## Alan’s Bottle

Me and Ken just had a talk over the Science Kerfuffle of the moment, featuring a physics and maths teacher known to pwn fashionable nonsense fans. He recently suggested that POMO weakened our herd immunity to combat objective untruths. He also wonders what to do now that the genie is out of the bottle. What Alan really means by these metaphors remains unclear.

Follows a slightly edited transcript.

[Willard, thereafter W]

[Ken, or AT in what follows]
That’s quite good. May motivate me to write a post.

[W]
thanks
the whole idea that people believe in fraud because of POMO looks ridiculous

[AT]
Do you agree with the suggestion that even if PoMo isn’t responsible it has undermined our ability to combat misinformation?

[W]
on the contrary, POMO tries to explain how misinformation can happen

Postmodernism is generally defined by an attitude of skepticism, irony, or rejection toward what it describes as the grand narratives and ideologies associated with modernism […]

[AT]
Okay, maybe I’ll have to rethink my post. Maybe I misunderstand PoMo, but if some of what goes on in STS falls with PoMo it certainly doesn’t seem to have helped, even if the goal is to explain how misinformation can happen.

[W]
we can disagree, that’s fine
it’s just small talk nobody will read

alan makes an important error:
indeterminacy should not lead to denial
and POMO could guard us against conspiracy ideation

the problem you got with STS is different:
for instance, MikeH’s main problem is that he has no idea of what he’s talking about
he has no business making metrological points without studying metrology
so we can agree that people say stuff without paying due diligence

[AT]
I guess I’m not a fan of over-generalizing. I guess my issue is more to do with STS, for example, claiming they have all sorts of tools for helping to deal with misinformation, while prominent people seem to either promote, or defend, misinformation. Grundmann with his “climate science is like race science”, Pearce with his criticism of consensus messaging without actually providing an alternative and publishing papers on climategate that repeat the myths, etc. So, if the tools are there, it feels that some people in that field are going to have to do a better job of explaining what they are and how to use them.

[W]
agreed
that’s not POMO tho, that’s editorializing or criticism, which is indeed a bane
STS sucks because it’s an interdisciplinary discipline whose practitionners know little about everything and therefore are dangerous enough almost everywhere
it may have inherited from POMO bad scholarship practices

[AT]
That’s what I was wondering. Isn’t there at least a PoMo element to some of STS. Weren’t they part of the Science Wars?

[W]
STS, as a discipline, is a result of older science wars
it tried to “sciencize” its output
instead of using abstract and unrealistic models like the old philosophers of science did,
it promised to look under the scientific hood
but if all you do is to play pretend by recycle kuhn this and popper that,
you get the worst of both worlds
(warren only adds “let’s find an exotic framework nobody will buy because it’s $150”) [AT] Okay, yes, that probably does describe it pretty well. [W] so i would conclude two things first, if one wishes to say something, one has to study it with all the evidential responsibility it requires due diligence, an idea that generalizes me, you, alan, STS, POMO, everyone second, it’s easier to be led astray by a lack of work in conceptual frameworks, because words are just words–we need constructions [AT] I certainly agree with the first part of that. Don’t quite get what you mean by “words are not constructions”. Why construct? [W] an old idea that i viktor recently retooled for his opiniated podcast one can define impossible objects one can’t construct them empirical science prevents us from making claims that we can’t operationalize scientists can’t pretend operationalization forces us to conclude one and only one thing that’s just not what science affords us that’s the main point from say bruno, whose framework is very good for climateball once we accept that scientific theories evolve and are not to be taken for granted, all fits [AT] Okay, I think I get that. [W] so when i say that POMO isn’t responsible for our predicament, all i’m saying is that even if POMO did not exist, we’d still be stuck with that indeterminacy (the inscrutability of reference is one of the indeterminacies attributed to van) that said, you might be right on the historical point warren, gunter, and mike hulme are not exactly helping but even then, that’s just a guess to show it would take some work so as long as you keep clear that you’re editorializing, all should be fine, up to a point [AT] I’ll have to think a bit more. Alan’s point about PoMo not being responsible but also not helping resonated. Maybe that’s just too simple. [W] it resonates, but it rings hollow to me after all these years, he’s just saying stuff, and that’s sad his editorial exemplifies very well our predicament we say stuff, and if it sounds good enough, we buy it in fact the converse of his bottle hypothesis looks more plausible to me: by amplifying the threat of POMO on the fate of western civilization, alan’s reactionary stance has been recycled by newscorp and has weaponized people with mental issues conceptual boi has become a truther, same for EricW [AT] That’s possible. I guess I have always thought that we don’t consider how what we say can then influence what we’re commenting on. James Lindsay has always seemed a bit bonkers to me. [W] we always lead by example i learn from your posts because you express an attitude you helped me keep my cool in retrospect, toning down ages better alan’s point is an old one, in fact as old as plato philosophy is the history of how humans dealt with relativism and skepticism [AT] Yes, I am trying to tone down. Maybe I should ponder this a bit more. [W] as long as you can support what you’re saying, you should be fine more so if your point is “if everyone supported their claims, that’d be great” that’s just a more consistent approach imo, alan fails that test i could write a post if you prefer [AT] If you’re keen, go for it. I’m probably going to take it easy this evening, so if you have some time, feel free. [W] i’ll see what i can do we could post that chat [AT] If you like, that’s fine with me. [W] good enjoy your day [AT] Thanks, you too. ## On baselines and climate normals Mike Hulme, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Cambridge, has a somewhat bizarre article published in Academia Letters called Climates Multiple: Three Baselines, Two Tolerances, One Normal. It’s basically a discussion of the recent World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) decision to re-define the present day climate as the period 1991-2020, replacing the period 1961-1990. The article starts by suggesting that this means that Climate will ‘change’, one might say, in an instant; the world’s climate will ‘suddenly’ become nearly 0.5°C warmer. It is somewhat equivalent to re-setting Universal Time or adjusting the exact definition of a metre. Well, from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s we actually have warmed by about 0.5oC. This has nothing to do with how the baseline is defined. It’s also hard to see that it’s equivalent to adjusting the exact definition of a metre. I also wonder if Mike Hulme has got this the wrong way around. If we make the baseline period more recent, then the anomaly values actually go down, not up. You might argue that the change in baseline has caused the world to suddenly become 0.5oC cooler, rather than warmer (it hasn’t, obviously, but the change has reduced the anomaly values by about 0.5oC). The rest of the article discusses the various baselines (present day, pre-industrial, historical) and what we might mean by a climate normal, but I don’t really get the overall point. Clearly we have to be careful about how we discuss climate change, be clear about what baseline we’re using, and be aware that what might be regarded as normal is changing. But this is a feature of the topic; it’s not something that can really be avoided. It may be also technically true that The adoption of particular baselines and tolerances is an overtly political process with geopolitical, ethical and technological consequence but it’s also the case that none of these decisions change physical reality. Changing the baseline does not change how much we’ve warmed, how fast we’ve warmed, and how much we will warm if we continue to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. If this is carefully communicated, it’s hard to see how these changes have any real political significance (on top of the political significance of climate change itself, of course). In some sense, Mike Hulme’s article seems to be doing the very thing it’s cautioning against. The only way that changing the baseline, or what we regard as a climate normal, can have any broader political significance is if people overplay the significance of making these changes. Suggesting that redefining a baseline has geopolitical implications would seem to be an example of doing so. | | 81 Comments ## Warming commitments There’s been quite a lot of recent discussion about warming commitments. It started with an article by Bob Berwyn called Net Zero Emissions Would Stabilize Climate Quickly Says UK Scientist, followed soon after by one saying [w]arming already baked in will blow past climate goals, study finds. The first article is (I think) based on a recent multi-model analysis which suggests that the most likely value of Zero Emission Commitment (ZEC) on multi-decadal timescales is close to zero. The second article is reporting on results from another recent paper suggesting that [g]reater committed warming after accounting for the pattern effect. So, why are we being presented with what appear to be inconsistent results? The simple answers is that we’re not really being careful enough to define what we mean by a warming commitment. The first article, and paper, are considering what would happen when we get emissions to zero. The second article, and paper, are essentially considering what would happen if atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations remained at today’s levels. These are clearly two different scenarios. When we get emissions to zero, the first paper indicates that – on multi-decade timescales – the zero emission warming commitment (ZEC) would be close to zero. On the other hand, if atmospheric CO2 concentrations were to remain constant, then we would continue warming to equilibrium. At today’s atmospheric CO2 concentrations, this would lead to additional warming of around 0.5oC or even more, according to the paper being highlighted in the second article above. However, it is important to realise that constant concentrations require continued emission, as illustrated by the second figure in this Steve Easterbrook post. I should also stress that our understanding that there is little warming commitment associated with zero emissions has been understood for quite some time. The first paper to point this out was probably Matthews and Caldeira (2008), followed by Solomon et al. (2009), and Cao and Caldeira (2010). There’s also a Realclimate post pointing this out in 2010, the Steve Easterbrook post I mentioned above from 2013, and a post I wrote in 2016. There are, however, a number of important caveats. That the zero emission warming commitment is probably small probably only applies on multi-decade timescales. The models that demonstrate this typically don’t include slower processes (such as ice sheet retreat, sea level rise, permafrost release) that may lead to additional warming on longer timescales. Also, even though there is probably little commited warming on multi-decade timescale once we get emissions to zero, without negative emissions global surface temperatures will remain at an elevated level (relative to pre-industrial times) for a very long time. It does, however, indicate that our future warming depends mostly on future emssions. We can still influence how much future warming we are likely to experience, even if we can’t turn everything off right now. So, I think it’s good that there is more recognition that the ZEC is probably small. It does address claims that there’s nothing we can do to avoid a lot of future warming and does illustrates that, in the context of future warming, most of the inertia is societal, rather than inertia in the climate system. Links: Net Zero Emissions Would Stabilize Climate Quickly Says UK Scientist, article by Bob Berwyn. Warming already baked in will blow past climate goals, study finds, Associated Press article. Is there warming in the pipeline? A multi-model analysis of the Zero Emissions Commitment from CO2, MacDougal et al. (2020). Greater committed warming after accounting for the pattern effect, Zhou et al. (2021). Stabilizing climate requires near‐zero emissions, Matthews and Caldeira (2008). Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions, Solomon et al. (2009). Atmospheric carbon dioxide removal: long-term consequences and commitment, Cao and Caldeira (2010). Climate Change Commitments, Realclimate (2010). How Big is the Climate Change Deficit?, Steve Easterbrook (2013). Committed Warming, my post from 2016. ## Have CO2 emissions peaked? I noticed, as has Stoat, that Ken Caldeira and Ted Nordhaus have a bet about whether or not we’ve reached peak CO2 emissions. Specifically, the bet is Between 2021 and the end of 2030, annual fossil fuel emissions (excluding carbonation) will not exceed annual fossil fuel emissions (excluding carbonation) from 2019. Carbonation is essentially emissions from cement production. As with many others, I’m hoping that Ted Nordhaus wins, but expecting that Ken Caldeira will do so. In truth, though, that’s a bit simple. Even if Ted Nordaus were to win, what would emissions having peaked actually imply? Consider a simplified form of the Kaya Identity: $CO_2 = GDP \times \dfrac{Energy}{GDP} \times \dfrac{CO_2}{Energy}$ CO2 emissions essentially depend on Gross Domestic Product (GDP), energy intensity (energy per GDP) and carbon intensity (CO2 per energy). So, if emissions this decade do not exceed those from 2019, why would that be? Would it be because GDP growth had stalled? Would it because of improvements in energy efficiency? Would it be because we’d reduced emissions through using more alternative energy sources? Would it be because we’d developed, and deployed, carbon capture and storage technologies? A bit of everything? Also, what would it imply about the developed and developing worlds? Will the developed world have accelerated their emissions reduction so that the developing world can have a more gradual transition? If it is partly due to slower, or stalled, GDP growth, would that imply that some have benefitted far less than they might otherwise have done? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but I do sometimes wonder if we don’t always consider the potential implications of some of the scenarios we might be hoping for. I’ll leave it there, but if anyone has any answers to these questions, feel free to post them in the comments. | | 91 Comments ## 2020: A year in review It’s been quite a year. The blog certainly hasn’t been as active as it has been in previous years. This is partly because it is simply getting more and more difficult to motivate myself to write posts, but is also because this has been such a bizarre year, I haven’t really known what to say, or how to express things in a way that seemed suitable. As usual, I’ll summarise the blog activity below. January saw the culmination of the rather frustating RCP8.5 debate. I think I mostly managed to stay out of it for the rest of 2020, which was a wise decision. My most active post in February, was about feedbacks, runaway, and tipping points. There does, though, still seem to be some confusion about the distinction between the various processes. The Zharkova et al. paper was retracted in March. I’m not a huge fan of calling for papers to be retracted, but this one was pretty egregious. In April I clarified something about outgoing longwave radiation that had confused me for some time, but also wrote a post about staying in your own lane (you shouldn’t, but don’t take short cuts). May was a quiet month, but I did write a post about the Imperial College Code that was used to generate the report in mid-March that probably played in big role in the government deciding that the UK should go into lockdown. In June I highlighted Steve Keen’s neoclassical economics of climate change paper and also wrote about [e]xtreme event attribution and the nature-culture duality. July saw posts about Angela Saini’s book Superior and quite an active post about cancel culture. It was also the first time I discussed Deep Adaptation, which seems to have become quite prominent, unfortunately and I also discussed Michael Shellenberger’s new book Apocalypse Never. August was extremely quiet, but I did write a post about tropical cyclones and climate change (mostly rebutting a simplistic Michael Shellenberger narrative) and a reasonable positive post about Matt Ridley’s new book, Innovation. The main post for September was one about understanding methane. There does seem to still be some confusion about how we should be comparing long-lived and short-lived greenhouse gases, which I do think is an important issue. In October I discussed the concept of honest brokering (which should, in my view, mostly be ignored) but also highlighted our paper looking at the long-term CovidSim predictions from report 9. The media coverage of this was not, in my view, ideal. This still frustrates me, given that my experiences in the climate context should have allowed me to recognise that this was a possibility. November saw me reflecting on lecturing during a pandemic, pointing out that climate change doesn’t work like that, and discussing namecalling in science. There was also a post by Willard about Berna’s boat. December included a discussion of the impact of climate change and the cost of climate policies (mostly rebutting rather strong claims in Bjorn Lomborg’s recent paper), a post asking where have all the STS’ers gone? and a presentation of Willard’s ClimateBall Bingo. So, that’s a quick summary of what has happened on the blog in 2020. I hope everyone has a good New Year. Keep safe and I hope much 2021 is better than 2020. Links: BATTER my heart, three person’d God – Stoat’s review of 2020. | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments ## The impact of climate change, and the cost of climate policies There’s been a reasonable amount of discussion about Bjorn Lomborg’s fairly recent paper [w]elfare in the 21st century: Increasing development, reducing inequality, the impact of climate change, and the cost of climate policies. A key part of the paper is the claim that Climate-economic research shows that the total cost from untreated climate change is negative but moderate, likely equivalent to a 3.6% reduction in total GDP. The claim above is based on the figure on the right, which shows damage functions for various Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs). The claim above is based on estimates for the damage at ~4oC of warming, but plotting these out to 8oC illustrates, in my view, an issue with these damage estimates. Suggesting that the impact of 8oC of warming would be ~10%, or less, seems so nonsensical that it’s hard to know where these estimates have any validity. There have also been numerous critiques of these damage functions. There’s Steve Keen’s rather blunt critique, but there also a paper by Diaz & Moore that synthesizes published damage function critiques. Of course, I do realise that if you want to do some kind of economic modelling to assess the impact of climate change and to potentially inform policy-making, you do need something. However, given the simplicity of these damage functions, I do think one should be cautious of making strong, definitive, claims about the economic impact of climate change. What’s more, if you look at William Nordhaus’s recent paper, you find that the damage, as a fraction of output, is indeed around 4% for the reference scenario, but with a range from close to 0, to about 12%. So, it has a non-negligible chance of being quite large enough to not be reasonable described as moderate. Lomborg’s paper goes on to say: The popular 2°C target, in contrast, is unrealistic and would leave the world more than$250 trillion worse off.

However, if you scroll down the paper, you discover that this devastating (and unrealistic) policy would cost 5.4% of future global GDP. So, the economic impact of ~4oC of warming would be moderate at ~4% (but, potentially, >10%) of global GDP but trying to limit warming to 2oC would be devastating at 5.4% of global GDP.

Also, the reference scenario for these estimates is one that is expected to lead to 4 ± 1oC of warming. Anyone who’s been following the climate debate should be aware that there’s been a lot of recent discussion about this. There are strong indications that our current policy is taking us towards a 3 ± 1oC world. Therefore, the reference scenario used in Lomborg’s paper almost certainly makes it seem more challenging/costly to limit warming to 2oC than may now be the case.

I should probably wrap this up. I think that making strong claims about the economic impact of climate change is sub-optimal, especially given the assumptions that are needed in order to develop damage functions (we haven’t actually experienced 4oC of global warming). Also, given that climate change is essentially irreversible on human timescales, we may still want to avoid ~4oC of warming, even if there are indications that the economic impact may be moderate. Also, even if the cost of limiting warming to 2oC is greater than the economic impact of 4oC, maybe this is a cost worth bearing, especially if we’ve already made inroads that this analysis has ignored.

Welfare in the 21st century: Increasing development, reducing inequality, the impact of climate change, and the cost of climate policies, Bjorn Lomborg’s July 2020 paper.
The appallingly bad neoclassical economics of climate change, Steve Keen’s critique of IAM damage functions.
Quantifying the economic risks of climate change, Diaz & Moore (2017).
Projections and Uncertainties About Climate Change in an Era of Minimal Climate Policies, William Nordhaus’s 2016 paper.
A 3C World Is Now “Business as Usual”, article by Zeke Hausfather and Justin Ritchie.

Posted in Uncategorized | 64 Comments

## Happy festive season

I was trying to find a suitably amusing Christmas cartoon that properly reflected the year we’ve had, but failed to do so. Instead, I thought I’d post a picture of a snowman that we made a good number of years ago (not much snow around here these days). I hope everyone has a very good, and safe, festive season. I will try to write a blog round-up before the end of the year. Shouldn’t be difficult as I haven’t posted all that much this year. Keep well!

Posted in Personal | | 15 Comments

## Where have all the STS’ers gone?

There’s a recent paper in Science and Technology Studies by Jaron Harambam called The Corona Truth Wars: Where Have All the STS’ers Gone When We Need Them Most? The topic is, fairly obviously, the current coronavirus pandemic, and the abstract ends with:

It is therefore quite unclear what information is reliable, which experts to follow and what (epistemic) authorities to trust. Science and Technology Scholars are perfectly equipped with concepts, theories and methods to help us understand these complex dynamics, and guide us through the fog of uncertainty and manipulation.

I’ve been interested in Science and Technology Studies (STS) for some time now, but have to admit that I don’t really understand the basics of this field. Of course, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t equipped with concepts, theories and methods that would help. However, in the climate context with which I’m familiar, these concepts, theories and methods have not, in my view, been utilised in ways that are particularly helpful.

For example, one of the people mentioned a number of times in this paper is Roger Pielke Jr. His contributions to the climate debate have led him to being included in lists of climate deniers and climate misinformers. This may not be entirely fair, but if one’s contribution to the climate debate leads to the inclusion in such lists, then it’s hard to then argue that this contribution was particularly helpful. Some reflection may also be in order.

The paper also makes some rather odd suggestions. For example, it suggests that

STS’ers could take the role now of the “honest broker” given the high knowledge and value uncertainty of how to best deal with the current corona crisis.

The “honest broker” comes from a book I’ve discussed before. This book is about the different roles that scientists could take when giving public advice. Even though STS’ers may have expertise about the science/policy interface, they do not have the expertise to be giving specific advice about the corona crisis. This suggestion really seems to be overstepping their epistemic authority.

The paper does, however, acknowledge some issues. For example, it says:

STS can often turn rather esoteric: it’s research output (books, articles, reports) are full of neologisms and unconventional use of words and their meanings. For the outside world, it is often hard to under-stand, let alone implement our insights in public health interventions or public debates without our concrete help.

I think this is a fairly key point. If some research area would like a higher public profile, then the ideal way to do so (in my view) is to do good research, which you then publish, and promote publicly. You need to put effort into convincing people of the value of your research, not simply state that it exists.

Maybe the reason STS hasn’t been all that prominent in the current crisis is because they’ve failed to do enough to convince people to take their contributions seriously. They have been reasonably prominent in the climate context. Although I’m probably generalising too much, my impression is that they haven’t done a particularly good job in this context.

Rather than asserting that this is a time when we need them most, STS’ers could spend a bit of time reflecting on their contribution to another potentially crucial, societally-relevant topic and why it hasn’t lead to a larger role in our current crisis?

## Societal collapse

A couple of days ago, a letter was signed by a group of academics suggesting that

People who care about environmental and humanitarian issues should not be discouraged from discussing the risks of societal disruption or collapse.

I largely agree with this and it is certainly an improvement on suggestions that climate-induced societal collapse is now inevitable in the near term. I think we should be willing to discuss worst-case scenarios so as to, ideally, avoid them.

However, as pointed out quite forcefully on Twitter, what do people mean by societal collapse? Noone really seemed able to define it. Also, in what way would the impacts of climate change lead to something that we might reasonably describe as societal collapse? If these impacts materialise, is collapse unavoidable, or can we develop strategies for dealing with it? Is the impact the same everywhere, or are some regions more/less susceptible than others?

Also, as pointed out by Ambarish Karmalkar, this framing is typically presented by those from the global north. Ambarish highlighted an interview with Amitav Ghosh who suggests that

it’s no wonder the Western anxiety about climate change is focussed on social collapse and extinction. “I think Western people sense that the entire order is changing in ways that are extremely threatening to them,”

Some regions are clearly already feeling the impact of climate change, and yet some are invoking an ill-defined future societal collapse. We don’t need, in my opinion, to use some kind of future societal collapse in order to justify climate action now. As one of Stoat’s classic posts said if you can’t imagine anything between “catastrophic” and “nothing to worry about” then you’re not thinking.

I do think it’s worth considering some of the more extreme outcomes, but I also think we should be clear that these are worst-case scenarios, rather than outcomes that are likely. I also think that we should be careful of creating narratives that appeal to the western world’s anxieties about the future and, potentially, ignoring that climate change is already negatively impacting many parts of the world.

To be fair, this is a complex issue, so am willing to be convinced otherwise, but I do think that we should treat catastrophic narratives with caution.

## A Climateball Bingo Card

The idea of a Climateball Bingo always seemed conceptual to me, as a nifty way to refer to common contrarian talking points. But last week I found an online generator, and after a bit of work I got a real bingo card. Here is version 0.3:

Feel free to download the image and use it for your own Climateball episodes. You can also generate your own card by following this link and tweaking its variables. The squares are filled randomly, so make sure you save cards you like.

Ideally the Bingo Card should be intuitive enough for Climateball veterans to dig each square. All the squares are listed in the Bingo section of the Climateball dot net website. Each of them has its dedicated page, with examples, objections and replies, notes, and sometimes further readings. Many of these pages are still under construction.

The card displays 49 squares; 25 is too small and 81 too big. Choices have been made, yet I contend that the Bingo Card exhausts all ordinary contrarian talking points, by subsuming tropes under themes, like an equivalence class would do in algebra. For example, But Science refers to any epistemological point about the scientific method, e.g. falsification, causation, Rajendra’s “science is settled,” etc.

This abstraction gives me space to allocate squares to specific claptraps. For instance, But Galileo helps illustrate that there are no heroes in science anymore. The But My Guru square can contain all the other big names contrarians invoke.

One can then suspect that the bingo card extends beyond Climateball. That hypothesis would deserve due diligence in a more formal settings. For now the Bingo pages need some love, and after that my Climateball Manual.

As always, suggestions, questions, and comments are welcome and appreciated.

Posted in ClimateBall, ClimateBall Bingo | 40 Comments