Contrarian Models

We need better ClimateBall contrarians. Perhaps they need better contrarian role models. Let’s find them, if only for our own sake. Here are five of mine.

Fred Rogers was a TV show producer, a comedian, an author, a puppeteer, a composer, a singer, a pastor, an old-school conservative, and a life long Republican. His values may not reflect contemporary viewpoints, but his contrarianism shone (good grief, English – sometimes you’re drunk) in his slow-paced and nurturing child TV programs. His candor during a congressional testimony may have saved American public broadcasting:

I’m very much concerned, as I know you are, about what’s being delivered to our children in this country. And I’ve worked in the field of child development for six years now, trying to understand the inner needs of children. We deal with such things as — as the inner drama of childhood. We don’t have to bop somebody over the head to…make drama on the screen. We deal with such things as getting a haircut, or the feelings about brothers and sisters, and the kind of anger that arises in simple family situations. And we speak to it constructively.

A version of this approach rocked Quebecers of my generation and beyond, with a show called Passe-Partout. I wouldn’t mind having been Mr. Rogers’ neighbour, it may have appeased my cynicism.

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Philosopher Agnes Callard presents herself as a devil’s advocate advocate. She also talks about trangressivism. That’s more than contrarian to me. I expect that her debating style, like her overall persona, will change the philosopher stereotype:

The book the Guggenheim Award is being used to support, The World Socrates Made, will analyze contemporary intellectual culture—within philosophy; within academia more broadly; and extra academically, on social media—in the light of its Socratic origins. Our cultures of debate have a peculiarly Socratic structure—that of an adversarial division of epistemic labor—that we have come to take for granted. Both the idealistic heights we expect from argumentative engagement, as well as the depths (defensiveness, ad hominem argumentation, and mutual suspicion) to which it often, in reality, sinks bear the Socratic signature. Learning to read it is critical to creating the culture of refutation that we want and need.

For the better I believe, as I think philosophers waste too much time writing arcane deliverables nobody but themselves read. Social media changed everyone. It’s about time it changes everything, including academia.

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That is all.

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Alice Dreger is a historian of science. Once a professor, she turned into journalism and won the first HxA Award. The title of her most popular book sets the contrarian tone:  Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar’s Search for Justice. Although the word “justice” appears in that title, the word “Galileo” predisposes her to be well-loved among Freedom Fighters. Nevermind, I like her. Perhaps it’s a matter of style. Take this tidbit from her correspondence with John McDermott:

I previously sent you a link with an essay that explains my decision to leave Northwestern and generally take be wary of academia, and I have the sense you haven’t read it and may be under a misunderstanding with regard to my history. So here it is again:

It’s short so it won’t take you long to read.

To be frank, I’m hoping not to have the same experience with you that I had with Bari Weiss, when I was lumped into an alleged secret society about which I knew very little if anything. Here’s my cheeky piece on that:

But in all seriousness, I’m concerned you’ve come to this story with an assumption that isn’t playing out, and you’re determined to make it the story — that there is a secret peer support group of people who have been “cancelled.” I do not think of people like me, Katie [Herzog], or Jesse [Singal] as cancelled in any way — we all have vibrant careers — nor do I think of them as extraordinary work friends. They’re work friends like so many others in my life.

One can guess she wasn’t pleased with John’s profile of her as being a member of the Dank Web who’s been cancelled.

* * *

Ecologist Tomas Crowther wants a trillion more trees on Earth. He’s described as a disrupter. His approach is overly numerical. It relies on data, which at first seemed hard to get when sharing what provides one’s edge is hard. He got some, extrapolated from it, and published. Sounds like the best way to exploit what Czeslaw Milosz calls the Reverse Telescope in his Road-Side Dog:

Probably nothing can be accomplished without a belief in one’s superiority. This is achieved by looking at the accomplishments of others through a reverse telescope. Later, it is difficult not to be aware of the harm done.

We’ll see how it goes. How not to wish him the best?

* * *

From this list one can take away that contrarianism does not represent a one-size-fit-all box. I don’t believe in that kind of box. So here is my own take-away: likeability matters, but not as much as constructiveness. All the examples are constructive, all of them vary in likeability. This may be a personal bias. Perhaps we’d need to invent dislikeability, as there are many, many, many, many, examples of dislikeable contrarians. Finding less-than-suboptimal examples would have made this post both easier and longer.

We are all in it together, we all have neighbours, and we need better contrarians. I would not go so far as to suggest we all are contrarians, but any time spent online ought to be enough to realize that we all have our moments and our manners. We certainly ought to foster the best contrarian traits. While researching for this post I stumbled upon a Contrarian Prize in UK. Perhaps climate institutions ought to take heed and create a ClimateBall prize to celebrate the most constructive contrarians.

Posted in ClimateBall, Contrarian Matrix, Freedom Fighters | Tagged , , , , , | 44 Comments

Depolarising the debate?

I’ve always been a little puzzled by the (mostly) social scientists who seem to argue that to develop effective climate policy we should stop using labels, be depolarizing the debate, and should prioritise civil disagreements. It’s not that I object to these in principle (I’m in favour) I just don’t see really see how engaging constructively with those who don’t see the need for climate policy would somehow lead to effective climate policy.

What brought this up again, was that I was having a brief Twitter discussion with Matthew Nisbet who commented that constructive disagreement was sorely needed. So, I asked him what motivated this suggestion. He highighted a number of his articles, including one that discusses the trouble with climate emergency journalism, another that discusses public intellectuals and their arguments for action on climate change, and one that argues that [t]he IPCC report is a wake up call for scholars, advocates and funders. There’s a lot in these, but to give you a flavour, a suggestion is that the current style of engagement results in

a discourse culture that substantially reduces opportunities for developing effective policy and technology approaches on climate change that broker support among not only liberals, but also moderates and conservatives.

This all sounds great, but it’s still not clear how this would help to develop effective climate policy, especially if we do need to make substantial changes on a timescale of decades.

What then struck me is that this article ended with

There is no ending or solving climate change, but we can do better, rather than worse at managing the far reaching risks.

and this article ended with

We will not solve climate change; it is a chronic societal condition that we will do better or worse at managing over the century and beyond.

Clearly we will continue to have volcanoes, the Sun will continue to vary slightly, and there will always be internal climate variability. Hence, we will not end, or stop, climate change. However, in the context of these discussions, climate change refers to anthropogenically-driven climate change, which is almost entirely due to our emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Furthermore, until we stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the climate will continue to change and, in the absence of technology for removing these gases from the atmospheres, the changes we do induce will be irreversible.

So, we can solve/end climate change; stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The longer we take to do so, the bigger the changes we will be leaving for future generations. So, there are real long-term consequences to delaying acting. This is what I was trying to argue in this post, but I’m still not sure I’m articulating this as clearly as I could.

Of course, if some people think that climate change is simply some kind of societal condition that we can only manage, rather than end/solve, then I can see why they regard it as important to spend time depolarising the debate. However, in my view, this framing of climate change is wrong; it is something we can end/solve, and the longer we take to do so, the greater the changes we, and future generations, will have to deal with. It may still be worth trying to depolarise the debate, but it’s not clear why – given the constraints – this would be the optimal way to develop effective climate policy.

Sciences, Publics, Politics: The Trouble With Climate Emergency Journalism by Matthew Nisbet.
The IPCC report is a wake up call for scholars, advocates and funders by Matthew Nisbet.
Disruptive ideas: public intellectuals and their arguments for action on climate changeby Matthew Nisbet.
The benefits of acting now, rather than later – post by me trying to argue why we really should act soon (not sure I’ve quite articulated this as well as I could have).
Wicked – some posts by me about framing climate change as a wicked problem.

Posted in advocacy, Climate change, Environmental change, Policy, Science | Tagged , , , , | 172 Comments

Journalistic norms for bloggers

I thought I would quickly advertise a recent paper called ““The truth is not in the middle”: Journalistic norms of climate change bloggers. It’s by Christel van Eck, Bob Mulder, and Art DeWulf, who are also involved in the survey of blog audiences.

The paper included interviews with a range of blog authors about what journalistic norms they typically try to satisfy. It included myself and a number of others who will be familiar to most of my readers. The interviews suggested that most bloggers regarded themselves as satisfying many of the journalistic norms, but maybe saw them somewhat differently to their traditional meanings.

Personally, I’d hadn’t given this a great deal of thought. I mostly see myself as a scientist who writes a blog, rather than as a journalist. I think I have some relevant expertise, so can – at times – be talking with some authority, but I do try to make clear when that’s the case, or when I’m simply expressing some views about something I may not fully understand. I think it’s important to be honest and, if possible, reasonable, but I don’t feel any obligation to provide some kind of balance, especially when it comes to scientific views that I regard as wrong.

Mostly I regard this blog as a space where I can express my views and where others can comment if they’re happy to satisfy the moderation and comments policies. I’m not really providing a service, and – apart from learning a lot – I don’t particularly benefit from writing this. I mostly try to write about what I’m currently interested in, but I am pleased if others also find it of interest (although this isn’t what specifically motivates my post writing).

Anyway, the paper is open access so if you would like to learn more about whether or not bloggers regard themselves as satisfying journalistic norms, you can read it.

“The truth is not in the middle”: Journalistic norms of climate change bloggers by Christel van Eck, Bob Mulder and Art Dewulf.

Posted in Interview, Personal, Philosophy for Bloggers, Research, Scientists | Tagged , , , , , , | 23 Comments

Estimates of the economic impact of climate change

I realise Stoat has already covered this, but I thought I would also briefly discuss it here. I posted a couple of tweets, that got quite a lot of responses, about the economic impacts of climate change, that tried to address a question that has bothered me (and others, it seems). Essentially, many economic analyses imply that even under quite substantial levels of warming, the economic impact of climate change will be ~10% of GDP and that, because of continued economic growth, this will occur in a world that is substantially richer than we are today. I realise that 10% of GDP is not negligible, but it also doesn’t seem consistent with the suggestion that we’re facing a climate crisis if we don’t soon substantially reduce our emissions. So, what’s going on here? Is it:

  1. The results from these economic analyses do indeed properly reflect the overall impact; the impact could be substantial (~10% of GDP) but we’ll be richer, can more easily deal with these impacts, and really shouldn’t be too concerned.
  2. Even though these economic analyses are reasonable, they’re really order of magnitude estimates, and so we should interpret ~10% as representing a large impact.
  3. Globally, these economic analyses are reasonable, but they largely ignore the distribution of the impacts; losses could be huge in regions that are poor and don’t contribute much to global GDP.
  4. The results from these economic analyses do indeed properly reflect the economic impact, but miss other substantive impacts that can’t easily be quantified.
  5. These results don’t really make sense if we end up warming by more than 3-4oC.

I should make clear that I’ve updated my points to include some suggested by other (H/T Andrew Dessler).

I don’t have a particularly good answer to my posed question. If pressed, I would go for a combination of 2, 3, and 4. It seems clear that there are large uncertainties, they clearly ignore some impacts that are difficult to quantify (the loss of coral reefs, for example), and probably under-estimate – or appear to – the human impact in regions that are poor. However, I still have a problem reconciling these type of estimates with the sense of urgency coming from others.

Maybe one solution is to give more weight to moral arguments (H/T Kyle Armour):

By what natural authority do we accrue the right to materially reengineer the only planet in the vast immensities of the universe known to harbor life?

On the other hand, maybe these economic analyses are still useful for guiding how we respond to climate change. For example, even though some of these analyses suggest that the impact could be modest, they do still suggest that there is a net benefit to emission reductions.

What I would really like is to better understand the conditions under which these economic analyses are regarded as reasonable. It seems clear that there are levels of warming beyond which the damage estimates are clearly nonsense (DICE, for example, suggests that 10oC of warming would produce damages of about 28% of GDP). However, for relatively low levels of warming, maybe they’re fine. Where is the actual boundary? Also, maybe it needs to be clearer as to the goals of such modelling. Is it really to try and determine the economic impact in 2100, or is it mostly to guide what we do in the next decade, or so?

Something that I posed during the Twitter discussion was whether or not one could sanity check these kind of estimates. In physics, one can often do a basic back-of-the-envelope type of calculation to check if the result from a more complex analysis actually makes sense. Is that possible in this context, or is it simply too complicated? If the latter, what does this imply? Should we simply trust the numbers that pop out of these calculations, or can we say “sorry, that doesn’t seem to make sense”? If the latter, how does one avoid motivated reasoning?

Again, I don’t have good answers to these questions, so I’ll stop there. I’ll post some links below, some of which are papers suggested by Genevieve Guenther, that I really should find time to try and read.

Costing the Earth: A Numbers Game or a Moral Imperative? (paper by Gerard Roe suggesting that we should give greater weight to moral arguments).
Long-Term Macroeconomic Effects of Climate Change: A Cross-Country Analysis (paper suggesting that the economic impact of ~4.2MoC of warming would be ~7% of GDP, but which does suggest that this is probably conservative because it ignores rare disasters).
On Modeling and Interpreting the Economics of Catastrophic Climate Change (paper by Martin Weitzman about fat tails).
Limitations of integrated assessment models of climate change (paper by Frank Ackerman suggesting that IAMs have some serious limitations).
Climate Change Policy: What Do the Models Tell Us? (paper by Robert Pindyck suggesting that IAMs have fundamental flaws).

Posted in Carbon tax, Climate change, economics, Global warming, Philosophy for Bloggers | Tagged , , , , , , , | 199 Comments

Societal tipping points

Noami Oreskes and Nicholas Stern have a New York Times Opinion piece called Climate Change will cost us even more than we think. Some are very critical, others are a little more circumspect. I, on the other hand, think that Oreskes & Stern are asking an interesting question; are we properly estimating the potential impacts of climate change? I will say, though, that I’m not convinced that they’re correct that the effects of climate change are appearing faster than scientists anticipated.

When we think of tipping points, we typically mean climatic ones. For example, we could lose the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, Greenland, we could see substantial permafrost release, or we could potentially lose some ecosystems, such as the coral reefs, or the Amazon rain forest. As far as I’ve seen, we tend to regard these type of events as then leading to potentially catastrophic societal outcomes. However, it’s not obvious that this should necessarily be the case. On the one hand, losing Greenland would commit us to about 7m of sea level rise, but it might end up being slow enough to deal with. On the other hand, could there be major societal impacts even if we don’t actually cross any of these climatic tipping points?

My understanding is that this an extremely difficult problem to address. Most economic/societal models are not self-consistently modelling the evolution of the system; they’re typically assuming that society will respond to a perturbation in a way that is consistent with how its done so in the past. As the Oreskes & Stern article highights

[Economists] approach climate damages as minor perturbations around an underlying path of economic growth

Hence, this type of analysis cannot even address the question of whether or not there might be societal tipping points; it assumes, by definition, that there aren’t any. It doesn’t preclude the possibility of the impacts being large, but this would be determined entirely by the underlying change to our climate being large, not by us crossing some threshold beyond which the societal response suddenly becomes much larger. In other words, these economic models cannot consider discontinuities in how society responds to a changing climate.

Hence, as I understand it, anyone who claims that economic modelling tells us that the damages from climate change will be small is wrong; this type of modelling cannot rule out some kind of societal tipping point. It can give us some idea of how the damage might scale with warming and it can tells us something about how various policy levers might influence our future pathway. I don’t think, though, that it can rule out that society might respond in ways that were not expected, especially given that what we’re likely to experience, in the coming decades, is probably going to be unprecedented.

So, I thought that the Oreskes & Stern article was highlighting something that maybe we should be considering a bit more; could climate change cost us even more than we think? We might conclude that our estimates are reasonable, but I do think it’s a question worth asking. I also think that we should bear in mind that even if we could respond to the changes in ways that minimised the damage, there’s no guarantee that we will actually do so.

Posted in Climate change, economics, Global warming, Policy, Politics, Severe Events | Tagged , , , , | 172 Comments

Flight free talk

I gave my first ever public climate science talk at a Flight Free event in Edinburgh. If you’re interested in seeing my talk slides, you can download them here. The idea behind Flight Free is to encourage people to pledge to not fly in 2020.

In my talk, I mainly presented some of the basics (greenhouse effect, indicators of warming, consequences, and some of the possible impacts) and then some things that I’ve felt are quite useful to understand, but aren’t always appreciated (there is essentially no warming commitment, stopping climate change requires getting net emissions to zero, it’s going to be challenging, delaying emission reductions is likely to make it increasingly difficult). I tried to be partly hopeful (what we do now can make a difference) and partly somewhat more direct (the changes are probably irreversible and achieving some of our stated targets is going to be extremely challenging).

The other speakers were a Green party candidate, someone who runs a charity that tries to connect the arts and sustainability, and Anna Hughes, the UK Director of Flight Free. It was all quite measured and pleasant, and the audience were – as far as I could tell – quite engaged with the topic, and noone was adamantly demanding that everyone should stop flying (it was more about recognising some of the issues associated with flying and about considering limiting how much we fly). I enjoyed giving my talk and I thought it went okay; people were nicely complementary, but maybe they were just being polite 🙂

I also got to meet some people I’ve only ever interacted with on Twitter, which was very nice, and I’m also going to meet someone from extinction rebellion next week, which should also be interesting. So, I enjoyed my first venture out of social media. Apart from meeting with someone from extinction rebellion, I have no immediate plans to do more, but I quite enjoyed stepping outside my comfort zone, so I may well try and do more, if the opportunities arise.

Posted in Carbon tax, Climate change, Greenhouse effect, Personal, Scientists | Tagged , , , , | 207 Comments

The GRRRRROWTH Institute

Posit an opiniator O* from the Super Wonderful Punditry think tank SWP. Deadlines displease him. The international community failed to meet so many since 1995 that such call becomes self-defeating, or so O* worries. To interpret IPCC deliverables, time for a new paradigm:

Benchmarks, billions upon billions of benchmarks.

Perhaps O* dreams that one day we will rise up and live in a world without deadlines, where actions are simply benchmarked. Science as a mere modeling exercise, consequences be damned. Why care about making decision based on knowledge we discount anyway?

That must appeal to O* – think tanks subsist to sophisticate benchmarks. No wonder why he’d welcome political promises revolving around them. Instead of We got 12 years to stay under 2C would, why not shout We got 12 years until the next benchmark? If this does not galvanize think tank troups, nothing will.


Nevertheless, paradigmatic rebranding of political slogans may not suffice. Think tanks also need to tackle economic progress. For that purpose, allow me to introduce an institute who could perpetuate GRRRRROWTH through benchmarking.

The GRRRRROWTH Institute would monitor our inexorable economic progress. Its main benchmarking tool, with the Extensive Propelling of Income Creation model, would make us realize we live in the best possible world, up to future, better benchmarks. Our economic reality would then reach EPIC proportions.

Nobody may understand for sure how its arcane calculations work exactly. More a feature than a bug, it’s how the process warrants its objectivity. Too much transparency could be gamed.

Under that paradigm, year after year it will be the best of times, never the worst of times. Now is the age of benchmarks. Nothing gets lost, everything transforms itself with inevitable added value. In the end, GROWWWWWTH wins.

Thank you.

This parable illustrates how formal and material modes of speech can be conflated. (The distinction has a venerable tradition.) It also points out how an economy can trivially be made to grow indefinitely. All one needs is an institution that remodels it so it does. Once we take spirit stuff like intelligence, imagination, and wonder into account, sky’s the limit.

Anyone who managed debts understands that consolidating them matters insofar as someone somewhere starts paying its capital some day. The same applies to carbon budgets. Debt refinancing can be done ad nauseam, with improved analyses, new means to generate assets, etc. (Printing money is child’s play; the sticky part is making otters use it.) As long as creditors play along, this kind of audit never ends.

Formally speaking, GRRRRROWTH can go on forever. In reality, nature bats last. To wait her collectors may be unwise. They reject benchmarks as paybacks.

Posted in ClimateBall, economics, GRRRRROWTH, Philosophy for Bloggers, Satire | 45 Comments