Tag Archives: climate science

Nassim Nicholas Taleb warns us about climate change

Summary:  This is the second post looking at statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s insights about “ruin” risks, and what they tell us about climate change. Here we look at his warning about climate change and two factors he ignores: the duration of the climate risk window and the odds of a climate disaster. The danger is real but the stories that we face certain doom are wild exaggerations, which make rational preparation more difficult. The previous post was Nassim Nicholas Taleb looks at the risks threatening humanity.

Cover of "Turning the Tide On Climate Change" by Robert Kandel

Cover of “Turning the Tide On Climate Change” by Robert Kandel (2009).

Yesterday’s post examined a methodology developed by a team including Nassim Nicholas Taleb for identifying “ruin” risks, where the result is non-recoverable for global civilization — or even the biosphere (described in “Mathematical Foundations for the Precautionary Principle“).

They wrote a note applying their method to one of the major risk debates of our time: “Climate models and precautionary measures” in Science and Technology, in press. The authors are brilliant, and it states with unusual clarity common arguments for radical and immediate action to fight climate change. Here’s the core of their analysis (it’s worth reading in full).

“Those who contend that models make accurate predictions argue for specific policies to stem the foreseen damaging effects; those who doubt their accuracy cite a lack of reliable evidence of harm to warrant policy action. These two alternatives are not exhaustive. One can sidestep the “skepticism” of those who question existing climate-models, by framing risk in the most straight-forward possible terms, at the global scale. That is, we should ask ‘what would the correct policy be if we had no reliable models?’

“We have only one planet. This fact radically constrains the kinds of risks that are appropriate to take at a large-scale. Even a risk with a very low probability becomes unacceptable when it affects all of us –– there is no reversing mistakes of that magnitude.

“…While some amount of pollution is inevitable, high quantities of any pollutant put us at a rapidly increasing risk of destabilizing the climate, a system that is integral to the biosphere. Ergo, we should build down CO2 emissions, even regardless of what climate-models tell us.

“…This leads to the following asymmetry in climate policy. The scale of the effect must be demonstrated tube large enough to have impact. Once this is shown, and it has been, the burden of proof of absence of harm icon those who would deny it.”

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Science into agitprop: “Climate Change Is Strangling Our Oceans”

Summary:  The public policy debate about climate science shows the dysfunctional nature of the US media. It’s one reason why making effective public policy has become difficult or impossible. Here’s another example of how propaganda has contaminated the news reporting of this vital subject, looking at stories about a new study of our oceans.

Oxygen loss in the oceans

Image courtesy Matthew Long, NCAR. It is freely available for media use.

NCAR’s press research accurately describes the paper: “Widespread loss of ocean oxygen to become noticeable in 2030s” (although it omits a crucial detail, mentioned below). Phil Plait at Slate turns this into agitprop:  “Climate Change Is Strangling Our Oceans“. His conclusion: ““messing with {the ocean} habitat is like setting fire to your own house. Which is pretty much what we’re doing.” Maddie Stone at Gizmodo also has a sensational headline “The Oceans Are Running Low on Oxygen” (the paper says nothing like that; for example, “detectable change” does not imply a “low” level).

To see how science becomes sensational propaganda let’s start by looking at the paper — “Finding forced trends in oceanic oxygen” by Matthew C. Long et al, Global Biogeochemical Cycles, February 2016. Ungated copy here. It is interesting and valuable research about climate dynamics. The abstract…

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Imagine the horrific fate of the losers after the climate policy debate ends

Summary: The appropriate public policy response to climate change is one of the great issues of our time, driving one of the longest yet inconsequential debates in modern US history. Yet everything comes to an end, eventually. This post speculates what that end might mean for the activists and scientists on each side if they lose. The consequences of defeat might mar the lives of ten thousand people in America (more around the world), yet has been little discussed.

Are you now, or have ever been, a climate denier?

Burning of Anne Hendricks as a Witch in 1571. Engraving by Jan Luyken (1685).

Burning of Anne Hendricks as a witch in 1571. Engraving by Jan Luyken (1685).

The US public policy debate about climate has run for 28 years, starting the clock from James Hansen’s famous Senate testimony. Although the results have been meager, I suspect it’s like a geological fault. Massive forces moving but locked together, with the stress accumulating year by year. People live on it, complacent since nothing has happened. Then …boom.

There are many possible intermediate outcomes, such as slow political and climate change over generations. We remember the exciting outcomes — ice ages and revolutions — but slow evolution is the most frequent outcome. But sometimes the extreme outcomes become unusually likely. I believe climate is one of them. The political debate has become a game in which nobody claims the pot. It grows to immense size as both sides bet more than they can afford to lose. Each confident of victory; neither prepares for possible ruin. It’s a commonplace in military history.

The outcome will result from a combination of weather and politics, contingent on random (or unpredictable) events. Whatever the outcome, the long-term fate of 21st century climate change might mock it. The good guys often lose in politics.

Here are guesses about some “tail outcomes”, two possible extreme outcomes that illustrate the stakes in this now deadlocked political debate. Either the climate science institutions — and climate scientists — win, or the skeptics win.

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