The dangers of linear thinking

Some years ago I watched a mildly-exciting film called The Day After Tomorrow, in which a huge ice-storm plunges the United States into crisis. There are vast rises in sea level (I recall a scene in which a large ship appears to be sailing down Wall Street) and an amusing scene in which a bunch of frozen survivors huddle together in the New York Public Library and keep themselves warm by burning books and possibly bound copies of scientific journals. Some people tried to interpret it as an allegory about global warming, which was patently ludicrous because everybody knows that that is a slow process in which the earth warms by degrees, CO2 concentrations increase linearly and so on, enabling us to watch the orderly, predictable approach of the apocalypse and have time to make the necessary preparations for our survival, if not for the billions of wretches who are too poor or too geographically-challenged to head for the hills.

This way of thinking about processes seems to be hard-wired into the human consciousness. We think in linear terms, of quantities and critical indicators changing monotonically, and this influences the way we think about climate change (to the extent that we think of it at all). Sure, we concede, the climate is changing, and the direction of travel doesn't look good, but it will be quite a while yet before we really hit the critical level and so we don't have to worry too much about it just now.

If the earth's climate were a simple system then that might be a rational strategy. But it's not: it's an exceedingly complex system, which means, among other things, that it's intrinsically unpredictable, is capable of having multiple stable states, and may switch between them with great rapidity. In popular terms, what popularisers like Malcolm Gladwell call "tipping points" are examples of the sudden discontinuities that interactions between feedback loops within a complex system can produce.

What brings this to mind is some stuff I've been reading over the Christmas break, notably this interesting piece in The Nation which collates a number of different sources of information and research to suggest that we might be heading for a significantly nonlinearity which would have a dramatic — and, more importantly – rapid impact on mankind's prospects.

The article and some of the associated links are worth reading at leisure but, in crude terms, the scenario it explores stems from attempts that people are making to assess the implications of the rapid disappearance of arctic sea ice — a process that is definitely under way. One impact of that will be some melting of arctic permafrost, which in turn will release vast amounts of methane into the atmosphere in a relatively short time.

Professor Peter Wadhams, a leading Arctic expert at Cambridge University, has been measuring Arctic ice for forty years, and his findings underscore McPherson’s fears. “The fall-off in ice volume is so fast it is going to bring us to zero very quickly,” Wadhams told a reporter. According to current data, he estimates “with 95% confidence” that the Arctic will have completely ice-free summers by 2018. (US Navy researchers have predicted an ice-free Arctic even earlier—by 2016.)

British scientist John Nissen, chairman of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (of which Wadhams is a member), suggests that if the summer sea ice loss passes “the point of no return,” and “catastrophic Arctic methane feedbacks” kick in, we’ll be in an “instant planetary emergency.”

Why is this such a big deal?

In the atmosphere, methane is a greenhouse gas that, on a relatively short-term time scale, is far more destructive than carbon dioxide (CO2). It is twenty-three times as powerful as CO2 per molecule on a 100-year timescale, 105 times more potent when it comes to heating the planet on a twenty-year timescale—and the Arctic permafrost, onshore and off, is packed with the stuff. “The seabed,” says Wadham, “is offshore permafrost, but is now warming and melting. We are now seeing great plumes of methane bubbling up in the Siberian Sea…millions of square miles where methane cover is being released.”

According to a study just published in Nature Geoscience, twice as much methane as previously thought is being released from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, a two million square kilometer area off the coast of Northern Siberia. Its researchers found that at least 17 teragrams (one million tons) of methane are being released into the atmosphere each year, whereas a 2010 study had found only seven teragrams heading into the atmosphere.

So we could be at the beginning of a big 'methane burp'? Nobody really knows what the impact of that might be (though there are some apocalyptic conjectures). For me, the main implication is that linear thinking about climate change might be dangerous.

Bjørn Lomborg on climate policy

First of all, he says we need to recognise that just continuing with current policies won’t work.

The Copenhagen Consensus is a think tank that ranks the economically smartest approaches to a variety of issues. In 2009, we asked 27 of the worlds top climate economists to identify the costs and benefits of the top climate solutions. A group of eminent economists, including three Nobel laureates, ranked the smartest ways to fix the climate. Their answer was: Dont continue to expand current policies. Trying to make fossil fuels so costly that no one wants them is bad economics, in addition to being bad politics.They suggested instead three changes to the way the United States approaches climate change. First, we should aim to make green energy so cheap everyone will want it. This will require heavy investment in research and development of better, smarter green technologies. Such an investment has much lower costs than current climate policies like the EU 2020-policy, but a much greater chance of allowing the entire world to make the switch to green energy in the long run.

A good example is the innovation of fracked gas, which has made the price of natural gas drop dramatically — allowing a switch in electricity production away from coal. This in turn has singlehandedly caused the United States to reduce its annual CO2 emissions by about 500Mt, or about twice as much as the entire global reductions from the last 20 years of international climate negotiations. Moreover, it has not cost the United States anything — in fact, U.S. consumers are saving about $100 billion per year in cheaper prices. That’s a policy that is easy to sell around the world.

Second, we should investigate (but not deploy) geoengineering as a possible insurance policy to runaway climate change. Cooling the planet with slightly whiter clouds over the Pacific could completely counteract global warming at the cost of $6 billion, according to research by Eric Bickel and Lee Lane for the Copenhagen Consensus — between 1,000 and 10,000 times cheaper than anything else we are considering today.

Third, we should recognize that there are huge lags between our actions and their effects on the climate — no matter what we do, it will only affect the second half of this century. Thus, if we want to tackle climate impacts such as Hurricane Sandy, we need to step up adaptation and make our societies more resilient. This is mostly an inexpensive no-brainer.

Yep. Wonder if the good citizens of New York are thinking along those lines too. And what about the good citizens of London Town, much of which is as vulnerable as Manhattan

Climate change scepticism debunked

Nice piece by William Nordhaus in the New York Review of Books.

One of the difficulties I found in examining the views of climate skeptics is that they are scattered widely in blogs, talks, and pamphlets. Then, I saw an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal of January 27, 2012, by a group of sixteen scientists, entitled “No Need to Panic About Global Warming.”

This is useful because it contains many of the standard criticisms in a succinct statement. The basic message of the article is that the globe is not warming, that dissident voices are being suppressed, and that delaying policies to slow climate change for fifty years will have no serious economic or environment consequences.

My response is primarily designed to correct their misleading description of my own research; but it also is directed more broadly at their attempt to discredit scientists and scientific research on climate change.

I have identified six key issues that are raised in the article, and I provide commentary about their substance and accuracy. They are:

• Is the planet in fact warming?

• Are human influences an important contributor to warming?

• Is carbon dioxide a pollutant?

• Are we seeing a regime of fear for skeptical climate scientists?

• Are the views of mainstream climate scientists driven primarily by the desire for financial gain?

• Is it true that more carbon dioxide and additional warming will be beneficial?

Nordhaus takes each of these in turn — and takes it apart. A really useful, synoptic piece.

Ole King Coal

Gloomy news from the Economist.

Feb 25th 2012 | from the print edition

“OUR civilisation”, wrote George Orwell over 70 years ago, “is founded on coal.” Unlike Europe’s, Asia’s still is. In 2010, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), a think-tank, coal accounted for just one-fifth of primary energy supply in the OECD countries. But, in the world as a whole, coal accounted for almost half of the increase in energy use from 2000-10. Coal, says Edward Cunningham of Boston University, is experiencing an “historically incredible” resurgence, and may even overtake oil as a fuel by 2025. There is plenty of it and, compared with rival fuels, it is cheap. And often dirty.

Asia has been responsible for over two-thirds of the growth in global energy demand over the past two decades. As, above all, China and India race towards prosperity, they will burn coal in huge volumes. The resulting emissions of carbon dioxide will be among the biggest hurdles in the way of a global agreement on limiting climate change…

Underwater news

This must be one of the most innovative things ever to appear on the Foreign Office Website — an interactive map showing some of the possible impacts of a global temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius. The yellow line shows where the new “shoreline” would be.

It’s done by using layers in Google Earth. Neat, eh?

Cloud computing: the carbon footprint

In an astute move, Greenpeace is capitalising on iPad frenzy by launching a new report into the carbon footprint of cloud computing.

Make IT Green: Cloud Computing and its Contribution to Climate Change shows how the launch of quintessential cloud computing devices like the Apple iPad, which offer users access to the ‘cloud’ of online services like social networks and video streaming, can contribute to a much larger carbon footprint of the Information Technology (IT) sector than previously estimated.

To be clear: We are not picking on Apple. We are not dissing the iPad. But maybe someone can come up with an app that calculates the carbon footprint of using different web sites based on their location and energy deals. Apple is the master of promotion, and while we marvel at the sleek unpolluted design of the iPad, we need to think about where this is all leading and how like all good surfers we can make sure our environment stays clean and green.

The report builds on previous industry research and shows that at current growth rates data centers and telecommunication networks will consume about 1,963 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2020. That is more than triple their current consumption and more than the current electricity consumption of France, Germany, Canada and Brazil combined. However, the report also shows how IT can avert climate chaos by becoming a transformative force advocating for solutions that increase the use of renewable energy.

The Register has a helpful summary of the report which also highlights an interesting difference between Apple and Google as cloud proprietors:

Apple’s $1bn data center in Catawba County, North Carolina, currently under construction, will get its energy from a local electrical grid that contains only 3.8 per cent renewable energy, and a full 50.5 per cent from dirty ol’ coal and 38.7 per cent from nasty nukes. Google’s data center in The Dalles, Oregon, by contrast, gets 50.9 per cent of its juice from renewable sources, according to Greenpeace.

Greenpeace is also pretty critical of Facebook’s carbon footprint.

‘Climate emails hacked by spies’

From today’s Independent.

A highly sophisticated hacking operation that led to the leaking of hundreds of emails from the Climatic Research Unit in East Anglia was probably carried out by a foreign intelligence agency, according to the Government's former chief scientist. Sir David King, who was Tony Blair's chief scientific adviser for seven years until 2007, said that the hacking and selective leaking of the unit's emails, going back 13 years, bore all the hallmarks of a co-ordinated intelligence operation – especially given their release just before the Copenhagen climate conference in December.

The coming Chinese century

There’s an astonishing piece by Mark ‘Six Degrees’ Lynas in the Guardian.

The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful “deal” so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. How do I know this? Because I was in the room and saw it happen.

China’s strategy was simple: block the open negotiations for two weeks, and then ensure that the closed-door deal made it look as if the west had failed the world’s poor once again. And sure enough, the aid agencies, civil society movements and environmental groups all took the bait. The failure was “the inevitable result of rich countries refusing adequately and fairly to shoulder their overwhelming responsibility”, said Christian Aid. “Rich countries have bullied developing nations,” fumed Friends of the Earth International.

All very predictable, but the complete opposite of the truth.

Astonishing, if true. So what’s China’s game?

Why did China, in the words of a UK-based analyst who also spent hours in heads of state meetings, “not only reject targets for itself, but also refuse to allow any other country to take on binding targets?” The analyst, who has attended climate conferences for more than 15 years, concludes that China wants to weaken the climate regulation regime now “in order to avoid the risk that it might be called on to be more ambitious in a few years’ time”.

This does not mean China is not serious about global warming. It is strong in both the wind and solar industries. But China’s growth, and growing global political and economic dominance, is based largely on cheap coal. China knows it is becoming an uncontested superpower; indeed its newfound muscular confidence was on striking display in Copenhagen. Its coal-based economy doubles every decade, and its power increases commensurately. Its leadership will not alter this magic formula unless they absolutely have to.

What’s funny about this is that China is beginning to throw its weight about in a thoroughly American fashion. Looks like we all have some adjusting to do.

Another challenge for Obama

Sobering stuff from the Pew Research Center.

A recent Pew Research survey showing a sharp decline in the proportion of the public saying there is solid evidence of global warming has triggered considerable speculation about why these views are changing. The poll was released a day after 18 leading scientific organizations released a letter reaffirming what they see as scientific consensus on climate change.

The survey found 57% saying there is "solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades." In April 2008, 71% said there was solid evidence of global warming, and in 2006 and 2007, 77% expressed this view.

Why do fewer Americans believe the earth is warming? No single factor emerges from Pew Research Center surveys, but rather a range of possible explanations, including a sour economy and, perhaps, a cooler than normal summer in parts of the United States.

First, it is important to note that signs of a change in public opinion — on the environment generally and global warming more specifically — were evident long before Pew Research’s new survey. In March, Gallup’s annual environment survey found an increase in the percentage of Americans who say the seriousness of global warming is “generally exaggerated” — from 30% in 2006 to 41% this year. Similarly, Fox News found the percentage of registered voters saying they “believe global warming exists” has fallen from 82% in January 2007 to 69% in May of this year.

Pew Research surveys show that as economic concerns have surged, fewer people view the environment as a top policy priority. In our annual survey on the public’s policy agenda, just 41% rated protecting the environment as a top priority; just a year earlier, 56% rated it as a top priority. Yet other issues also were overshadowed as more people focused on the economy and jobs. There were sharp declines as well in the proportions rating dealing with illegal immigration (down 10 points), reducing health care costs (10 points) and reducing crime (eight points) as top priorities for the president and Congress.