Tag Archives: climate science

Paul Krugman explains how to break the climate policy deadlock

Paul Krugman — Nobel Laureate economist, #5 on Prospect magazine’s 2015 list of the world’s top “thinkers” —  gives us powerful advice about the climate policy debate in his August 12 NYT op-ed (similar to this from a February column).

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman. Creative Commons license.

Here’s how I would approach the issue: by asking how we know that a modeling approach is truly useful. The answer, I’d suggest, is that we look for surprising successful predictions. General relativity got its big boost when light did, in fact, bend as predicted. The theory of a natural rate of unemployment got a big boost when the Phillips curve turned into clockwise spirals, as predicted, during the stagflation of the 1970s.

So has there been anything like that in recent years? …Were there any interesting predictions from … models that were validated by events?

In fact he is discussing his own field, macroeconomics — but this insight has deep roots in the philosophy of science and applies as well to climate science. Predictions are the gold standard for validating theories. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) Thomas Kuhn described failed predictions that undermined dominant paradigms (e.g., the Michelson–Morley experiment) and successful predictions that helped establish new paradigms (e.g., the orbit of Mercury). He said…

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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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