Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sunday Snippets - mainly climate change and the need for middle ground

This is the first of two photos from ABC New England North West that made me smile. They were taken at Red Range on the New England Tablelands. The second will follow in a moment.

This morning's post is a meander with a special focus on what other bloggers are saying.

In Where are the sandwiches of yesteryear?, marcellous mourns the loss of Sydney Opera House sandwiches (among other things).This is followed by a rather nice review, Berg, Bruckner, Dohnanyi, of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performance that was associated with the lost sandwiches.

It is a truth universally acknowledged - I do like that phrase however hackneyed it may have become - that I am not a music buff. marcellous makes me wish that I were!

This is the second photo. You may see why I laughed. There is a strong toilet theme in Australian humour. The dunny has been the source of many jokes.

The decision on who should build Australia's next submarines is close. According to a story in the Interpreter, the Japanese bid looks sunk. If so, that would be a real turn around after earlier remarks by the then PM Tony Abbott.

In On-line Opinion, Don Aitkin repeated a piece from his blog ‘But aren’t 97 per cent of climate scientists sure that humans are causing global warming?’ The phrasing gives the answer. I think that Don has a point, but I do get so sick of certain elements of the debate.

As I write, 171 countries have ratified the Paris Climate treaty, so it now has the effect of law, if with considerable ambiguities and uncertainties. One of the points I tried to make in the context of the Abbott Government's actions was a very simple one: regardless of one's views on the overall issue, there was a global consensus that action needed to be taken. That was a reality that had to be recognised. In those circumstances, it made no sense in policy terms to dismantle the Australian emissions trading architecture since some form of emissions trading seemed likely to emerge at global level. The Government could achieve its policy objectives in another way.

There was never any chance that my view would be accepted, the politics dictated otherwise, but I remain convinced that my position was sensible in public policy terms.

Moving beyond this point, the thing that I find so difficult lies in the way so many things get confused together to the point that it can be difficult to have a sensible conversation.

Is climate change happening? Quite possibly. There is actually more consensus on this than would appear at first sight, a consensus concealed by the debate about causes. Those attacking the current climate change orthodoxy point to past examples of climate change. Essentially, it has occurred, will occur, One consequence of this interest is an expansion in our knowledge of past climate.

This is something that I am personally interested in and do write about, especially in an Australian context. When I first studied history, I more or less, mostly more, took climate as a given. I am now much more sensitive to the impact of climate variations on human history, both short and long term. We also know just so much more about past climates. I would count this as a real plus of the focus on climate change, although knowledge and awareness was expanding before the climate change debate became so intense.

Within the debate about climate change, the thing that I am most interested in is the question of sea level changes, for that is arguably the most important element both directly, how it affects land surfaces, and indirectly, how it affects climate. We know that sea level changes are often slow, but can also happen quite suddenly and dramatically. Some of the evidence, or at least the reporting on the evidence, would appear to suggest that we may be about to experience quite dramatic sea level changes. I would like to know more about this.

Once we move from the question of whether climate change is happening and what it might mean, we then go to the question of causes. Here I am inclined to accept the argument of human induced causes. I just don't think that we can pimp so much stuff into the atmosphere without effect, and the warming effect of certain gasses appears to be well established. However, I don't know how much of the changes can be attributed to human action, how much to other factors. So now we have two uncertainties, those associated with the extent of climate change, those associated with cause.

Then we come to the desired responses to all this. Here I simply despair, for we have entered the role of theology, of beliefs, rather than science. Long ago in the context of Sydney water restrictions, I wrote of the way that climate change was being used to justify very silly policy positions. Now it's gone to extremes, especially on the environmentalist side.

We live in a world dominated by two existential positions.

One says climate change is happening, it's a disaster. it's human induced and therefore we must take whatever steps are necessary to solve the problem, and this includes the following steps Fit in here whatever position you like. A second says we don't know if climate change is happening, if it is happening we don't know that it's human induced as compared to a natural phenomenon and, in any case, we don't know what to do about it. Fit in here opposition to any action at all. There can be no joining between these two extremes.

 For those of us who sit in the middle, life can be a tad uncomfortable.Ask questions on climate change and you are a deniest. Support coal mining and you are committing a moral sin notwithstanding price based arguments. In a reducing emissions world, you can still have coal mining if the emissions price is right. Coal mining is an economic, not moral, activity.  Alternatively, say climate change seems to be happening, it could well be human induced on the evidence, we need to do something about it, and you are a wet leftie.

It's all quite hard. In some of my writing, I have tried to define a position that says if it's happening, what might we do about it? How do we create structures that allow a fast, phased, response? What are the options we have? How do we use these changes to our advantage?  In answering the last, I tried to look especially at new land-use techniques that, intuitively, might offer special benefits.

I don't accept the position of a conflicted right, conflicted because the right's denial of climate change makes debate difficult,  that price based solutions are the sole answer, although I think that price based solutions are central. I don't accept the position of the left that we should ban on one side, subsidise on the other. Some of this is crazy stuff.

Idealistically, what I want is middle ground where we can have a sensible conversation.

I have sidetracked from my original idea of snippets based around a review of what other bloggers are saying. Sorry about that.


Unknown said...

I'm sorry to read Don Aiken repeating the hiatus argument. At least as I understand it, most climate scientists (geophysicists, just to take up his point about who is a climate scientist) agree that there was no hiatus. In fact the continuous rise in temperatures (because it peaks and troughs) enables denialists to continually declare a hiatus (now not a halt or a decline, which is a change from past positions) by shifting the base year. For example it used to be 1995. That doesn't work any more, so they've shifted it. Soon 2015 will be a base year because it was the hottest on record.

The policy point is considerably different. The cause is irrelevant, it's whether man-made actions can mitigate the problem. To argue by metaphor, it doesn't matter whether the bushfire was caused by a cigarette, an arsonist or a lightning strike. You get out the fire brigades now and worry about the cause later.

The hiatus argument says "Oh, it's stopped for a while, so we don't have to do anything for a while.". This ignores the longer term effects of things such stored heat in the oceans and a range of other factors. It ignores over 100 years of climbing temperatures, with hiatuses along the way, to suggest that a hiatus is equivalent to a call to down tools for a smoke-o. It says the firefront spread slower than yesterday, so the firies can go home.

Are scientists certain? Of course not - they are certain about various tools and methodologies. But their results are (or are not) statistically significant, not 100% cast iron guarantees. But when most of the evidence says we have a problem and that we may be able to address it through action, denying the problem for lack of certainty is a far more rigorous test that we apply to, say, Defence Force expenditure.

2 tanners said...

Oops. above comment: 2 tanners

Jim Belshaw said...

I think Don's position is more nuanced than that, 2t, although having to constantly argue a case is making him far more dogmatic with time, something that I haven't liked. In his earlier writing he accepted that climate change was occurring, that it might be due to human influence, but was strongly focused on what he saw as misuse of evidence, the development of a group mind (my term) that crowded out, suppressed, alternative views. That was a worry for me too.

Since anybody who challenges the evidence is typed as a denialist, they get pushed into more extreme defensive positions. Research follows the money, so you had ever increasing sums that were really attempting to prove rather than test a position, I know enough about the use and abuse of complex models to be very cautious about conclusions and policy arguments based on those models. I am even more cautious about policy prescriptions that go to simple solutions based upon models, especially when they become enmeshed in ideological positions.

I would be far more comfortable with the research if not the results on things like sea level changes if they were not so much couched in terms of proving a point. Are sea levels rising because of Antarctic melt is a very different question from saying that that the Antarctic melt is due to climate change and therefore justifies certain actions. The first is more easily measurable. Establish the first and then look at causes and responses.

It becomes all very difficult.

Anonymous said...

tanners: Are scientists certain? Of course not - they are certain about various tools and methodologies. But their results are (or are not) statistically significant, not 100% cast iron guarantees. But when most of the evidence says we have a problem and that we may be able to address it through action, denying the problem for lack of certainty is a far more rigorous test that we apply to, say, Defence Force expenditure.

Santae Tribble: served 28 years for a murder based on FBI testimony about a single strand of hair. He was exonerated in 2012. It was later revealed that one of the hairs presented at trial came from a dog.

I look at what tanners writes, and then the result of what one would think a far less complex 'scientific' examination. I have no arguement with 'climate is changing', but I think the possibility of 'human rectification/abatement' is simply quite laughable.

But there's a dollar or two to be made, so I guess we useful fools will be coerced into paying for it.


2 tanners said...

I look at what tanners writes, and then the result of what one would think a far less complex 'scientific' examination. I have no arguement with 'climate is changing', but I think the possibility of 'human rectification/abatement' is simply quite laughable.

I'm not sure why you say this, kvd. I'm sure you can elucidate. My point was simply that we are going to spend tens of billions on military kit (Joint strike fighter, submarines) for an unproven threat, but shouldn't spend a cent on climate change because we don't know definitively who caused it. Different standards of proof are being applied.

On the Tribble case, the FBI deliberately misrepresented the science (and left the City of Washington DC to pay $13.2 million in compensation to him). Tribble’s case and the others helped trigger a federal review that in April disclosed that FBI examiners systematically overstated testimony in nearly all hair match cases against criminal defendants for two decades before 2000. Now this may or may not be the case for climate scientists, but certainly one of the talking points for the denial side is that there is a grand conspiracy doing just this - overstating evidence for personal gain.

But now Don Aitkin is arguing the whether toss on climate is changing, and in a pretty crude manner. 1. He points out that Einstein poo-pooed the "100 scientists against Einstein", saying if there was only one who was right, that would be enough Aitkin supports this. 2. Aitkin then spends the rest of the article trying to find out how many scientists support the existence of AGW, as if that means anything, rather than the evidence gathered. May as well be counting angels on the head of a pin for all the relevance the number has.

Anonymous said...

Geez tanners - you are either being deliberately obtuse, or have embraced the climate religion for reasons of your own.

All I suggested was that if such a single solitary thing as the analysis of hair samples resulted in a less than accurate result (I note you used the word 'deliberately' whereas I read the FBI's mea culpa as stating that examiners "exceeded the limits of science") then it might just be possible in such a complex area as climate science that the same thing might occur. Frankly, I take it as a given.

No rational person is suggesting "we shouldn't spend a cent". Where do you get stuff like that from?

My only point is that the 'cents' we are in fact spending, or being exhorted to spend, are possibly ill-directed. For example, who was that idiot scientist who got Australian of the Year, and in return we got several now mothballed desalination plants around Australia, because "the dams were going to run dry"?

Yesterday there was a report noted on the ABC website that the Earth is greening quite significantly. Now before you get back on your high horse, can I just mention my only reason for raising this is that the highly accredited botanist/biologist ended his interview by saying that basically while this might be a 'good thing' we shouldn't relax because the icecaps were melting and we'd all be drowned. So, now he's an expert glaciologist?

Jim is right; there seems no middle ground to be discussed, and you have just proved his point. My simple wish is that these billions you wish to spend be directed to living with (and reacting to) climate change effects, rather than the nonsense of somehow 'reversing' it.


Anonymous said...

The investigation into the FBI did find that the results had been deliberately misdescribed to the jurors. It was not a fault in the science, was my point. The investigation found a pattern of misdirecting juries going back to the introduction of hair sample technology in 2000.

I get the "shouldn't spend a cent" from the following quote: "It doesn’t make sense, though, to impose certain and substantial costs on the economy now in order to avoid unknown and perhaps even benign changes in the future." Tony Abbott, Battlelines.

I wasn't suggesting putting billions into climate technologies. I have always thought that education and health should be our priorities.

George Brandis has argued that the science is not settled. As a result, funding should be cut. And those who believed the science was settled should agree because if the science is settled we don't need climate scientists. At least one other Government minister concurs.

The arguments presented above seems to require a much higher standard of proof than for large military purchases, or for that matter, tax cuts to various parts of society. You can certainly say in that regard that the economics is not settled.

And as for "the nonsense of somehow 'reversing' it", I'm not sure where you draw the conclusion that it is a nonsense, nor how addressing climate change (my terminology) does not include living with and potentially mitigating some of the effects.

Anonymous said...

tanners, you have 6 paras. Addressing each in turn:

1) So we agree that such science as was available was somehow subverted/diverted to support a position which later proved unjustifiable? I'm not interested in motive; just the outcome.

2) So "shouldn't spend a cent" is from a guy who wasn't then the PM, and who now isn't the PM - but let's regard that as a cudgel.

3) Understood, and accepted.

4) Yes, I also smiled at that: "the science is settled!"; "Rightio, so we don't need to spend any more money on proving it?". It is possible to admire a strategy but disagree with the outcome.

5) You seem to be saying here that the effects of climate change upon Australia constitute a more imminent threat to Australia than potential military conflicts within our region? I accept this as your opinion, but I disagree. Not sure where we can go from there.

6) So, you honestly believe that we might somehow 'reverse' (as opposed to plan for living with) the effects of climate change?

Now, Jim is interested in the threat of sea level rise - but on a timescale involving more than a few years. Let's just look at the results of sudden (and I mean, really sudden!) sea level rises - in very recent memory:

2004 Indian Ocean: 30 metres; estimated deaths 230,000

Climate change worst case scenario: "If all the land ice on the planet were to melt, it would raise sea levels about 197 feet (60 m)"

Both are very bad - horrible, dreadful - but the first was very real, while the second is a worst case, future, scenario. Not to split hairs... :)


2 tanners said...

1. Yes
2. The reference was to 'no rational person'. I have never thought Mr Abbott irrational, even if some of his judgement calls were poor. Then there were all those who voted for his policy platform...
3. thanks, appreciated.
4. It was that, on top of his position that the science ISN'T settled. He must have been grinning from ear to ear at that one.
5. No, I didn't say that. What I said was that the proof required to spend money at even the same level on climate and the proof to lash out tens of billions on extra defence assets seemed to require the climate folks to jump through hoops not even presented to defence. I was trying to say that if we are to assert that policy is based on evidence, let's at least impose similar levels of required proof. It needn't have been about defence and climate - it could have been about roads vs rail.
6. Yes, I do, but it will take a lot of technological change including fabrication cost changes to happen. I do not necessarily expect this to happen within my lifetime.

I have continued my answer to 6 below as splitting arguments is more of a challenge to me than splitting hairs.

2 tanners said...

I have many reservations with my own point 6 above. These include the focus on carbon as the big bad monster. What about methane? What about all the other greenhouse gases. Focusing on carbon is a political tactic to present a single (easy) target to rail against. This means that reversal is harder than the ideologues pretend. Solar cells are all very well but there is a carbon cost in their manufacture. More and more efficient batteries are good, but they too have to be manufactured - and then powered! Cattle produce methane (lots of it) and you'll never convince me to eat ersatz soy based faux meat again.

There are going to be lots of bumps on the road to cleaning up the atmosphere.

I think we will get there, and get there faster than we would presently predict, but I also think I'm going to be an old man, or pushing up the drought-tolerant daisies when we stop putting enough stuff into the atmosphere to maintain the-then prevailing levels (i.e. merely setting the stage for reversion). The ground conditions, if I may use that term, will be that energy can be produced cheaply and plentifully enough to make mothballing fossil fuel plants sensible. But it was only 25 years ago that Germany was subsidising coal mines at an eye-watering cost.

So if you are talking short term, I agree. Longer term, many scientists have also argued that it is already too late (the 'tipping point' argument). I guess I'm a pig headed optimist, not claiming to any climate science expertise.

Finally, in my view we are going to have to look at the nation as an agricultural producer, not shut our eyes to climate change, if we don't want to have a genuine economic disaster. And the sooner we do something about that, the better.

Anonymous said...

These include the focus on carbon as the big bad monster. What about methane? What about all the other greenhouse gases. Focusing on carbon is a political tactic to present a single (easy) target to rail against.

Carbon is not a gas per se. Carbon forms part of methane, also carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide. So, yes, carbon is central - which, I always assumed, was just shorthand for several 'culprits'. Along with good old H2O - as water vapour.

tanners, I don't doubt your optimism, or goodwill. I just have reservations about the practicality of actually achieving what you wish. But I hope you are right.