30 April 2013

Recent Buzz

Is it only Tuesday? It seems like a full week already. Here is a quick round-up of a few items of my week thus far:

25 April 2013

The Importance of Carbon Capture to the Climate Debate

UPDATE: The journal Climatic Change has a special issue on this subject just out, it is open access and can be found here.

Dan Sarewitz and I have a piece just out in The Atlantic on the importance of carbon capture to the debate over climate change. Here is how the short piece starts out:
Today, more than 85 percent of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels. Despite centuries of growing use, these fuels remain abundant. Powerful economic and political interests are organized around the fossil-energy system, as are complex social arrangements (consider, for example, the dependence of rapidly expanding cities on conventional electrical grids).

These realities have made a mockery of the 20-plus years of international efforts to wean the world off oil, coal, and natural gas. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying; when it comes to climate-change mitigation, a shift to carbon-free energy remains the Platonic ideal. Yet it is past time to acknowledge that on any given day, “Drill, baby, drill!” is in fact a highly effective strategy for continuing to deliver the many benefits of cheap energy.

As a result, it’s also past time to explore more seriously a parallel path to reducing greenhouse gases—one focused not on moving off fossil fuels, but on capturing the carbon that these fuels emit.
Head over to The Atlantic to read the whole thing.

Dan and I last conspired on a piece in The Atlantic on climate change back in 2000 (Al Gore was on the cover, with fangs;-). Here is that oldie-but-goodie as well.

We'd welcome your comments. Thanks!

24 April 2013

Presentation on Weather Risk & Climate Change

Here in PDF is a handout of a presentation I gave earlier this week to the Intermediaries and Reinsurance Underwriters Association 2013 Spring Conference.

Here are the questions and answers that I presented in the talk:
Anyone with questions or comments please send them along (again, the link to the handout is here in PDF). If you'd like to reuse any of the figures in the talk, just drop me an email, I am happy to share.

Thanks to the IRUA for an excellent conference and stimulating discussions.

21 April 2013

State of the EU ETS

Over at the Lowy Interpreter I have a guest post up on the current state of the European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme in the aftermath of the EU parliament's decision not to prop up the program last week. I discuss the ETS and offer a few thoughts on the state of Australia's climate policy debates, where it looks like Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are working together (what?!).

Here is how it starts:
Last week, in a surprise to many, the European parliament defeated a proposal to postpone the auctioning of emissions permits, a move that would have propped up prices in the bloc's carbon market, known as the EU Emissions Trading Scheme or ETS. The market reaction was quick and brutal, with the price of carbon allowances falling by more than 30%. The political reaction was similar — the Wall Street Journal wrote that the vote was the 'equivalent of the pope renouncing celibacy'.
Head over to Lowy for the rest, and feel free to come back here and tell me what you think.


18 April 2013

A New Book on Science Advice

Good news: A new book is out today on science advice for government.
Even better news: The book is rich with content.
It gets even more better: It is free!

The book has been put together by Robert Doubleday of Cambridge University and James Wilsdon of the University of Sussex on the occasion of Mark Walport taking over as the UK government's chief scientific adviser. The book has a UK focus but covers issues of much broader relevance.

Here is the table of contents:
  1. The science and art of effective advice - John Beddington
  2. Experts and experimental government - Geoff Mulgan
  3. A better formula: will Civil Service reform improve Whitehall’s use of expert advice? - Jill Rutter
  4. Making the most of scientists and engineers in government - Miles Parker
  5. Civil Service identity, evidence and policy - Dave O’Brien
  6. The science of science advice - Sheila Jasanoff
  7. The case for a Chief Social Scientist - Cary Cooper and Stephen Anderson
  8. Engineering policy: evidence, advice and execution - Brian Collins
  9. The benefits of hindsight: how history can contribute to science policy - Rebekah Higgitt and James Wilsdon Networks, nodes and nonlinearity: how scientific advice gets into policy - David Cleevely
  10. Windows or doors? Experts, publics and open policy - Jack Stilgoe and Simon Burall
  11. The power of ‘you’: expertise below the line - Alice Bell
  12. The politics of posterity: expertise and long-range decision making - Natalie Day
  13. Scientific advice in Parliament - Chris Tyler
  14. Letter from America: a memo to Sir Mark Walport - Roger Pielke Jr.
  15. The crowded chasm: science in the Australian government - Paul Harris
  16. Lessons from the IPCC: do scientific assessments need to be consensual to be authoritative? - Mike Hulme
  17. Science advice at the global scale - Bob Watson
Here are several blog posts distilled from the chapters and which have appeared on the Guardian's Political Science blog over the past few weeks:

15 April 2013

Letter From America on Science Advice

At The Guardian's Political Science blog you can find an excerpt from my forthcoming chapter on science advice, to appear later this week in The Future of Scientific Advice in Whitehall (edited by Wilsdon and Doubleday), which will available to download here. My piece is written as a "letter from America" to Sir Mark Walport, the newly installed UK chief scientist, offering some advice from the history of science advice in the US.

Here is the opening from the excerpt of the chapter:
Congratulations Dr Walport on your appointment as the UK government's chief scientific adviser. You join a select group. Since the position of chief science adviser was established in the US in 1957 and in the UK in 1964, fewer than 30 men (yes, all men) have occupied the position. Today across Europe, only Ireland, the Czech Republic and the European Commission have formal equivalents, which also exist in Australia, New Zealand, and soon perhaps in Japan and at the United Nations.

In the United States, the science adviser is an assistant to the president with the formal title of Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. All US science advisers (except notably the first, James Killian, who had a background in public administration) have been trained in some area of physics, reflecting the cold war origins of the position.

Since 2005, the Centre for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado has brought to our campus presidential science advisers, spanning the administrations of John F Kennedy to Barack Obama. Let me distil what I consider to be a few of the most relevant insights from their experiences.
Do head here for the full post and stay tuned later this week for more details on the entire collection.

12 April 2013

Wealth and Well-Being

Yesterday saw the release of the Social Progress Index, a new metric of national well-being that seeks to use non-economic criteria to produce its rankings. Michael Green, executive director of the Social Progress Imperative, a Washington, DC group which with academics from Harvard and MIT helped to produce the ranking, explained:
It is becoming increasingly apparent – particularly in light of the world’s global economic downturn – that GDP is simply too one-dimensional to provide a complete measure of a nation’s progress. The ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 and the last decade in Mexico show that robust economic growth does not automatically translate into wellbeing among the population.

Countries need a new measure – as a complement to, not a replacement for economic growth – that assesses and quantifies factors that really matter to real people: Do I have enough to eat? Do I have shelter? Can I get an education? Do I have a fair chance to get on in life without facing discrimination? Economic measures, whether it is GDP or income inequality, are mere proxies for wellbeing. We need to measure wellbeing directly.
Efforts to replace GDP as a metric of overall well-being have seen many champions. However, almost all of these efforts have added complexity but little, if any, additional value. So it seems to also be the case with the Social Progress Index.

The graph at the top of this post shows the relationship of the new SPI index with national per capita GDP (2011 PPP $US from The World Bank graphed on log scale). As you can see, there is an exceptionally strong relationship between the two metrics. More than 85% of the variance in the SPI can be explained by per capita GDP, suggesting little practical basis for preferring the SPI to a straightforward metric of wealth as a proxy for well-being.

The lesson? You can try to develop an index of well-being that hides wealth. But it is there nonetheless.

10 April 2013

Fool Me Once: Munich Re's Thunderstorm Claims

Last October Munich Re, one of the world's largest reinsurance companies, issued a press release in which they made a remarkable claim about a new study of normalized economic losses related to thunderstorms in the United States:
In all likelihood, we have to regard this finding as an initial climate-change footprint in our US loss data from the last four decades.
To date no studies of economic losses associated with weather events have successfully identified a signal of human-caused climate change in loss data. This conclusion was underscored by the IPCC which surveyed the literature and concluded in its 2012 Special Report on Extreme Events that "Long-term trends in economic disaster losses adjusted for wealth and population increases have not been attributed to climate change, but a role for climate change has not been excluded."

The claimed discovery was thus of tremendous significance. But fantastic claims before peer review deserve, as Andy Revkin has warned, caution.
Munich Re did prepare a report (which was not made readily available) in conjunction with its press release, but no peer reviewed paper. They later promised that peer reviewed support for the claim would soon be forthcoming:
[Ernst] Rauch [head of Munich Re's Climate Center] said Munich Re researchers have submitted a paper for peer review that shows how climate change is resulting in intensifying storms in the United States. The forthcoming study, he says, points for one of the first times "toward an attribution of climate change to losses."
This week, the promised study -- Sander et al. 2013, hereafter SEFS13 -- was published in the journal Weather, Climate and Society of the American Meteorological Society. Munich Re subsequently issued the press release that you see at the top of this post titled, "Climate change effects increasingly influencing US thunderstorms."

If you like stories with happy endings, then this would be the time where you should stop reading this post, to take a nod from Peter Falk in The Princess Bride.
As one looks a little bit closer at the public representations made by Munich Re about the paper and the paper itself, one quickly finds -- as is all too common in climate science -- that the strong public claims simply cannot be supported by the actual research, and the paper suffers from an obvious fatal error. Let's have a look.

The further one reads into the press release the further it deviates from the claim expressed in its title. The paper says the following about attribution of loss trends:
[A] high probability is assigned to climatic variations primarily driving the changes in normalized losses since 1970. Due to the chosen methodology, the current study has not been able to conclusively attribute the variability in severe thunderstorm forcing situations and losses to either natural climate variability or anthropogenic climate change.
Got that? The paper says nothing conclusive about attribution. It is not an "initial climate change footprint." It does not support the claim that "climate change effects increasingly influencing US thunderstorm losses."

In fact, the paper says much the opposite: attribution of losses to climate change was not achieved in the paper. Perhaps the media is getting wise to these games, because there has been almost no media coverage of the sensational claim trumpeted in the headline of the press release put out a few days ago -- a claim, which if it were correct, would deserve broad coverage.

But it gets worse.

The paper argues that the causal mechanism leading to greater thunderstorm variability is the frequent claim that it is the consequence of an atmosphere holding more water vapor:
Trapp et al. (2007, 2009) have found that climate-model-based projections display indications of a regime in which increasing specific humidity (as the main contributor to increasing CAPEml over time) increases the annual frequency of severe thunderstorm environments (defined by the product of CAPEml and DLS) in a transient climate model experiment since 1950.
The paper further explains:
As a precondition of rising CAPEml, monthly observations of near surface specific humidity during the period 1973–1999 (HadCRUH, Peterson et al. 2011) show a clear increase in the Northern Hemisphere. In eastern North America this increase equals 3.6 (±2.7) %. This was shown to be in coarse statistical agreement with the results from (anthropogenically forced) GCM runs over this period (Willett et al. 2010).
It is here where the reader of the paper might find themself being taken for a fool.

Willett et al. 2010, the source cited by SEFS13, provides estimates for changes in "near surface specific humidity" for a large number of regions around the world, as shown in the figure below.
Eastern North America, which is cited explicitly in SEFS13, is found where you would expect it and is labelled ENA. You might wonder why SEFS13 did not say anything about CNA- Central North America, which is otherwise known as "tornado alley." I sure did.

Immediately below is a zoomed-in image of North America taken from the image above. Immediately below that I show Figure 1 from SEFS13 -- which shows the location of the normalized loss events included in its study -- with my overlay of the Willetts et al. 2010 CNA region (which stretches from the Florida panhandle to the Texas panhandle, and then goes north to the Canadian border through eastern Colorado) highlighted as the transparent blue box.

You can clearly see that the vast majority of normalized US thunderstorm losses actually occurs in Central North America -- CNA. This conclusion is insensitive to small errors in the mapping of the CNA region onto SEFS13 Figure 1.

So, what do Willetts et al. 2010 actually say about changes in "near surface specific humidity" in the CNA region 1973-1999?

It is not hard to find as it appears in the same table as the ENA data which was reported by SEFS13. In fact, it appears in the row just above. It says that there has been no change in "near surface specific humidity" in Central North America 1973 to 1999. The numbers are 1.9 (±4.1) %. Surprised?

So let's recap:
  • Munich Re claimed to have discovered the first "climate change footprint" in economic loss data.
    • That was incorrect.
  • Munich Re claimed in the headline of the press released announcing SEFS13 that "climate change effects increasingly influencing US thunderstorms."
    • That turns out not to be supported by the paper, which actually concludes the opposite.
  • SEFS13 argues a causal mechanism between increasing humidity, thunderstorm variability and by extension, to normalized losses.
    • The paper fails to report that in the region where most US thunderstorm activity and damage has occurred, the data shows no change in humidity 1973 to 1999 -- undercutting its core argument. The paper reports data for an accompanying region where there has been an increase in humidity, but very few losses.
Misleading public claims. An over-hyped press release. A paper which neglects to include materially relevant and contradictory information central to its core argument. All in all, just a normal day in climate science!

09 April 2013

Planetary Boundaries as Millenarian Prophesies: A Guest Post by Steve Rayner

This is a guest post by Steve Rayner, Oxford University, and is distilled from a forthcoming book chapter that Steve has co-authored with Clare Heyward, also of Oxford University. The full citation is (and please see the original for the broader argument and references):
S. Rayner and C. Heyward, 2013 (in press). The Inevitability of Nature as a Rhetorical Resource, Chapter 14 in Kerstin Hastrup (editor),  Anthropology and Nature (Routledge, London).
This post follows up an earlier discussion of the politics of planetary boundaries on this blog here and a critique and follow on discussion here.

Planetary Boundaries as Millenarian Prophesies

by Steve Rayner

The idea that we are collectively on the brink of overstepping “planetary boundaries” that will render civilization unsustainable has been prominently propounded by a group of scholars around Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. In common with other scientific catastrophists, Rockström et al make much of the claim by Nobel prizewinning chemist, Paul Crutzen (2002) that the earth has entered a new geological period, the Anthropocene “in which human actions have become the main driver of global change” that “could see human activities push the Earth system outside the stable environment state of the Holocene with consequences that are detrimental or even catastrophic for large parts of the world” (Rockström et al 2009:472). A few sentences further on they assert that:
Many subsystems of Earth react in a non-linear, often abrupt, way and are particularly sensitive around the threshold levels of certain key variables. If these variables are crossed then important subsystems, such as a monsoon system, could shift into a new state, often with deleterious or potentially even disastrous consequences of humans…. Most of these thresholds can be defined by a critical value for one or more control variables, such as carbon dioxide concentrations.
The authors go on to identify nine such planetary boundaries, two of which, the nitrogen cycle and biodiversity loss, they claim have already been transgressed with climate change rapidly approaching the point of no return.

Subsequently, 18 past winners of the Blue Planet Prize published a report warning that civilization faces a “perfect storm” of ecological problems driven by overpopulation, overconsumption, and environmentally damaging technologies (Bruntland et al 2012). These ideas echo the Malthusian arguments of the Limits-to- Growth, Small-is-Beautiful movements of the 1960s and 70s. The notion of impending cataclysmic events with dystopian outcomes is frequently invoked not only by environmental NGOs but also by policymakers in highly public forums. Examples include the UNFCCC, the World Economic Forum in Davos, the European Parliament, and recently at Planet Under Pressure, a major conference in London designed to feed into the 2012 Rio Plus 20 summit, which opened with one of the Blue Planet prize winners setting the catastrophist tone. “Reality” and “nature” were frequently invoked as the impetus for radical action. In the words of Anne Glover, the Chief Science Advisor to the European Commission, “The facts just are.” All the while, “society” was blamed for failing to respond to the urgent messages of scientists and campaigners, and social scientists chided for failing to market the natural scientists’ warnings effectively.

The rhetoric employed in the plenary sessions was especially striking in its efforts to establish the present as a uniquely defining moment for the future of humanity requiring urgent action on a global scale which seems slow in coming. Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom declared that, “We have never faced a challenge this big.” Johan Rockström drove home the point claiming that “We are the first generation to know we are truly putting the future of civilization at risk.” Apparently, those who lived through the Second World War or the prospect of mutual nuclear annihilation in the 1960s were deluded in their estimation of the challenge they faced or the consequences for civilization, to say nothing of Old Testament prophets who only had the authority of God that destruction was imminent if people did not mend their wicked ways. Lest there be any doubt that behavioural change was the goal, Dutch political scientist Frank Biermann spelled out the imperative that “The Anthropocene requires new thinking” and “The Anthropocene requires new lifestyles.”

Indeed, the rhetorics of the Anthropocene, tipping points, and planetary limits have all three characteristic features of traditional millenarianism that I identified in an early study of the credibility of millenarian prophesies among small Marxist splinter groups, long before I turned my attention to environmental issues (Rayner 1982). These are the foreshortening of time (the claim that catastrophe is imminent), the compression of space (the assertion that the earth is a closed system), and an egalitarian concern for the plight of the weak and vulnerable.

In keeping with egalitarian advocacy, a radical redistribution of certain key resources is needed: the dramatic cut in the use of fossil fuels upon which industrialised economies are based. Moreover the advocates’ preferred strategy is presented as the only course of action that will let humanity avoid its fate.

At first sight, the contemporary resurgence in catastrophist thinking might be understood as a response to improvements in our understanding of critical earth systems resulting from research-led improvements in scientific understanding. However, I have not been able to identify any new empirical studies to justify the claim that, “Although Earth’s complex systems sometimes respond smoothly to changing pressures, it seems that this will prove to be the exception rather than the rule.” (Rockström et al 2009:472). Leading ecologists have long suggested that the general assertions of systems theorists that “everything is connected to everything else” and “you can’t change just one thing” are actually less robust than is often claimed. It seems that most species in many ecosystems are actually quite redundant and can be removed without any loss of overall ecosystems character or function (e.g., Lawton 1991, but for a contrasting view, see Gitay et al 1996). While it is doubtless the case that there are many non-linear relationships in natural systems, it is another matter as to whether non-linearity dominates and whether we should, as a matter of course, expect to find tipping points everywhere. Indeed, a recent review challenges Rockström et al.’s claims, arguing that out of the planetary boundaries posited, only three genuinely represent truly global biophysical thresholds, the passing of which could be expected to result in non-linear changes (Blomqvist et al, 2012).

The same report also challenges the idea that the planetary boundaries constitute “non-negotiable thresholds”. The identification of the planetary boundaries is dependent on the normative assumptions made, for example, concerning the value of biodiversity and the desirability of the Holocene. Rather than non-negotiables, humanity faces a system of trade-offs - not only economic, but moral and aesthetic as well. Deciding how to balance these trade-offs is a matter of political contestation (Blomqvist et al, 2012:37). What counts as “unacceptable environmental change” is not a matter of scientific fact, but involves judgments concerning the value of the things to be affected by the potential changes. The framing of planetary boundaries as being scientifically derived non-negotiable limits, obscures the inherent normativity of deciding how to react to environmental change. Presenting human values as facts of nature is an effective political strategy to shut down debate.

08 April 2013

Global Insured Catastrophe Losses from Aon Benfield

In a recent report on reinsurance Aon Benfield (here in PDF) includes the graph shown above which shows insured catastrophe losses worldwide as a proportion of GDP. Such a graph is not equivalent to a loss normalization of the sort that I often show. However, it does show that the re/insurance industries have managed (by design or by outcome) insured catastrophe losses such that there has not been a statistically significant trend in losses/GDP 1960 - 2011.

For those interested in weather-related losses (total, not just insured) at the global scale here is that data.

Climate Predictions as Double-Edged Sword

Recently The Economist caused a stir by featuring the recent slowdown in global temperatures, illustrated above and described as follows (see also The Telegraph):
Temperatures fluctuate over short periods, but this lack of new warming is a surprise. Ed Hawkins, of the University of Reading, in Britain, points out that surface temperatures since 2005 are already at the low end of the range of projections derived from 20 climate models (see chart 1). If they remain flat, they will fall outside the models’ range within a few years.

The mismatch between rising greenhouse-gas emissions and not-rising temperatures is among the biggest puzzles in climate science just now. It does not mean global warming is a delusion. Flat though they are, temperatures in the first decade of the 21st century remain almost 1°C above their level in the first decade of the 20th. But the puzzle does need explaining.

The mismatch might mean that—for some unexplained reason—there has been a temporary lag between more carbon dioxide and higher temperatures in 2000-10. Or it might be that the 1990s, when temperatures were rising fast, was the anomalous period. Or, as an increasing body of research is suggesting, it may be that the climate is responding to higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in ways that had not been properly understood before. This possibility, if true, could have profound significance both for climate science and for environmental and social policy.
The fact that the atmosphere is not warming in line with climate model predictions let The Economist to state rather provocatively:
If climate scientists were credit-rating agencies, climate sensitivity would be on negative watch. But it would not yet be downgraded.
The responses have been predictably tribal.  Below I reproduce a blog post that my father and I wrote back in 2006 warning advocates of action not to put too many bets on the short-term evolution of the climate system based on climate model predictions. Like experience with credit-rating agencies, surprises could have been avoided.
Big Time Gambling With Multi-Decadal Global Climate Model Predictions
Roger A. Pielke Sr. and Roger A. Pielke Jr.
8 August 2006

Many advocates for action on climate change, including the IPCC assessments and recent documentaries have promoted a view that global warming will continue through the 21st century, with global warming defined as a steady increase in global average temperatures. This prediction of warming is based on the output of multi-decadal general circulation models and is primarily due to the radiative forcing effect of anthropogenic emissions of CO2. In such models only relatively minor year-to-year variations in global average temperatures are forecast in the upward trend, except when major volcanic eruptions cause short-term (up to a few years) of global cooling. For example, see these projections of the most recent IPCC — none of the models has an obvious multi-year (i.e., >2) decrease in global average temperatures over the next century.

Such predictions represent a huge gamble with public and policymaker opinion. If more-or-less steady global warming does not occur as forecast by these models, not only will professional reputations be at risk, but the need to reduce threats to the wide spectrum of serious and legitimate environmental concerns (including the human release of greenhouse gases) will be questioned by some as having been oversold. For better or worse, a failure to accurately predict the changes in the global average surface temperature, global average tropospheric temperature, ocean average heat content change, or Arctic sea ice coverage would raise questions on the reliance of global climate models for accurate prediction on multi-decadal time scales. Surprises or experience that evolve outside the bounds of model output would likely raise questions even among some of those who have so far accepted the IPCC reports as a balanced presentation of climate science. (for a perspective different than the IPCC on applications of climate models see this).

The National Research Council published a report in 2002 entitled “Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises” (of which RP2 was a committee member). The report raised the issues of surprises in the climate system. One of the surprises (to many) may be that the global climate models are simply unable to accurately predict the variability and trends in the climate metrics that have been adopted to communicate human-caused climate change to policymakers. Among the climate metrics with the most public visibility are the long term trends in global average surface temperature, global average tropospheric temperature, summer arctic sea ice areal coverage, and ocean heat content.

There is some emerging empirical evidence to suggest, however, that the concerns expressed here are worth consideration. The recent dramatic cooling of the average heat content of the upper oceans, and thus a significant negative radiative imbalance of the climate system for at least a two year period, that was mentioned in the Climate Science weblog posting of July 27, 2006, should be a wake-up call to the climate community that the focus on predictive modeling as the framework to communicate to policymakers on climate policy has serious issues as to its ability to accurately predict the behavior of the climate system. No climate model that we are aware of has anticipated such a significant cooling, nor is able to reproduce such a significant negative radiative imbalance. Meaningless distinctions between “projections” and “predictions” will be unlikely to convince consumers of climate models to overlook experience that does not jibe with modeled output.

There is no greater danger to support for action on important issues of human impacts on the environment than an overselling of what climate science can provide. If the climate behaves in ways that are unexpected or surprising it will be more than just credibility that is lost. Advocates for action should think carefully when gambling with the unknown predictive abilities of climate models. The human influence on the climate system is real, but the climate may not always cooperate.

04 April 2013

Planetary Boundaries as Power Grab

UPDATE2: 8 April, Victor Galaz, of the Stockholm Resilience Center, says that this post is focused on a straw man. Read his response here and we start a discussion in the comments here.
UPDATE: 5 April, in the comments Melissa Leach weighs in with further thoughts.

Writing at the Huffington Post UK, Melissa Leach, Director of the STEPS Centre at Sussex University, asks a provocative question:
When the cover of the Economist famously announced 'Welcome to the anthropocene' a couple of years ago, was it welcoming us to a new geological epoch, or a dangerous new world of undisputed scientific authority and anti-democratic politics?
The occasion for raising this question was Prof. Leach's participation last month in a United Nations meeting of experts on the development of new sustainable development goals. Leach describes a meeting in which scientific authority was invoked as the basis for closing down debates over policy and asserting the preeminent roles of experts in charting a course for future global development.
This meeting - and many others like it in the run up to September - raise a significant question: Is there a contradiction between the world of the anthropocene, and democracy? The anthropocene, with its associated concepts of planetary boundaries and 'hard' environmental threats and limits, encourage a focus on clear single goals and solutions. It is co-constructed with ideas of scientific authority and incontrovertible evidence; with the closing down of uncertainty or at least its reduction into clear, manageable risks and consensual messages.

This is a far cry - as a South African participant pointed out - from some other worlds: on the ground in the global south and north, where people and social movements debate and contest their interests, values and desired futures; and the world according to democratic theory, in which such politics are worth acknowledging and respecting. In this world, there is a need to open up, make uncertainty and ambiguity and dissensus explicit, and foster diversity to cope with it.
The basis for the power grab by the experts -- really old wine in new bottles -- is the fashionable idea of "planetary boundaries" which holds that there are hard and fast ecological limits within which human activity must be constrained. The concept is much contested scientifically -- such as in this excellent review by my colleagues at The Breakthrough Institute.

However, as an instrument of scientific authority in political debates the concept of planetary boundaries could not be more perfect. Frank Biermann of VU University Amsterdam, explains (here in PDF):
Since the assessment of planetary boundaries is inherently political, scientists involved in this process become inadvertently also political actors. This raises fundamental questions about the legitimacy and accountability of scientific assessment processes . . .
For the proponents of planetary boundaries as political authority, issues of legitimacy and accountability are easily dealt with through the incontestable authority of science. Consequently, they argue that the tradition conception of sustainable development as a challenge of trading off competing values -- environmental, social, economic -- needs instead to be rethought in hierarchical terms. They explain and illustrate the need as follows (from this recent paper in Nature in PDF).:
[W]e need to reframe the UN paradigm of three pillars of sustainable development — economic, social and environmental — and instead view it as a nested concept.
In the hierarchical axiology, the trump values are defined by the planetary boundaries.

Who, you may ask, is responsible for identifying and enforcing those values? Why, the experts, of course. The power implications of planetary boundaries were spelled out explicitly by several of its leading advocates as follows:
Ultimately, there will need to be an institution (or institutions) operating, with authority, above the level of individual countries to ensure that the planetary boundaries are respected. In effect, such an institution, acting on behalf of humanity as a whole, would be the ultimate arbiter of the myriad trade-offs that need to be managed as nations and groups of people jockey for economic and social advantage. It would, in essence, become the global referee on the planetary playing field.
The political model that underlies the power grab of scientists is one of "trusteeship" a form of which was described by PIK's John Schellnhuber, an early advocate of the planetary boundaries model of global politics, in Der Spiegel:
Ultimately only democratic societies will be able to master this challenge, notwithstanding their torturous decision-marking processes. But to get there perhaps we'll need innovative refinement of our democratic institutions. I could imagine assigning 10 percent of all seats in parliament to ombudsmen who represent only the interests of future generations.
An expert body of the German government memorialized the political philosophy in a comic book (illustrated below, here in PDF), complete with the scientist (Schellnhuber himself in this case) symbolically above the policy maker, describing a planetary boundary condition and as a consequence, President Obama in the panel below expressing concern that action is needed.
A real-world example of the implications of the planetary boundaries political philosophy is vividly seen through the issue of global energy access. Future global development, at least in the short term, necessarily will involve trade offs between expanded use of carbon-emitting fossil fuels and the expansion of energy access to the world's poorest. The planetary boundaries advocates, consistent with their hierarchical values framework, call for "universal clean energy" and recommend development targets focused not on measuring expanded energy access, but rather carbon dioxide emissions (here in PDF).

In other words, expanded energy access to the world's poorest is deemed acceptable only if it first satisfies the demands of planetary boundaries -- in other words, the political demands of the scientists couched in the inviolable authority of science. As Shellenhuber explains:
I have nothing against economic growth, as long as it does not break through the planetary guardrails.
In a recent essay, Nico Stehr, of Zeppelin University, characterizes dissatisfaction about democracy among climate experts, and explains the general underlying perspective:
Consensus on facts, it is argued, should motivate a consensus on politics. The constitutive social, political and economic uncertainties are treated as minor obstacles that need to be delimited as soon as possible - of course by a top-down approach. . . the discourse of the impatient scientists privileges hegemonic players such as world powers, states, transnational organizations, and multinational corporations. Participatory strategies are only rarely in evidence. Likewise, global mitigation has precedence over local adaptation. “Global” knowledge triumphs over “local” knowledge. . . the sum of these considerations is the conclusion that democracy itself is inappropriate, that the slow procedures for implementation and management of specific, policy-relevant scientific knowledge leads to massive, unknown dangers. The democratic system designed to balance divergent interests has failed in the face of these threats.
Stehr's explanation aptly summarizes the play book used by the experts at the United Nations meeting described by Leach in their efforts to assert authority over high level decisions on the future course of global development. Leach ends her essay with an ominous warning:
[T]he human rights and well-being that are under threat in the anthropocene may prove not just to be material rights to food, water and energy, but also rights to voice, priorities, perspectives and culturally-embedded ways of life.

02 April 2013

James Hansen: Responsible Scientist and Advocate

Via the New York Times, James Hansen, long time NASA scientist and advocate for action on climate change, announced that he was retiring from the government:
His departure, after a 46-year career at the space agency’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan, will deprive federally sponsored climate research of its best-known public figure.

At the same time, retirement will allow Dr. Hansen to press his cause in court. He plans to take a more active role in lawsuits challenging the federal and state governments over their failure to limit emissions, for instance, as well as in fighting the development in Canada of a particularly dirty form of oil extracted from tar sands.

“As a government employee, you can’t testify against the government,” he said in an interview.
Hansen's scientific contributions while at NASA are notable and will no doubt be reflected upon elsewhere. Here I focus on Hansen's evolution from staid government bureaucrat -- clean shaven in a blue suit to a stylish icon, complete with signature hat and Amish beard -- to passionate advocate who no longer wants to work for government but seeks to change it.

Over the years Hansen has experimented with many approaches to advocacy, including at times some heavy flirtation with varieties of stealth advocacy that ultimately saps the authority of science. But in the end, Hansen seems to have gotten it right. He is first and foremost a democrat, and has decided to participate in the most noble of democratic traditions through public advocacy for what he values.

As I chronicle in The Climate Fix, Hansen first burst upon the public scene in a 1988 Congressional hearing on climate change organized by Senators Al Gore and Tim Wirth. I recount this important episode in the elevation of climate as a political issue:
The hearing that day was carefully stage-managed to present a bit of political theater, as was later explained by Senator Tim Wirth (D-CO), who served alongside Gore in the Senate and, like Gore, was also interested in the topic of global warming. “We called the Weather Bureau and found out what historically was the hottest day of the summer. Well, it was June 6th or June 9th or whatever it was. So we scheduled the hearing that day, and bingo, it was the hottest day on record in Washington, or close to it. What we did is that we went in the night before and opened all the windows, I will admit, right, so that the air conditioning wasn't working inside the room.”

The star witness that day was Dr. James Hansen, a NASA scientist who had been studying climate since the 1960s. Hansen had decided that “it was time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here and is affecting our climate.” Hansen emphasized three points in his testimony: First, that “the earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time in the history of instrumental measurements;” second, “global warming is now large enough that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship” to the emission of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide; and third, the consequences are “already large enough to begin to affect the probability of extreme events such as summer heat waves.” The hearing’s public impact surely must have exceeded even its organizers expectations, as the of the temperature in the room and the scorching weather outside resulted in Hansen’s testimony receiving wide coverage in the national and international media.
It was less than a year later in 1989 when Hansen appeared on the front page of the New York Times after going public with complaints that the Office of Management and Budget (under George H. W. Bush) had altered his testimony before Congress. At the time the NYT reported:
Dr. Hansen's testimony, before it was changed, would have given strong support to the position that while there are still many uncertainities, enough is known now about the general and even regional effects of the global warming trend to start acting now to mitigate and prepare for those effects. . .

''I should be allowed to say what is my scientific position; there is no rationale by which O.M.B. should be censoring scientific opinion,'' Dr. Hansen insisted. ''I can understand changing policy, but not science.''
The episode would foreshadow decades of skirmishes at the intersection of climate science and policy, and the efforts by advocates on both sides of the debate -- those calling for aggressive action and those opposed -- to wage their political battles through climate science. In such debates what counts as a matter of science versus a matter of policy was often blurred, strategically so, which helped contribute to the deep politicization of climate science.

Along the way, Hansen has progressively become more and more overt in his political advocacy reflecting at least a change in tactics if not a change in outlook. Thus, his resignation from NASA was probably inevitable, if belated.
In 2004, following an extended set of skirmishes with the administration of George W. Bush over access to media and responsibilities of government officials ability to comment on government policy, Hansen gave a public lecture in Iowa in advance of the presidential election between Bush and John Kerry.

Hansen explained in his book, Storms of My Grandchildren, how he had hoped that the talk  might be a first domino that helped to influence the election outcome (p. 95):
I did not expect my talk to alter votes in the upcoming election. Yet, in the back of my mind I wondered: What if this public lecture leads to publicity and debate, and Professor [James] Van Allen indicates agreement with my position? Given his reputation, it might influence fence-sitters in Iowa . . .

Iowa is a "purple" state, sometimes voting Republican, sometimes Democratic. It was conceivable that Iowa might be pivotal in the presidential election. I had decided to mention my preference for John Kerry over George W. Bush, based on their positions over climate and energy.
Hansen explains how he sent an advance copy of the speech to the New York Times Andy Revkin who subsequently reported on the speech, highlighting Hansen's conflicts with the Bush Administration and endorsement of Kerry. Despite the national visibility and conveyance of his endorsement, Iowa and the election both went to George W. Bush.

In his book Hansen characterizes himself (and fellow traveler Steve Schneider) in religious movement terms and expresses repeated frustration that his political efforts -- which included the sending of strongly worded letters to world leaders -- had not paid off in the sorts of action that he would have liked to see. Yet, Hansen had become a movement icon and enjoyed remarkable access to leading policy makers, of the sort that is virtually unprecedented among the scientific community.
For instance, in 2007 Hansen wrote letters to UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel calling for those countries to take specific actions on climate change. Hansen reflected after the fact that he hoped that his arguments would be found convincing to Merkel on the weight of their merits and against the wishes of her government (p. 179):
Merkel was trained as a physicist, and I hoped that rather than relying on advisers, she would be willing to think about the problem herself. I figured she would be able to appreciate the geophysical boundary conditions, the conclusion that most of the coal must be left in the ground.
Hansen was advised by German scientists close to government that the best route to influence policy was to speak to the environment minister. Remarkably, Hansen was subsequently granted a 90 minute session with the German environment minister, Sigmar Gabriel, arranged by John Schellnhuber (who also served as a Merkel advisor) and Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

With Gabriel, Hansen found a receptive audience to his summary of climate science and the need to stabilize carbon dioxide at 350 parts per million. There were no debates over the science. "The sticking point," Hansen recounted, "was the implication: the need to halt coal emissions." Hansen was quickly learning about the realities of democratic systems and the fact that scientific authority does not compel action. Gabriel, of course, is famous for explaining that “You can build 100 coal-fired power plants and don’t have to have higher CO2 emissions,” due to the magic of emissions trading. Germany's coal use has expanded since Hansen's audience with the minister.

Hansen's initial reactions to the failure of world leaders to follow his guidance was, ironically enough, to blame their intransigence on a failure of democracy. Hansen explained to The Guardian in 2009:
"The democratic process doesn't quite seem to be working. The first action that people should take is to use the democratic process. What is frustrating people, me included, is that democratic action affects elections but what we get then from political leaders is greenwash.

The democratic process is supposed to be one person one vote, but it turns out that money is talking louder than the votes. So, I'm not surprised that people are getting frustrated. I think that peaceful demonstration is not out of order, because we're running out of time."
The irony in Hansen's view is of course that the governments that he was deriding over their supposed democratic failures were expressing the preferences of democractically-elected officials rather than one man's pleas (a foreigner, no less) for action grounded in his claims to the authority of science. Hansen even went so far as to call for his political opponents to be put on trial, as the NY Times reports, "He has repeatedly called for trying the most vociferous climate-change deniers for “crimes against humanity."

Perhaps it was the realization that calls for action originating in authority were not going to trump the realities of democratic governance. Perhaps it was something else. But at some point Hansen changed tack.
Since 2009 Hansen has been arrested a half-dozen times for civil disobedience at protests against individual fossil fuel projects, marking a sharp departure from his earlier efforts to sway world leaders based on his authority as a scientist. The NY Times explains:
In the absence of such a broad [climate] policy, Dr. Hansen has been lending his support to fights against individual fossil fuel projects. Students lured him to a coal protest in 2009, and he was arrested for the first time. That fall he was cited again after sleeping overnight in a tent on the Boston Common with students trying to pressure Massachusetts into passing climate legislation.
Such overt advocacy for government action, grounded in shared values is the lifeblood of democracy.

Hansen will of course face criticism for his actions and for the specific policies that he advocates, some of it well deserved. However, one thing that Hansen can no longer be accused of is using science as a cover for seeking political ends. Hansen's lifelong journey to passionate advocate has arrived at a place where he shows respect for both democratic practices and for the role of science in democracy.

Best wishes to Jim Hansen as he takes on new challenges!

Raise your Integrity

At the Financial Post (Canada) Ross McKitrick has a very good op-ed on the Marcott mess and its larger consequences:
In recent years there have been a number of cases in which high-profile papers from climate scientists turned out, on close inspection, to rely on unseemly tricks, fudges and/or misleading analyses. After they get uncovered in the blogosphere, the academic community rushes to circle the wagons an denounce any criticism as "denialism." There's denialism going on all right -- on the part of scientists who don't see that their continuing defence of these kind of practices exacts a toll on the public credibility of their field.
The problems lie of course not the academic community as a whole but a vocal and aggressive subset, egged on by an uncritical media and a chorus of fellow travelers. Most of the community are solid scientists, who strive to do good work. But the public face of climate science is represented by the most vocal and politicized elements. As readers here know, I could write a book about the unseemly shenanigans that have gone on in the area of disasters and climate change.

The climate community won't fix this situation until practicing scientists start publicly saying enough is enough. Perhaps the upcoming generation of academics will be the ones to do so. Meantime, deviations from long-held norms of scientific integrity deserve to be called out loudly for what they are.