I Know What I Know If You Know What I Mean

David Roberts had an interesting article in Vox recently which discusses the very severe limitations of the sorts of models economists typically use to study climate change (Integrated Assessment Models or IAMs).

(The title of the article is awful, but I’ve learned not to blame headlines on writers. This stupid hangover from the days of paper is inexplicable for a medium like Vox, but let’s give David the benefit of the doubt on this and presume somebody else slapped the title on.)

I briefly discuss his main point, with which I agree, here and here.

My concern in this article is somewhat tangential. David begins with a simplification of the climate quandary which is widely accepted. I appreciate his clear statement of this model, as it enables me to call it into question, and gives me an opportunity to communicate some ideas that I’d like to share.

My point is peripheral to David’s argument (again, I mostly agree with him) but I think there’s a relevant piece of science communication that may be of some value.

ROBERTS’ UNCERTAINTY LOOP

Here’s the opening, which hopefully Vox won’t climb all over my rear for quoting in full:

Now that climate hawks are emerging a bit from their defensive crouch, however, more attention is turning to the many uncertainties that haunt climate. Consider these layers:

  1. To begin with: How will human economic activity this century translate into greenhouse gas emissions? How much will we emit? To answer that, we need to know how much population will grow, how much the global economy will grow, what per capita emissions will look like in 2050, 2080, etc.
  2. Which leads to: How will a rise in greenhouse gases translate into a rise in global average temperature? How sensitive is climate to greenhouse gases? (In the biz, “climate sensitivity” refers to the rise in temperature that would result from a doubling in global greenhouses gases from pre-industrial levels.)
  3. Which leads to: How will a rise in global average temperature translate into climate impacts (rising sea levels, etc.)? How do systems like ocean and air currents respond to temperature? What kinds of responses will be seen in different subclimates and latitudes?
  4. Which leads to: How will the impacts of climate change translate into impacts on human lives and economies? In other words, how much will climate impacts hurt us? How much GDP growth will they thwart (or reverse)? Will future people be richer and better able to adapt, or poorer because of climate change itself?

The really funny thing? The answer to 4 depends on the answer to 3, which depends on the answer to 2, which depends on the answer to 1, which depends on … the answer to 4.

It’s a loop. An uncertainty loop!

And he provides a little cartoon of the loop, which looks like this:

loop0

THE DECIDE/PREDICT PROBLEM

My first problem with this meta-model is that it is disempowering.

That disempowerment is key to what I and many others perceive as a small but important decline in David’s perspicacity as he becomes a more political being in the heady atmosphere of vox.com. Somewhere between closing the loop between point 4 and back to point 1 there’s a missing policy sector. How will we decide to respond to this situation? How should we decide?

Now, to be sure the whole article is about the interface between academia and politics. It’s not as if David is being a total libertarian fatalist. But there’s a fatalism built into the construction of the loop.

Policy is a control problem, not a prediction problem.

The lack of an explicit policy input into the model is a side effect of the effort of economists and “political scientists” to look like scientists. Just physics envy.

It’s my opinion that political analysis and economics should not be construed as pure descriptive sciences. They are applied sciences, more akin to engineering and medicine than to physics.

There’s nothing so toxic to human discourse as this talk of “iron laws”. One does not predict what book to read next. One decides.

We do not predict what policy to implement. We decide. The point of economics ought to be to give us an array of policies among which to decide, not just to describe the system on which those policies act. The point of political science is to improve our collective skill at identifying goals and picking policies, not just to guess how we will most likely fail.

The history of the past several decades has been substantially impacted by the failures of these disciplines to rise to the occasion. It’s painful to watch David’s horizons shrinking as he becomes a political “realist”.

(Tell Justin Trudeau to be more realistic! Change is possible.)

ALL PHYSICS IS LOCAL

My second problem is that David’s formulation overvalues the temperature sensitivity.

This isn’t unique to David by any means. It’s endemic to the conversation. But it’s also pernicious. I’d like to loosen the grip of this number on our discourse, not because it is uncertain but because it is rather well-constrained and the real difficulties lie elsewhere.

I wrote about this a few months back. Here is the crux of it again, slightly edited.

Our best understanding of the amount of fossil fuel there is available and how CO2 works leads us to an expectation that burning all that fuel will cause a severe disruption of all natural systems (even disregarding the many other insults we are visiting on Nature) and many human systems as well. This understanding is not primarily based on observations, nor on complicated computer models, but on our theoretical understanding of physics and on paleontological evidence.

This understanding traditionally is boiled down to a number, “the sensitivity”. Now, in general, “a” sensitivity is the ratio of an output to an input in a system. An electrical engineer would refer to the “gain” or “amplification factor”. In our case “sensitivity” is a measure of this question: if we put in so much change in CO2, how much global temperature change will we get out?

Before climate change became obvious, when it was merely a prediction, the sensitivity was a good thing to focus on. (There still are good reasons for scientists to think about it.) The presumption was that, all else equal, the hotter scenarios were responding more sensitively than the less hot ones.

The scale separation between climate models and actual impacts is too big for most applications. It was hard to know what so much warming implied for climate change in real scenarios. The sensitivity was a good preliminary parameter for how much trouble we would be in for a given emission scenario.

But this got us into backwards thinking and a backwards way of speaking. We started to speak as if global warming causes climate change, as if the number of degrees of warming were diagnostic in some sense of what would happen to us. Being humans we got wrapped up in the symbol and forgot the reality.

Greenhouse gases cause radiative transfer processes to change. These changes cause energy to accumulate in the system as it seeks a new equilibrium. The climate changes, in turn, to respond to the redistributed energy. And one of the many many consequences is, probably, an increase in global mean surface temperature (GMST). But there may be other consequences we care about!

The real sensitivity we care about is damage per unit of carbon emitted. That damage is caused directly by climate change, not by GMST.

Changing the radiative properties of the atmosphere changes the dynamics at each point in space. That changes the weather. The accumulated weather changes amount to a global climate change. The mean temperature measures the amount of change, but both the causes and effects of greenhouse gas response happen locally. (That’s why weather and climate models, which specify only local properties, allow a global pattern to successfully emerge.

All physics is local.

Consider most of the bizarre events of the past few years – the Australian megadrought, the Russian fires, the Pakistan floods, the Texas heatwave, Sandy, etc. Each of these and many others was associated with a phenomenon called “blocking” wherein the jet stream develops huge, sluggish meanders, delivering “the wrong air at the wrong time” to some large area. There is considerable evidence that this phenomenon has become more prevalent in recent years. It is especially associated with an increase in local heat events.

Notice that one way the system can avoid increasing its average temperature is by making the temperature change more unevenly distributed – an extremely hot place far to the pole can radiate so effectively as to more than balance out a comparably cool place near the pole. This is in fact one sort of climate change that fills the bill of equilibrating the energetics without changing the mean temperature much.

It’s pretty clear that even if global warming has in some sense “gone away” or is “on hiatus”, the world is no longer producing the reliable weather that it has over the period of human history. Most likely, this is only the beginning.

It’s a bit crazy to still be quibbling about sensitivity in policy circles. We should pay more attention to the stuff that is starting to hit the fan.

OVERSENSITIVITY

The sense in which “sensitivity” is meant above is the usual one in the climate debates – the equilibrium temperature change in response to a forcing, generally expressed as degrees C per CO2 doubling.

(It’s really per CO2-equivalent doubling, which in turn is a slight but useful fuzzing of the more solid concept of degrees C per watt per square meter top of atmosphere forcing, the logarithmic response of watts forcing to CO2 being itself an approximation. Apologies for the pedantic parenthetic.)

This sensitivity is a very useful organizing concept in paleoclimatology and in idealized models. But I think it is overvalued as a point of contention in the policy debates.

A key point in the uncertainty question is that it is quite well constrained (between 2.5 and 3 C per CO2e doubling is very likely) and very unlikely to be in error by a factor of more than 2-fold. Even if one is convinced that there is a 2-fold overstatement that somehow has persisted as the central estimate for over 35 years, that’s not enough to delay policy substantially, because the picture is risk-dominated. Because we are so overdue on a rational response to greenhouse gas accumulation, realistic uncertainty about climate sensitivity is not policy-relevant.

Temperature sensitivity to greenhouse gases is really not a key part of the uncertainty loop. All the arguing about it is just Benghazi; the foot-draggers have a whole array of red herrings worked up and they’ll be damned if they’re going to stop flinging them around now. But it just doesn’t matter.

All physics is local. David’s model that the causality is “greenhouse gases -> global temperature -> impacts” is mostly wrong.

One key impact is indeed closely related to global temperature: the thermal component of sea level rise. But even there the coupling is not tight – we see strong indications that the deep ocean is warming faster that we expected given the observed surface warming.

At the other end of the impact spectrum, ocean acidification is utterly disconnected from temperature. Indeed, you could argue that it’s inversely connected to temperature. A sensible way of looking at it is, across the believable set of earth models, the better a job the ocean does of absorbing CO2, the less the surface temperature rise and the greater the ocean acidification.

Ice melt depends not on global temperature alone, but on polar amplification. Conceivably there’s a world where greenhouse gases do little to change the global mean temperature, but all the increase is concentrated in polar regions, causing ice sheets to decay. Similarly, severe weather climatology depends on regional responses – the jet stream’s habits or the vertical structure may respond to regional or even local greenhouse-gas-driven perturbations.

And Roger Pielke Sr., whatever his other flaws, is correct to point out that other anthropogenic factors could be first order important in regional climate. Have you seen pictures of Indonesia lately?

THE BIG PICTURE

So this gives me an opportunity to reintroduce my map of the big picture of the greenhouse gas problem. It is more complicated than David’s, but it is similar in intent. I think the complication is justified by its improved accuracy, and I think it’s easy enough to understand.

It’s somewhat color coded: pink = geophysics, green = biology, purple = engineering, blue = social, yellow = control.

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 10.54.58 AM

Roughly speaking, there is only one simple number (one octagon) in this model – concentration. Everything else is complicated – whole ranges of professions are represented in each bubble. People spend lifetimes working hard in each of the bubbles; the couplings between them are fraught and the systems dynamics of the whole system is ill-understood and a bit overwhelming.

WHY YOU SHOULD LOOK AT THAT PICTURE SOME MORE

I believe this model has two huge advantages over David’s simple representation which I’ll revisit in the reverse order that I mentioned them above.

There Are Multiple Sensitivities

In the more complicated diagram, the overvalued GMST “sensitivity” number is removed, effectively replaced by a plethora of direct response functions over the important impact phenomena. It removes David’s step 2 altogether.

In the past, The Sensitivity was a good shorthand for the problem (at least, neglecting ocean acidification, which everybody did for a long time). Now that we are getting a better picture of the individual impact sectors, and now that impacts are beginning to emerge, we need to abandon that simplification – the sensitivities are directly from the greenhouse concentration trajectory (and similarly to other anthropogenic forcings) to the impact sectors. Running it through global temperature was a simplification for an era when this was all theoretical. Now that we see impacts on the ground, global temperature is an overvalued intermediary.

One consequence of seeing the problem as having multiple sensitivities is to take our eye off the (probably illusory) fat tail of the GMST sensitivity, and back to the remaining fat tails of the various and diverse impact phenomena. Will things turn out well on all these fronts? In Piet Hein’s words, “Let us only hope, but not only only hope.”

The fever is not the disease. Global mean temperature is a crude representation of the extent to which we are in trouble. The basis for the 2 C target is not that there is a clear threshhold of disaster. The basis for the 2 C target is that we missed the boat for a rational response to this problem decades ago, and 2 C is a way of saying “transition away from net emissions as quickly as we can manage”.

Human Responsibility is Explicit

A more crucial improvement comes back to David’s motivating question of uncertainties. Not one of David’s four uncertainty sectors captures the key uncertainty!

The most important uncertainty in the climate trajectory is what we decide, and when.

This is a point that people who look at climate through the lens of scenarios are constantly at pains to make, yet somehow it seems to get lost. I think it’s a consequence of the strange fatalism of right wing economics that increasingly permeates political discourse.

The point of calling our time the anthropocene is that Nature no longer controls the fate of the planet. We do. We are suddenly in the driver’s seat and we had better start driving.

The yellow bubble in the diagram is emphasized, because it remains the most important feature of the problem.

The dominant uncertainty in the final position of an automobile at the end of the day is what destination the driver aimed for.

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45 Responses to I Know What I Know If You Know What I Mean

  1. Hyperactive Hydrologist says:

    Isn’t this why RCP scenarios are used to give a range of possible futures. We can then assess impacts and subsequent economic cost on those scenarios. This can then inform which path is most appropriate in terms of mitigation and adaptation and ultimately policy. Or is my assessment way too simplistic?

  2. Chris Shaw says:

    I think you have provided a thoughtful and interesting way to think about this problem. Many thanks. However I believe your model is built on a fallacious understanding of politics. There is no ‘we’. There are people with money. They are the decision makers. It is their model, their construction of climate change, their definition of the problem that counts. This side of a true revolution (which ain’t gonna happen) there never has and never will be a global ‘we’. I do not even know how you have managed to convince yourself otherwise.

  3. Chris,
    MT should probably respond too, but I think the issue is how physicists/physical scientists think about this. How our climate will respond to increasing anthropogenic forcings is entirely dependent on physical climatology and entirely independent of our values. What policy choices we may make, on the other hand, are entirely dependent on what is decided (whether we describe those who decide as “we” or “the people with money”). It may well be reality (at the moment) that the decisions are not being made by a group that we could reasonably describe as “we”, but it could be. This is not the case with the physical response, though; that’s entirely independent of us, apart from our choice as to how much to emit.

  4. Ethan Allen says:

    I’ve got a name for that effin’ loop.

    Why do something today that I could put of until tomorrow. Or, why do something today that someone else could put of until tomorrow.

    Procrastination Loop.

    Humanity need to take responsibility today for all the yesterdays that have already passed and all the yesterdays yet to come.

    Eat my loop.

  5. Vinny Burgoo says:

    What would the WTO say to a country that instituted a national revenue-neutral carbon tax and sought to impose tariffs on countries that didn’t tax its emissions to the same extent?

    Pekka Pirila, who used to comment here (hopefully still does), knew about this stuff and I think he once said that tariff-policing is a big barrier to mitigation.

  6. Vinny Burgoo says:

    Import tariffs, natch.

  7. mt says:

    I like ATTP’s answer to Chris.

    The yellow bubble is the key to the puzzle. David’s version of the loop weirdly presented it as if there were no decision process at all.

    Without agreeing to Chris’s inflammatory rhetoric, whether we like or dislike the process, and how much trouble it will be to make the process actually functional in this situation (which it clearly hasn’t been), is crucially important.

    But that is extrinsic to the point being made in the diagram, which is that everything rests on decisions made by active participants, not on blind predictable processes and “iron laws”.

    It seems that thinking too much about the day to day battles of politics, especially in America these days, blunts the imagination.

    There’s a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of the impotence of politics. If almost everybody believes that nothing can be done, they will certainly be proven correct.

  8. mt says:

    Vinny, good point. I have been worried about it. The main global agency we have that actually has substantial enforcement powers is anti-tariff. Effectively it enforces a lowest-commone-denominator regulatory structure on anything that could constrain the flow of money uphill.

    Of course, America ignores its treaty obligations. Everybody knows that. This may actually help matters in this case. Eventually. But not anytime soon.

    Once you actually look inside the yellow bubble, it’s pretty messed up, yeah.

  9. “The really funny thing? The answer to 4 depends on the answer to 3, which depends on the answer to 2, which depends on the answer to 1, which depends on … the answer to 4.”

    egads.. I pointed this out in 2007 on RC.

    on sensitivity

    required viewing

    https://www.newton.ac.uk/seminar/20101209161017001

  10. rustneversleeps says:

    Vinny Burgoo sez:
    What would the WTO say to a country that instituted a national revenue-neutral carbon tax and sought to impose tariffs on countries that didn’t tax its emissions to the same extent?

    IANAL, but there is a good discussion of that in this presentation (pdf): The World Trade Organization & Border Tax Adjustment – HOW WORLD TRADE ORGANIZATION RULES APPLY TO DOMESTIC CLIMATE POLICY AND WHY IMPLEMENTATION OF CARBON FEE AND DIVIDEND REQUIRES A BORDER TAX ADJUSTMENT

    The short version, as interpreted by Citizens Climate Lobby in the US is roughly as follows:

    In order for a fee on carbon to work domestically and on an international scale, an effective border tax adjustment will be necessary. There is a concern expressed by many legislators that such a border adjustment would violate World Trade Organization (WTO) law, and specifically the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). However, this concern is unfounded [1, 2].

    First, a border adjustment has been codified in US law (26 CFR 52.4682-3) since the Montreal Protocol went into effect on Jan 1, 1990. This border adjustments covers ozone-depleting substances, which also happen to be greenhouse gases [3].

    Second, there are in fact two provisions in the GATT that make it clear Carbon Fee and Dividend would be WTO-legal:

    The border adjustment, as proposed by Citizens’ Climate Lobby, doesn’t discriminate against goods from other countries relative to goods produced domestically, nor against one country relative to another. Second,

    Even if the border adjustment were discriminatory, article twenty, paragraphs b and g (i.e. “Article XX, paragraphs (b) and (g)” in legalese) allows for discriminatory border adjustments for environmental purposes.

    So, Carbon Fee and Dividend is double-covered! Getting the border adjustment right is important because it ensures domestic manufactures have no incentive to move operations to a country that doesn’t have an equivalent price on carbon, and that if other countries want to keep using dirty manufacturing processes, they’ll have to pay the American people for the privilege.

    1. Pauwelyn, Joost. “Carbon Leakage Measures and Border Tax Adjustments Under WTO Law”. March 21, 2012. Excepted chapter from “Research Handbook On The WTO Agriculture Agreement”.
    2. Jennifer Hillman. Changing Climate for Carbon Taxes: Who’s Afraid of the WTO? July 25, 2013. 3. The German Marshall Fund of the United States.
    26 C.F.R § 52.4682–3 “IMPORTED TAXABLE PRODUCTS.”

  11. > There is no ‘we’.

    There is no “there is no ‘we’” either.

    We decide if “we” exists.

  12. rustneversleeps says:

    Wrote a fair bit about the WTO question, but the response seemed to just vanish. Just testing with this post to see what happens when I post.

  13. rust,
    It should be back now. Not sure why it ended up in moderation. Some kind of random effect, AFAICT.

  14. rustneversleeps says:

    Well, looks like my comment got eaten, so I am not going to bother making it look good or explaining it, but here is a long presentation (pdf) discussing the issue

    http://citizensclimatelobby.ca/sites/default/files/files/CCLWorldTradeO%20BorderAdjustments.pdf

    … and here is Citizens Climate Lobby’s short interpretation/precis of that analysis

    https://citizensclimatelobby.org/wto-and-the-border-adjustment/

  15. izen says:

    I suspect that the policy descisions made by governments, and certainly the business choices made by economic actors, are dominated by the threats and opportunities of the present.

    They may have a myopic view of the recent past, perhaps a decade, and pay lip-serice to a Five-Year-Plan for the future, but the immediate and local displaces almost all considerations of past trends or future developments.

    Emergency adaption in response to the impacts of climate change that are most immediately felt will be the pattern. Migration and agricultural production are the most likely triggers of a response. Not the trend in cumlative concerntration.

    Because it is mainly reactive policy making is often concerned with defending and maintaining the status quo. Because society and an economy has adapted to current conditions, is often optimised for a static future, the political and ideological motivation is to oppose any change.

    Weather that change is a prediction about the physical environment or the required structure of a future society to mitigate the risks caused by present actions

  16. bill shockley says:

    I think wordpress does not like carbon tax links. I lost a post the other day that included a link to carbontax dot org. And that wasn’t the first time it happened to me on wordpress. The other time it happened the owner of the blog had to remove the url from the “blocked” list. He had control within his own comment section. Sounds like the same may be happening with the CCL url. Just a heads up, ATTP, if you want to look into it.

    James Hansen mentions frequently the need for tarrifs to support a country’s carbon fee and explains that this is a key feature that makes one country’s effort into a global incentive. He has 3 new videos on youtube relating to his activities in Europe (Brussels) ahead of the Paris meeting. They’re short and to the point.

    FoE Climate and Energy Summit 2015 – Conversation with James Hansen (30:41)
    Dr. James Hansen responds to a question from Suitboy on Climate change (1:23)
    Dr. James Hansen responds to a question from Gonçalo on a agreement in Paris (2:11)

    He plugs CCL every chance he gets and notes in one of the videos that the organization has doubled its membership in each of the last 4 years.

    I attended a meeting in my city last Monday. Some of the people there became aware of CCL by way of a Hansen mention at one of his tour lectures. He was in my city a few months ago. I became aware of the local group when they had a tent at our public market and their presence was announced over the PA system. It caught my attention only because I was already familiar with the name by way of JH.

  17. bill shockley says:

    I’m having the same problem right now trying to post a comment with mentions of CCL and the Carbon Tax Center website. I think it’s a wordpress problem, if you want to look into it, ATTP. Same thing happened on another wordpress blog and the owner had to remove the url from the “blocked” list.

  18. bill shockley says:

    James Hansen mentions frequently the need for tariffs to support a country’s carbon fee and explains that this is a key feature that makes one country’s effort into a global incentive. He has 3 new videos on youtube relating to his activities in Europe (Brussels) ahead of the Paris meeting. They’re short and to the point (and a bit prickly.)

    FoE Climate and Energy Summit 2015 – Conversation with James Hansen (30:41)
    Dr. James Hansen responds to a question from Suitboy on Climate change (1:23)
    Dr. James Hansen responds to a question from Gonçalo on a agreement in Paris (2:11)

  19. bill shockley says:

    Hansen plugs CCL every chance he gets and notes in one of the videos that the organization has doubled its membership in each of the last 4 years.

    I attended a meeting in my city last Monday. Some of the people attending became aware of CCL by way of a Hansen mention at one of his tour lectures. He was in my city a few months ago. I became aware of the local group when they had a tent at our public market and their presence was announced over the PA system. It caught my attention only because I was already familiar with the name by way of JH.

  20. bill shockley says:

    Hansen plugs CCL every chance he gets and notes in one of the videos that the organization has doubled its membership in each of the last 4 years.

    I attended a meeting in my city last Monday. Some of the people there became aware of CCL by way of a Hansen mention at one of his tour lectures. He was in my city a few months ago. I became aware of the local group when they had a tent at our public market and their presence was announced over the PA system. It caught my attention only because I was already familiar with the name by way of JH.

  21. bill shockley says:

    According to Hansen, CCL has doubled in size each of the last 4 years.

  22. Pingback: Airbrushing Sensitivity Out of the Climate Debate | The Lukewarmer's Way

  23. Ethan Allen says:

    Here’s Hansen’s’ numbers:

    2011 =1
    2012 = 2
    2013 =4
    2014 = 8
    2015 = 16
    .
    .
    .
    2045 = 17,179,869,184

    Hansen really does appear to like exponential functions.

    How’s the CCL making inroads with the 247 House Republicans (188 House Democrats)?
    How’s the CCL making inroads with the 54 Senate Republicans (100 Senate members?

    I’m pretty sure the answer is: See that door over there, please close it on the way out.

    Democrats are going to need a 2008 type landslide to change those numbers appreciably.

  24. rustneversleeps says:

    The only tangential relevance of CCL to this thread is that a question was asked about how the WTO might treat “a country that instituted a national revenue-neutral carbon tax and sought to impose tariffs on countries that didn’t tax its emissions to the same extent?”

    CCL happens to host a pdf of a decent discussion of exactly this point by trade law experts, and their brief precis/understanding of same. That’s it.

    CCL’s membership trajectory or congressional lobbying track record is rather beside the point. Anyone got a pointer to a better discussion on that question? (Which is itself not integral to the original post.)

  25. bill shockley says:

    Ethan Allen, you ask exactly the same questions I have. Exactly. I got to the CCL meeting in my hometown late last Monday, so I didn’t get a chance to get the answers.

    I’m pretty sure the public is really sick of the Republicans, so we may get that landslide. The results in Canada’s election may be an indication.

    Or… not — the job may be much harder. We may end up losing. We may end up being too late. But that is no reason not to fight. You only find out what is possible by trying.

    Hansen’s instincts are correct. Change happens when people organize and make their voices heard. That is precisely the direction CCL is taking.

  26. bill shockley says:

    Relevance: The people are a part of the yellow “decision box” if they make their voice heard. The New Deal never would have got done if the people hadn’t spoke out of turn.

  27. bill shockley says:

    Ethan Allen, I did however, find out that CCL has been around for about 10 years. So there is significance in the fact that the rapid growth is only in the last 4 years. Take from that what you will… I equate it to general public awareness on account of weather events taking a turn to the extreme. What was obvious to sensitive science is becoming obvious to those with eyes that see.

  28. I’ve got some comments out of the pending folder. I’m not sure why they ended up there. There are still a couple more, but I think they’re simply duplicates.

  29. opluso says:

    I like your overall approach to this analysis but I think you’ve understated the policy problems. Your yellow/control bubble (policy) should not be limited to a single point in the equation.

    Policy decisions impact how much money is available for research along with land-use decisions, economic choices, etc. There are other suggestions that could be made, for example, lobbying (which is not unique to the US political system) can have a profound impact on policy and is highly resistent to public opinion. But I suspect your model is complex enough as it is.

  30. opluso says:

    ATTP:

    Notice that one way the system can avoid increasing its average temperature is by making the temperature change more unevenly distributed – an extremely hot place far to the pole can radiate so effectively as to more than balance out a comparably cool place near the pole. This is in fact one sort of climate change that fills the bill of equilibrating the energetics without changing the mean temperature much.

    I recall having similar discussions about 30 years ago. The question was whether we should actually * increase * GHG emissions in order to hurry through a likely period of climate instability and achieve a warmer equilibrium more rapidly. This concept seems to have joined most other geo-engineering “solutions” on the intellectual trash pile.

  31. opluso,
    This is actually a post by mt (Michael Tobis), not me 🙂

  32. “I like your overall approach to this analysis but I think you’ve understated the policy problems. Your yellow/control bubble (policy) should not be limited to a single point in the equation.”

    essentially “policy” takes on the same character as “sensitivity” does in other formulations.

    It’s merely the bundling of a huge group of uncertainties and complications into one little bubble.

    It changes the focus, but the not the problem.

    simplification doesn’t work with wicked problems, but it does give you something to shout about.

  33. mwgrant says:

    No sale mt. Actual impacts cannot precede actual policy [control] implemented. [Think] about cutting the arrows from impacts. We have a lack of clarity. :O)

  34. mwgrant says:

    “simplification doesn’t work with wicked problems, but it does give you something to shout about.”

    Being human and all that entails we have no choice but to simplify.

  35. mt says:

    Mosher: sensitivity is a number, and it is not for policy purposes an important number – it’s far more valuable scientifically than operationally. The policy bubble emphasizes that human volition is a key link in the chain. That it’s complicated and wicked, well, no joke.

    Does it change the focus and not the problem? Maybe it changes the focus from what doesn’t matter to what does.

  36. mt says:

    opluso: it’s absolutely the case that there’s cross-cutting between various bubbles, that other pieces of the puzzle are not represented, etc.

    The purpose of the meta-model is to offer a flavor of the greenhouse gas problem. Each of the bubbles represents a system of enough complexity that a complete model is difficult or impossible. So the study of the whole system must remain qualitative and somewhat intuitive, even if we’d prefer something more objective.

    Despite the absurd noise around the problem, I’d argue that climatology is one of the best modeled and constrained of the bubbles. This is part of what makes ClimateBall so exasperating as a diversion – the endless focus on the parts we know and the casual dismissal of the bulk of the uncertainties.

    Also the greenhouse gas problem is embedded in a larger world with other wicked problems of existential importance – food security, public health, anarchy, war, crime, ecological sustainability, financial stability, international equity, etc. Arguably greenhouse forcing is the LEAST wicked of these global problems, because, perhaps uniquely, the entire loop passes through a single scalar time function, the global CO2-equivalent trajectory.

    In the past, the world was able to solve difficult problems. Perhaps we’ve reached our limits. I rather think we have regressed in some ways, but I can conceive of a world in which human ingenuity was sufficient to deal with these problems.

  37. mt says:

    mwgrant: “No sale mt. Actual impacts cannot precede actual policy [control] implemented.”

    This is an interesting misunderstanding. There’s no time precedence in a cybernetic loop. Everything is happening at the same time.

    I’m not exactly sure what the objection is, though. Do you mean that “policy will fail if it waits for clear impacts”?

    I named the bubbles as much as possible after academic disciplines rather than phenomena – the most notable being “agronomy” rather than “agriculture”. I guess to be consistent “economy” should have been “economics”. This should emphasize that this is a model suggesting how we should think about what is happening, not a model of what is happening.

    The impacts that affect policy include impacts in the future. The bubbles have prognostic capacity.

    Modern control systems often have dynamic models of the system as part of the controls. That is, they measure what the system is doing, but they also predict what the system is going to do under the influence of the available controls, and adjust as needed.

  38. izen says:

    All the pink and green boxes in your diagram, geology and biology, have well established descriptive science behind them. In many cases mathematical modeling gives a good explanation of the physical, chemical and biological constraints on the system.

    The major exception in the diagram, the box that we have no effective way to measure, describe or explain is the yellow box.
    Policy.

    While there is some minor uncertainty about the physical and chemical constraints on the impacts from climate change, and greater uncertainty over the timing and magnitude of those impacts, the major source of uncertainty is in the field of policy. there is no consensus or credible modeling of how different policy decisions will alter the economy or cumulative concentrations. It seems to be a matter of faith, some still believe ‘austerity’ will make everyone richer, instead of just pumping wealth uphill despite numerous practical examples to the contrary.

    Almost as bad is the ‘economy’ box. The past history of economic modeling makes climate modeling look like a beacon of accuracy!

  39. mwgrant says:

    HI mt,

    No it is not a misunderstanding. I just consider that neither time nor order of events can not be ignored. The former are paramount thus bringing into play the latter. (I view the problem as a decision problem–here at this level a simplified decision problem commiserate with your level of detail.) The problem is to decide on a policy based on impacts [all good and bad component under each decision alternative. When you impose those constraints the four arrows from ‘Impacts’ do not exist–there is no loop.

    It seems that the cybernetic loop does capture the evolving nature of the problem and in particular manifests an adaptive approach. Also you might say that my preference is to decouple or cut the loop for the sake of current decision-making and proceed with the understanding that there is always up dating. ( A lumpy loop.)

    In any case it is interesting stuff. Thanks for the post.

  40. mt says:

    “The past history of economic modeling makes climate modeling look like a beacon of accuracy!”

    Yeah but I consider the exclamation point weird. Climate modeling is a substantial success. Many other disciplines are trying to emulate it. That climate modeling doesn’t do well on things it never proposed to do well is of little consequence outside the world of confused and/or dishonest rhetoric.

  41. opluso says:

    Policy output is highly susceptible to “butterfly effects”. Far more so, IMO, than the overall climate system.

  42. Far more so, IMO, than the overall climate system.

    In a sense that may be the point. We understand how our climate will probably respond to changing anthropogenic forcings better than we understand what we should probably do as a consequence of this. That’s why the debate should probably move on from whether or not temperature are really rising, what is the extact value of climate sensitivity, will some weather events get more extreme, to what should we do as a consequence of what we understand of how our climate will likely respond to different future emission pathways.

  43. mt says:

    “​Global warming is the most obvious… effect of ​climate change”

    http://www.climatecentral.org/news/extreme-heat-climate-change-19641

    Got that everybody? Climate change causes warming, not vice versa.

    You could argue that there isn’t really causality either way – that warming is part of the whole package. Fair enough. The point is that it’s just not sensible to take it the other way around. And a great deal of conversation about climate change does exactly that.

    All the past focus on sensitivity has confused the issue. Lacking any observational information, impacts can be extrapolated from sensitivity, but now that the outlines of the early stages of climate change are emerging, we don’t have to do that anymore.

    “Limiting warming to 2 C” is a way of getting people to understand the need for emissions restraint. But whether 2 C is the right threshhold for severe damage is widely disputed.

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