free beer is at stake.

My first homework assignment for Making Sense of Climate Denial.

Reactions to the Baltimore Riot (2015)

I have a few partly formed, preliminary thoughts about some people’s reaction to Baltimore (originally posted on my friend Miles Kurland’s page as a comment, then on my facebook page, edited.)

What I’m mainly reacting to is the constant drone of people saying that rioting and anti-state violence in Baltimore is fully 100% wrong and will have 0% positive effect. That may or may not be true, but I have the impression that most of these reactions (mainly seen by me on Twitter, which does tend to lack nuance and detail) are of the knee-jerk sort and not well thought out. More importantly, perhaps, these reactions constitute, intended or not, a rejection of reasons that Baltimore is blowing up, a kind of punching down. The larger situation may call for something other than a simplified scolding of people engaged in behavior that is shocking or disturbing.

The only reasonable position is to not approve of riots, and to speak out against them. They are violent and messy and bad press for any movement.

The only reasonable position is to openly understand that when people are fed up they will do extreme things. That is not excusing the acts, it is understanding and explaining the acts. In some cases, it may even be appropriate to applaud such acts. We actually do this all the time. As a society we support many insurrections. We even try to incite them sometimes, almost always abroad of course.

Within the range of civil disobedience, there are actions that are less extreme and more extreme. It is very rare to start at the most extreme end of the spectrum. When the less extreme acts fail to produce results, more extreme acts are understandable, and in some cases necessary. When that fails to produce results, even more extreme acts are expected once escalation starts.

I think it is correct to use the American Revolution as an example, though the parallels are not (and need not be) perfect.

The American Revolution did not start with the forced Evacuation of Boston by attacking the established legal authority (the British military) with weapons and forcing them out. That was just the first effective act. the first meaningful win by the colonists. Before that there were attempts to change laws, to change local procedures for implementing existing laws, written and spoken protests. As that happened acts of violence and repression against the colonists such as the Boston Massacre started to happen and increased. That was met with even more peaceful and academic protest sprinkled with acts of civil disobedience that did not involve interpersonal violence. That did not work either, and was responded to with acts of military actions against colonists.

Then, Lexington and Concord, a draw; the colonists arms were destroyed, two British soldiers killed. This was followed by a full on military confrontation (the Battle of Bunker/Breed’s Hill) in which the colonists got their asses kicked by a superior and enhanced British military force. That was followed by a non violent but potentially violent act by the colonists (Ticonderoga) in which arms were illegally stolen by the colonists. At any point up to this time the British could have stopped further non-violent and violent repressive acts by listening to the majority of the people but they chose not to. They were not playing fair not acting as moral actors, we say now with the hindsight of history.

Finally, the British were driven out of Boston and full on war results.

Is it the case that every illegal act, especially those that involved violence and weapons, was not justified by the colonists? Had they held out for five or 10 more years with negotiations, political acts in their various legal bodies, etc. would the British have let up? All the evidence suggests not. We don’t look back at the Evacuation of Boston as an immoral or inappropriate act. We don’t in retrospect feel that the colonists were wrong. That could be because they won, eventually, but it is mostly because they went to full on insurrection after years of trying not to. One could say “they did it right.” But, at which point in time during the early days of the Revolution and the days leading up to it could an objective observer had said that at the time?

It may well be that the rioters in Baltimore lack patience and should wait two or three years, or a decade, before acting. Or even a few months. But as far as anyone can tell, police repression of minorities and the poor has increased not decreased, or at least continues apace.

Go look a the numbers. Oh wait, actually you can’t look at the numbers because some of the key data sources have been shut down by Congress or other forces. I would like to see a full accounting of this, please post any links about police-on-people violence over the years in the comments if you have them.

We would like an academic study of violence against the population but such studies that fall under the study of gun related morbidity and mortality are no longer subject to funding, by act of Congress, and as far as I can tell some of the key databases collecting pertinent information have been shut down and made unavailable.

The argument that people should be more patient because the numbers show this or that can’t be made because as part of this repression the numbers are no longer available or studied by people who can understand and measure data quality and reporting bias, etc.

So, really, the people who are doing, passively allowing, or benefiting from the repression don’t really have the right to say that a particular response to continuous class and race repression should be or not be a particular thing. It just isn’t a realistic option.

Stating that rioting is bad, then, is a reasonable thing to say but if it is the only thing you have to say, then you are part of the problem. If you say it along with a statement that one might understand what is happening, then it all depends on what you put first, foreground, prioritize.

We may be seeing a moment of change right now, this week. Or not. Hard to say. But insisting that the status quo is the only thing that is OK, is not a moral stand. The real situation is more complex. Everybody’s got to put their big boy pants on and start recognizing that this is complex, and that identifying repressed people who strike out after decades/centuries (depending on what you are counting) of violent repression by the state and society is so simplistic that it is either full-on ignorance or complicity with that repression.

Martin Luther King condemned rioting. But he also said this:

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.

The photograph at the top of the post was taken during rioting in Baltimore in, in 1968, response to the assassination of MLK.

Will 2015 be warmer than 2014?

That is a good question, and difficult to answer. If it turns out to be, it will be the warmest calendar year in the instrumental record, which goes back into the 19th century.

Regardless of what El Nino (ENSO) does, 2015 will be a warm year. Why? Because everything is warm and getting warmer and even if 2015 is less warm than 2014, it will be warm. There is no other possibility.

Even without the effects of El Nino, though, it is possible that 2015 will be warmer than 2014 because we see a lot of heat out there. If the present, relatively weak El Nino continues for a while, it will likely increase the chance that 2015 will be warmer than 2014. But current predictions suggest that 2014 will not only continue to have a strengthening El Nino, but El Nino conditions may either continue or repeat over 2015 and beyond. If that happens, not only is 2015 likely to be the warmest year in the instrumental record (since 1880) but 2016 may be in the running to be even warmer.

So far each month of 2015 has been very warm (see graph above) overall (the “zero” on the Y-axis of that graph represents the 20th century mean surface temperature). This month, April, is not excessively warm. Likely when April is plotted for 2015 on this graph, it will be either cooler then or around the same as last April.

Obviously we won’t know until the year is over, and given that climate change is a medium term phenomenon best measured in decades, we shouldn’t be in such a hurry to know these numbers. But, given that climate change is the existential issue of our day and the data become available month by month, we are not going to ignore the march of surface temperatures. We are going to, rather justifiably, be interested in what happens, month by month, as it happens.

At the end of the month, climate scientists such as my friend John Abraham, who is tracking global temperatures daily, will be able to produce a very good estimate of what the major data bases (such as NASA GISS, used here) will say, but those data bases won’t be officially updated until around the middle of the following month or so. So stay tuned.

Added: For those keeping track, I made a new version of the above graph. The red line represent the monthly anomaly values required (on average) for the rest of the year for 2015 to equal 2014. I also extended the Y-axis to 100 because the warmest month in the GISS database is in the 90s, just in case such a very warm month occurs. It is likely that April 2015 will not e as warm as April 2014 but it will likely be above the red line.


The funniest thing ever

Just so you know. This is not something where you watch the first minute and get it and go “oh that’s funny” or not and them move on. The plot is complex you must watch it until the very very end or don’t bother. Just sayin’ this because people seem to not do that a lot. Not a good way to go through life.

Anyway, watch this. Be prepared to ROFLYAO.