Climate Policy Lecture 4
October 11, 2009

This week’s lecture was delivered by an atmospheric scientist who specialized in the study of convective vortices (hurricanes, tornadoes, supercell thunderstorms, etc). He was obviously an expert in this field, but unfortunately, he seemed not to have thought very deeply about broader issues of climate science, and particularly climate policy. He breezed (ha) quickly through the idea that global warming causes more hurricanes and makes them more intense, an idea that makes theoretical sense but I thought still lacked solid observational support because El Nino has suppressed Atlantic hurricane formation or something. I would have liked to hear more on this.


He also presented a plot similar to the one above, showing global mean temperature over geologic time (the time axis is logarithmic) that highlights all the variability over different timescales. It’s a really fascinating record, and I would also have liked to know more about this, but then he admitted he hadn’t thought much about this plot, and then demonstrated that by offering essentially no interpretation of it.

Finally, he gave the first simple explanation I’ve ever heard for why there are multiple equilibria in the climate, but it’s not really interesting enough to share here. The next two weeks there aren’t any lectures, so I’ll have to find something else to write about. (revised on Oct. 12 to make it nicer)

Climate Policy Lectures 1-3
October 4, 2009

It's all gone but the mountains.

It's all gone but the mountains.

Three weeks ago, I started attending a weekly lecture series on climate policy. Since all of the speakers have been very informative, and because I form strong opinions easily, I have a lot to say about each of the talks so far. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me until today that I can and should record my thoughts about these talks here, on my blog. So now I’ll attempt to recap the first three lectures in this post, and then add new posts every week on the subsequent lectures. I think for now I’ll leave the names of the speakers out of the posts for the sake of Google anonymity, but I haven’t really thought about it too much and might be willing to reconsider.


Some Comments on Government, Followed by Another Dialogue
August 4, 2009

Congress is taking a recess for the month of August without yet having passed either health-care reform or legislation to address climate change. It’s still possible that one or both of these issues will be resolved this autumn in some way, but lots of progressives are getting frustrated. Matt Taibbi is always frustrated, but last week he found agreement from Ezra Klein, who is usually much more sanguine about the establishment. Ezra wrote that it’s too soon to abandon hope for reform — “Something might get done” — but

whatever gets done will be much too expensive because the political system is very afraid of harming any of the relevant industries. Taibbi is right that [health care reform], like climate change, is a litmus test for our government. Both are serious, foreseeable and solvable threats to our society. One threatens to bankrupt the country. The other threatens irreversible damage to the planet we live on. Responding to such threats is the test of a political system. And our system will fail it. We will not avert catastrophic climate change. We will not protect ourselves from health-care inflation… The country, and the system, will continue to whistle while our wages get eaten up and our government tumbles further into debt and our interest rates rise and other priorities get squeezed out and a serious and painful fiscal reckoning inches ever closer.

I think these statements are obviously correct, but if anyone disagrees I’d be interested to hear why. One of the Economist’s anonymous Democracy in America bloggers was also struck by these comments, and wrote a nice post about how every generation of young progressive intellectuals starts off idealistic about politics and then gets disenchanted and either moderates or radicalizes. The DiA commenters were generally pretty dismissive of the concerns of Klein and Taibbi (e.g. “Um, I can sum this up in one word: whining”), which made me think more about the issue. Reflecting on it for a while, instead of coming to a conclusion I ended up with another dialogue, which I have reproduced below the fold:


Go Carbon Tax
May 25, 2009


I thought of an opinion on pending legislation that I would like to record in the public archive of the Internet. The specific legislation is the American Clean Energy and Security Act and its primary purpose is to introduce a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions in America. The opinion I have is that this is a poor excuse for a bill and that a carbon tax would be a vastly superior solution to the climate crisis.


The Irony of Sustainability
May 13, 2009

In lieu of a full blog post, please allow me simply to connect two dots. First, read this long passage from the preface to Neibuhr’s The Irony of American History, which was published in 1952 and primarily refers to the America’s ethical position in the Cold War:

We frequently speak of “tragic” aspects of contemporary history; and also call attention to a “pathetic” element in our present historical situation. My effort to distinguish “ironic” elements in our history from tragic and pathetic ones, does not imply the denial of tragic and pathetic aspects in our contemporary experience. It does rest upon the conviction that the ironic elements are more revealing. The three elements might be distinguished as follows: (a) Pathos is that element in an historic situation which elicits pity, but neither deserves admiration nor warrants contrition. Pathos arises from fortuitous cross-purposes and confusions in life for which no reason can be given, or guilt ascribed. Suffering caused by purely natural evil is the clearest instance of the purely pathetic. (b) The tragic element in a human situation is constituted of conscious choices of evil for the sake of good. If men or nations do evil in a good cause; if they cover themselves with guilt in order to fulfill some high responsibility; or if they sacrifice some high value for the sake of a higher or equal one they make a tragic choice. Thus the necessity of using the threat of atomic destruction as an instrument of the preservation of peace is a tragic element in our contemporary situation. Tragedy elicits admiration as well as pity because it combines nobility with guilt. (c) Irony consists of apparently fortuitous incongruities in life which are discovered, upon closer examination, to be not merely fortuitous. Incongruity as such is merely comic. It elicits laughter. This element of comedy is never completely eliminated from irony. But irony is something more than comedy. A comic situation is proved to be an ironic one if a hidden relation is discovered in the incongruity. If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits — in all such cases the situation is ironic. The ironic situation is distinguished from the pathetic one by the fact that the person involved in it bears some responsibility for it. It is differentiated from tragedy by the fact that the responsibility is related to an unconscious weakness rather than to a conscious resolution. While a pathetic or tragic situation is not dissolved when a person becomes conscious of his [or her] involvement in it, an ironic situation must dissolve if men or nations are made aware of their complicity in it. Such awareness involves some realization of the the hidden vanity or pretension by which comedy is turned into irony. This realization must either lead to an abatement of the pretension, which is contrition; or it leads to a desperate accentuation of the vanities to the point where irony turns into pure evil.

Bearing in mind this distinction between pathos, tragedy, and irony (which includes a wonderful definition of irony for students in English class – eat your heart out, Alanis!), now read this essay by Chris Clugston on the sustainability crisis America faces. Once one is aware that our society is unsustainable, if you agree with Niebuhur there are only a few choices. One can decide that the virtue of economic growth is more important than the virtue of sustainability, embracing the “tragic” path. One can feel contrition and try to change things. Or one can continue as before, desperately accentuating the vanities of overconsumption.

Civil Disobedience
January 18, 2009

I saw this story about a month ago, but I still think it’s cool and worth a comment. The story is about Tim Dechristopher, a 27-year old college student in Utah who performed a pretty awesome act of civil disobedience. This six-minute Rachel Maddow video provides a good summary of the case (I’m still figuring out how to embed videos in WordPress, sorry). I see the issue of environmental sustainability as an analogue to slavery in 19th century America, so I’m in pretty strong support of this kind of civil disobedience.

A Meditation on Power
January 9, 2009

Image Credit Fred Bruenjes (

Image Credit Fred Bruenjes (

Electrical power, that is. The “clean coal” companies want a few billion dollars of the Obama stimulus money to “invest” in more coal power plants for our country, which they claim will be “cleaner” than current coal plants and thus provide cheap power without hurting the environment. Nirmal had a great post a few weeks ago highlighting some of the deception behind the “clean” part of “clean coal”, which I recalled today when I read there was just another such ash spill in Alabama. Also, coal power is by far the biggest contributor to global warming – even more than those fearsome SUVs!

We shouldn’t build any more coal power plants at all. What should we do instead? Personally, I’m a big fan of solar power. Photovoltaic solar panels don’t emit any carbon or other pollution once they’re built (more on that some other time). Solar power is completely sustainable for as long as the sun keeps burning (about 5 billion more years). And, with current technology, it can easily provide all of the power America needs. I find that last statement surprises a lot of people, so I’ll walk through a simple calculation to back it up. This is one of my favorite arguments for solar power, and some of you may have heard it before, but for those who haven’t, it’s really worth following it through one time. And I guess I should warn that it contains some numbers and very basic math. Feel free to challenge assumptions in comments if you’d like.


Climate 2008
December 25, 2008

Just a quick post about the climate. It’s still in serious trouble, if you’re wondering. Here’s a really effective plot to emphasize the threat, taken from Hansen et al. 2008. The left 80% of the plot shows the past 400,000 years of climate history measured from an ice core sample; the green line is the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and the red line is the mean temperature at the ice core location. The correlation between the two is pretty obvious, and plenty of science establishes the causation as well. In the right-most 20% they have plotted the greenhouse gas (green) and mean temperature (purple) for the past 120 years, along the same vertical scale. Now, it takes about 1000 years for the temperature to catch up to the greenhouse gas, but clearly we’re in for some interesting times. *


And now for a paragraph dealing with climate change denial. The gold standard for this stuff is, a climate change blog for the public written by a bunch of climate scientists in their free time. They’ve got two excellent posts up right now. The first one deals with the estimated mean temperature for 2008, which you’ll start seeing headlines about next week or so. The second is more philosophical, and muses more on the nature of science and consensus in placing climate change denial in a broader context, using the old debate between Lamarckianism and natural selection as an example.

Finally, in terms of dealing with climate change, there is a global summit in Copenhagen scheduled for December 2009. The Economist has a good preview of the summit and the likely outcome:

A substantive deal in Copenhagen therefore looks unlikely; but the world’s leaders are not likely to give up trying to save the planet there and then. Perhaps the likeliest outcome in Copenhagen in 2009 is a repetition of what happened in Kyoto in 2000—a big bust-up, another meeting called and a deal done the following year.”

*While the green line is the important line in the long run, in the short term, temperature is driven instead by the black line, which accounts for other forcings on the global temperature, such as volcanic activity, solar cycles, and dusty air pollution.


EDIT: Oh yeah, the obvious other thing to add is the recommendation from the abstract of that paper I cited: “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm, but likely less that.”