Touring the frontiers of climate science, the exciting parts of science

Summary: Every field of science has frontiers. Journalists and activists prefer to show us answers (sometimes guesses), and hide the questions which drive science (and produce much of its excitement). Some are generated by the reigning paradigm, which focuses scientists’ work on key issues. Scientists challenging the paradigm ask different questions, ones often considered irrelevant, unimportant, or unsolvable by the mainstream defenders of the paradigm. In today’s post an eminent climate scientist, a challenger of the paradigm, describes the frontiers as she sees them.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

“The science behind climate change is settled, and human activity is responsible for global warming. That conclusion is not a partisan one.”
— EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, February 2010 (New York Times). The IPCC says she’s exaggerating, a lot.

Frontiers of science

What are the most controversial points in climate science?
How might these controversies be resolved?

Judith Curry, posted at Climate Etc, 4 May 2015.
Reposted under her Creative Commons License.

A journalist asked me the questions paraphrased below.  It is good to see a journalist asking such questions, when the prevailing view is reflected by this recent Guardian article: “Kofi Annan: We must challenge climate-change skeptics who deny the facts“. If the IPCC were doing its job in the way that I think it should be done, reporters wouldn’t need to ask these questions. In fact the IPCC First Assessment Report (FAR) in 1990 did this well.

Here is my first quick cut at responding to these questions; for reference, I also include the relevant FAR statements.

What are the most controversial points in climate science related to AGW?

There are two overarching issues. Whether the warming since 1950 has been dominated by human causes? How much the planet will warm in the 21st century? More specific, technical issues that need to be resolved in support of addressing these overarching issues…

  • Causes of the 1900-1940 warming; the cooling from 1940-1976; and the recent hiatus in warming since 1998.  How are these explained in context of AGW being the dominant influence since 1950?
  • Solar impacts on climate (including indirect effects).  What are the magnitudes and nature of the range of physical mechanisms?
  • Nature and mechanisms of multi-decadal and century scale natural internal variability.  How do these modes of internal variability interact with external forcing, and to what extent are these modes separable from externally forced climate change?
  • Deep ocean heat content variations and mechanisms of vertical heat transfer between the surface and deep ocean.
  • Sensitivity of the climate system to external forcing, including fast thermodynamic feedbacks (water vapor, clouds, lapse rate).
  • Climate dynamics of clouds: Could changes in cloud distribution or optical properties contribute to the global surface temperature hiatus? How do cloud patterns (and top of atmosphere and surface radiative fluxes) change with shifts in in atmospheric circulation and teleconnection regimes (e.g. AO, NAO, PDO)? How do feedbacks between clouds, surface temperature, and atmospheric thermodynamics/circulations interact with global warming and the atmospheric circulation and teleconnection regimes?

The key areas of scientific uncertainty from the FAR are…

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Why the West loses so many wars, and how we can learn to win.

Martin van Creveld, among our time’s top historians and military theorists, asked for a submission to his website. I provided this essay about modern war, a summary of themes often discussed here during the past 8 years. It’s probably the most important contribution to readers of the FM website. The West’s failure to learn this simple lesson is among the greatest of our weaknesses, so large as to offset the power of even the greatest of nations.

Fake Churchill about success

Among the dumbest advice ever. Churchill didn’t say it.

Our wars since WWII

The local fighter is therefore often an accidental guerrilla — fighting us because we are in his space, not because he wishes to invade ours. He follows folk-ways of tribal warfare that are mediated by traditional cultural norms, values, and perceptual lenses; he is engaged (from his point of view) in “resistance” rather than “insurgency” and fights principally to be left alone.

— David Kilcullen in The Accidental Guerrilla (2011).

Most of the West’s wars since WWII have been fight insurgencies in foreign lands. Although an ancient form of conflict, the odds shifted when Mao brought non-trinitarian (aka 4th generation) warfare to maturity. Not until the late 1950’s did many realize that war had evolved again.

It took more decades more for the West to understand what they faced. Only after the failure of our occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq did the essential aspect of this new era become known, as described in Chapter 6.2 of Martin van Creveld’s The Changing Face of War (2006).

What is known, though, is that attempts by post-1945 armed forces to suppress guerrillas and terrorists have constituted a long, almost unbroken record of failure … {W}hat changed was the fact that, whereas previously it had been the main Western powers that failed, now the list included other countries as well. Portugal’s expulsion from Africa in 1975 was followed by the failure of the South Africans in Namibia, the Ethiopians in Eritrea, the Indians in Sri Lanka, the Americans in Somalia, and the Israelis in Lebanon. … Even in Denmark {during WWII}, “the model protectorate”, resistance increased as time went on.

Many of these nations used force up to the level of genocide in their failed attempts to defeat local insurgencies. Despite that, foreign forces have an almost uniform record of defeat. Such as the French-Algerian War, which the French waged until their government collapsed.

The two kinds of insurgencies

In January 2007 I gave a more detailed explanation to van Creveld’s conclusion. As a simple dichotomy for analytical purposes, we can sort insurgencies by the degree of involvement of outside armed forces (of course, there are other ways to characterize 4GW).

  1. Violence between two or more local groups, who can form from any combination of clans, governments, ethnicities, religions, gangs, and tribes.
  2. Violence between two or more sides, where at least one is led by foreigners – comprising, as above, any imaginable combination of factions.

{ Read the rest at Martin van Creveld’s website.
Post your comments here; he doesn’t allow comments.}


Be Proud America! as we watch our babies die

Summary: We’ll hear much about American exceptionalism from candidates for President during the next 17 months. Here’s a tangible example — the greater fraction of infants that die in America than in our peers. We know how to fix it; we have the money. We lack only the will. Be proud, America!  {1st of 2 posts today.}

Some insights into the factors affecting infant mortality, showing how badly we’re doing.

NBER: infant mortality, Jan 2015

From the January NBER Bulletin on Aging and Health story about this study:

The U.S. infant mortality rate (IMR) compares unfavorably to that of other developed countries, ranking 51st in the world in 2013. In the U.S., there are nearly 7 infant deaths during the first year of life per 1000 live births, roughly twice the rate in Scandinavian countries. The U.S. IMR is similar to that of Croatia, despite a three-fold difference in GDP per capita.

What explains the U.S.’s relatively high IMR? This is the subject of a new NBER working paper … To quantify the importance of these potential sources of the U.S. IMR disadvantage, the authors combine natality micro-data from the U.S. with similar data from Finland and Austria. These countries provide a useful comparison because Finland has one of the lowest IMRs in the world and Austria has an IMR similar to much of continental Europe.

…  In short, worse conditions at birth and a higher post-neonatal mortality rate are both important contributors to the U.S.’s higher IMR.

Finally, the authors explore how the U.S. IMR disadvantage varies by racial and education group. They find that the U.S.’s higher post-neonatal mortality rate is driven almost entirely by excess mortality among individuals of lower socioeconomic status. As the authors note, “infants born to white, college-educated, married women in the U.S. have mortality rates that are essentially indistinguishable from a similar advantaged demographic in Austria and Finland.”
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Is victory impossible in modern wars? Or just not possible for us?

Summary: Slowly America begins to absorb lessons from our fails in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet as with Vietnam we prefer not to see too deeply. Mark Kukis at aeon gives us another incisive analysis of modern war that misses the mark, and so sets us up for the next failed war.  {2nd of 2 wars.}

The Arch of the Victory in Genoa

The Arch of the Victory in Genoa

Recommended reading: “The myth of victory” by Mark Kukis at aeon

“War isn’t like it used to be. Victory is more elusive & a strong military doesn’t count as much.”

Mark Kukis knows this subject well, having covered our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the major media and author of Voices from Iraq: A People’s History, 2003-2009, and covered the Afghan and Iraq wars for Time, The New Republic and Salon. This fall he and Andrew Bacevich will work on an open online course, “War for the Greater Middle East”.

I agree in spirit with this brilliant article. But his analysis repeats the mistakes of the previous military reform movement that burned brightly but was proven ineffectual by our wars after 9/11. In that sense it’s similar to the also excellent article by James Fallows in January’s The Atlantic, as I described in this post, and later here. They are complex, academic in nature, unfocused, and obscure the important lessons. They’re guaranteed to have little effect.

Refusal to learn

Kukis begins, as those advocating reform usually do, by stating the problem: America’s refusal to recognize the changed nature of modern war (aka 4th generation war, non-trinitarian war).

How could the Taliban have bested the United States? A more uneven military contest is scarcely imaginable when you consider the state of the two factions on the eve of 9/11. Before the US invasion, the Taliban had an army of roughly 30,000. Taliban forces hardly qualified as a real army, though. They operated more like a decentralised militia scattered around a mountainous country, with few roads and no communications of any kind. They had no officers. A rotating crew of regional commanders oversaw garrisons around the country. Most fighters went unpaid except for the occasional handout from a commander before they went on leave.

In the US, meanwhile, armories bristled with sophisticated weaponry and equipment. {Etc, — we have lots of stuff, more and better stuff than anyone, anywhere, anytime.}

After this strong start he draws a quite fallacious conclusion, based on a strawman assumption.

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Economists show the perils and potential of the coming robot revolution

Summary: History shows that we oddly focus on small changes coming while ignoring the larger one, because they are truly revolutionary and hence difficult to see and understand. So it is with the third industrial revolution, the oddest so far — and likely to be the biggest. This post shows that some of our top economists have begun to describe what’s coming. As usual with power, it’s great news if we manage it well and potentially horrific if we don’t.  We time to get ready. {1st of 2 posts today.}

Julie Hagerty & Leslie Neilsen in "Airplane!" (Paramount Pictures)

The reality will not be funny. Julie Hagerty & Leslie Neilsen in “Airplane!” (Paramount Pictures)

Robots Are Us: Some Economics of Human Replacement

By Jeffrey D. Sachs (Prof Economics, Columbia), Laurence J. Kotlikoff (Prof Economic, Boston U), Seth G. Benzell, and Guillermo LaGarda.
29  March 2015.


Will smart machines replace humans like the internal combustion engine replaced horses? If so, can putting people out of work, or at least out of good work, also put the economy out of business? Our model says yes. Under the right conditions, more supply produces, over time, less demand as the smart machines undermine their customer base. Highly tailored skill- and generation-specific redistribution policies can keep smart machines from immiserating humanity. But blunt policies, such as mandating open-source technology, can make matters worse.


Whether it’s bombing our enemies, steering our planes, fielding our calls, rubbing our backs, vacuuming our floors, driving our taxis, or beating us at Jeopardy, it’s hard to think of hitherto human tasks that smart machines can’t do or won’t soon do. Few smart machines look even remotely human. But they all combine brains and brawn, namely sophisticated code and physical capital. And they all have one ultimate creator – us.

Will human replacement – the production by ourselves of ever better substitutes for ourselves – deliver an economic utopia with smart machines satisfying our every material need? Or will our self-induced redundancy leave us earning too little to purchase the products our smart machines can make? Ironically, smart machines are invaluable for considering what they might do to us and when they might do it.

… Our simulated economy – an overlapping generations model – is bare bones. It features two types of workers consuming two goods for two periods. Yet it admits a large range of dynamic outcomes, some of which are quite unpleasant.

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A China briefing from one of the West’s best-connected experts

Summary:  This post provides a deep briefing about China from a major expert. It’s long and somewhat technical, but of the quality that executives and officials pay a lot to get.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Globe and China Flag

China Visit: May 2015

Simon Hunt Strategic Services
Economic & Copper Advisory Services

Posted with his generous permission.


  1. The depth of the leadership’s intent to reform the country’s financial system, restructure industry and to internationalise the RMB (its currency) is largely unappreciated and/or misinterpreted by the media and investors.
  2. What is starting to take place is nothing more than reshaping the country and in so doing that of the world.
  3. To understand how serious and widespread will be this transformation we must have an idea of President Xi’s own philosophiesandobjectives.Theycentre around four dynamics:-
    • He sees himself as the saviour of the party and the country since corruption had grown so deep and widespread that it threatened social stability.
    • By reaching back to Mao’s Mass Line philosophy he has got the middle class and the greater mass of population on his side even though others may seek opportunities to unseat him. He has probably got enough cards in his hands to stop any such move.
    • The President wants to develop a more equal society where the income and wealth divide are narrowed. The future of the real estate sector is fundamental to this change. No significant rescue will be mounted so allowing private sector developers to fend for themselves with the State sector being readied to prevent any crash in prices.
    • The president is shifting the country to the left of centre implying that state-owned enterprises (SOEs) will become the cornerstone of growth with the private sector encouraged to join the state sector.
  4. There is an international timetable that the leadership must work within to effect this transformation. It is the autumn meeting of the IMF where once again the proposal to allow China’s currency to join the IMF’s special drawing rights ( SDR) comes up for Board approval.
  5. America and Japan between them have 23.3% of the votes. China is playing hard ball with the remainder to ensure that the resolution is passed.
  6. To help the proposal being passed China will open up its capital account and will make the RMB at least partially convertible by the time of the meeting, at least enough to satisfy the requirements of the IMF articles.
  7. Other moves will mean that credit conditions will be tight in the second half of the year forcing bankruptcies and failures to accelerate as an essential part of bringing price power back to the manufacturing sector.
  8. Fiscal policy is focusing on very specific infrastructure projects that will bring added value to the country; and the currency will appreciate against its trade weighted index.
  9. The implications of a successful SDR resolution will be widespread internationally and domestically in China.
  10. One such implication is that central banks and financial institutions will have to sell dollars to make way for the RMB. Another is that de facto the dollar will start losing its dominant role in trade financing.
  11. Another is that India supports China’s view that a Washington centric world is no longer appropriate for world stability and that a multipolar world should be structured.
  12. China’s monetary policy continues to be prudent. The cuts in required reserve ratios (RRRs) are not intended to stimulate the economy but to help liquefy the banks given the huge demands on them for additional working capital and because they know what is coming down the line.
  13. Real interest rates remain very high given that PPI fell by 4.6% in March implying that real interest rates were 10.8% in March. Credit remains very difficult within the SME sector.
  14. The cuts in interest rates are partially for this reason and because with the opening up of the capital account interest rates must fall towards international levels or risk a serious inflow of capital.

In summary, the leadership is putting China on the road to greatness but having first to suffer the consequences of previous governments’ love affair with credit.

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The psychopathic leaders of America

Summary: Slowly we begin to hear the warnings about our leaders. America is not a meritocracy, and our system promotes people with the traits of psychopaths. A cold hard insight that can help us choose better leaders for our future. {1st of 2 posts today.}

“First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.”
Speech by union leader Nicholas Klein (1918).


This is a good step for America: “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk” by Jerry Useem, The Atlantic, June 2015 — “New research confirms what they say about nice guys.” Useem shows us harsh facts about America through a soft filter, as the author sells this to us as a good thing.

But it’s a start at progress to see the reality behind the fantasies we used to believe about our leaders.

This news about their character is nothing new to anyone who has dealt with Americans at the top tier of our hierarchies — celebrities, senior corporate officers, and politicians. This has been my experience. What’s new is our recognition of it.

Psychiatrist Hervey M. Cleckley identified the characteristics of psychopathy, as defined by in his famous 1941 book The Mask of Sanity. Psychology has evolved since then, but this list still services as a good introduction. These are the traits of our leaders, the inner party who run America (and whose upper ranks advance to the bourgeois (the 1% who own America).

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