Archive for the ‘Author: Others’ Category

Let them eat projections?

August 18th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

This is a guest post by Ben Wisner, author of At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters.

Michael Glantz, the director of the Capacity Building Center at the U.S. National Center for Climate Research (NCAR), whose 30 year old program was suddenly cut, has written an open letter about the gulf between natural/physical and social science. See it here.

Despite all the protestations, attempts, and aspirations among readers of and writers to RADIX (Home for Radical Interpretations of Disasters and Radical Solutions at ) and many others who are currently working at the interface of natural/ physical science and social science (e.g., here), interdisciplinarity is still marginal in academia, and “normal science” on the archetypal model of physics is still hegemonic. That’s part of the problem. A second part of the problem is historic and rooted in the prestige of natural philosophy in late medieval/ early modern universities as they began to develop and gain some independence from rulers and priests in some of the wealthier and more liberal city states.

A third component is sheer power politics and their reflection in public administration. The “men in suits” at NCAR are engineers and physicists. Fourthly, one can seek part of the explanation from a brilliant man called Karl Marx wrote without the aid of a super computer. He described the pressure within capitalist production to increase the ratio of machines and technology to workers. Marx called that the organic composition of capital. So what is the work at NCAR but intellectual production? Is it surprising that work that requires super computers and contracts for dozens of large U.S. companies is given priority to work that is done sitting under a mango tree with farmers with a pen and paper?

All these biases are interwoven and culturally colored with kaleidoscopic complexity by the time one arrives at a particular budgetary decision in a particular U.S. government institution, NCAR. Baffled and dismissive, any senior manager there would ask, if they bother to read this far, “Karl who?” In the case of the capitalist production process in science and academia, where is the surplus and who profits?

Almost two years ago I wrote a “Cri du coeur” — anguished rant — about the disappearance of farmers, herders, fishers, and other real people in the algorithms of climate impact models. I was concerned then with umpteen power point presentations I had been seeing which started with a colorful tableau of African women hoeing or threshing grain, and then continued for 30 slides of graphs based on very tenuous and often swallowed assumptions about politics and society. The result was to show, in the N-th slide, a projection of some level of poverty in 50, 80, 100 years. The people had completely disappeared, their own ability to understand what is happening to their world, and their creative responses. It was precisely this that Mickey Glantz and his team studied and elucidated: what lies behind all the hidden and unconscious assumptions made by the modelers.

In the super computer modeling business, we see another instance of what Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism”. The profit goes to the companies providing the technology and to those whose entry to African markets is facilitated by the diplomatic leverage and credibility of having “scientific answers” for policy makers. Not surprisingly, the answers usually imply massive hydro-engineering projects, import of fertilizers and agro-chemicals, hiring of consultant advisors, etc. – in other words, more profit for the U.S. companies and consultants who supply these services. There is also “profit” in scientific prestige for the modeler and the access to mega buck research grants (with university overheads at 40%) that major journal publication affords.

The invisible farmers, urban side walk vendors and artisans, herders, fishers, merchants, truck drivers, are only an “input” to the models. They are not stakeholders, participants, and beneficiaries. The work at NCAR that has been killed off gave such people voice.

So, in short, I see what Dr. Glantz as calmly referred to as a “wall” as more like a “barricade”. NCAR seems like the Bastille, the defenders of the relevance of Big Science to the needs of two-thirds of humanity are still saying, “let them eat projections.”

A brief account of an aborted contribution to an ill-conceived debate

July 25th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

A guest post by Dennis Bray and Hans von Storch

The July 2008 newsletter of the American Physical Society (APS) opened a debate concerning the IPCC consensus related to anthropogenic induced climate change. We responded with a brief comment concerning the state and changing state of consensus as indicated by two surveys of climate scientists. Data was presented concerning climate scientists assessments of the understanding of atmospheric physics, climate related processes, climate scientists level of agreement with the IPCC as representative of consensus and of the level of belief in anthropogenic warming. (The full manuscript is available here .) Our comment was summarily dismissed by the editors as polemic, political and unscientific. The following is a brief account of this episode.


Has German Policy Harmed Solar Power?

April 10th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

A Guest Post by Greg Nemet, University of Wisconsin.

The Economist has an article this week with the title “bureaucratic meddling has harmed solar power.”

The article points out correctly that the cost of solar power has stopped falling in the past couple of years as a result of scarcity of purified silicon, the main material used to make solar panels. It’s an informative article…as long as you ignore the headline and the conclusion that governments should not interfere with the development of new technologies.

Any subsidy program will put upward pressure on prices in the near term, as people are generally willing to pay more for something when someone else pays part of the cost. The important question is what happens in the longer term. And despite the recent rise in prices, the subsidy program in Germany and the market for solar it has created over the past eight years, have set in motion promising trends: new purified silicon plants are coming on line that will make the input material for solar panels much cheaper, the rise in silicon cost has led to rapid reductions in the amount of material used, and the scale of demand has made it worthwhile for German machine tool companies to develop PV-specific manufacturing machinery that they now export to low-cost PV factories in China. These developments are highly promising for cheaper PV; and they are very closely tied to important policy innovations, also known as “bureaucratic meddling.”

The bigger problem, that the article misses, is that the solar technology being used today is unlikely ever to get cheap enough for truly massive deployment, even if the factors above engender substantial cost reductions in the next several years. In a recent study (PDF), we compared the effects of subsidies and R&D on the cost of solar power and found that you can’t get to really cheap solar with subsidies alone. Subsidies can help enable economies of scale and learning-by-doing, but they are not enough. Technology breakthroughs are also needed if PV is going to get cheap enough to compete with coal or gas or, eventually, nuclear power—even with high carbon prices. Some of the technical improvements that will enable commercialization of cheap PV are certainly best left to the private sector. But the history of technology policy suggests that the fundamental breakthroughs required will need to come from more bureaucratic meddling in the form of publicly sponsored R&D funding.

New Paper on Climate Contrarians by Myanna Lahsen

March 24th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

I’d like to alert readers of this blog to an article of mine just out
in this issue of Global Environmental Change. It analyzes a prominent
subset of US climate contrarians, providing a more multi-faceted and
complex account than generally available of why they chose to join the
anti-environmental backlash. One of them, Frederick Seitz, died recently, making this a poignant time to examine him as well as his
similarly influential colleagues in historical perspective, as I do in
this article. Below is the reference and the abstract of the article:

Lahsen, Myanna. “Experiences of Modernity in the Greenhouse: A Cultural Analysis of a Physicist ‘Trio’ Supporting the Conservative Backlash Against Global Warming.” Global Environmental Change (2008), Vol. 18/1 pp 204-219. (PDF)

In the context of President George W. Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto
Protocol intended to combat human-induced climate change, it appears
important to improve understanding of powerful efforts to reframe
global climate change as a non-problem. This paper draws on
ethnographic research among U.S. scientists involved with climate
science and politics to improve understanding of the U.S. controversy
over global climate change by attending to structuring cultural and
historical dimensions. The paper explores why a key subset of
scientists – the physicist founders and leaders of the George C.
Marshall Institute – chose to lend their scientific authority to the
“environmental backlash,” the counter-movement that has mobilized to
defuse widespread concern about perceived environmental threats,
including human-induced climate change. The paper suggests that the
physicists joined the backlash to stem changing tides in science and
society and to defend their preferred understandings of science,
modernity, and of themselves as a physicist elite – understandings
challenged by recent transformations in American science and society
that express themselves, among other places, in the widespread concern
about human-induced climate change.

Guest Comment: Sharon Friedman, USDA Forest Service – Change Changes Everything

February 1st, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

It is true that the calculus of environmental tradeoffs will be inevitably and irretrievably changed due to consideration of climate change. Ideas that were convenient (convenient untruths) like “the world worked fine without humans, if we remove their influence it will go back to what it should be” have continued to provide the implicit underpinning for much scientific effort. In short, people gravitated to the concept that “if we studied how things used to be” (pre- European settlement) we would know how they “should” be, with no need for discussions of values or involving non-scientists. This despite excellent work such as the book Discordant Harmonies by Dan Botkin, that displayed the scientific flaws in this reasoning (in 1992).

What’s interesting to me in the recent article, “The Preservation Predicament”, by Cornelia Dean in The New York Times
is the implicit assumption that conservationists and biologists will be the ones who determine whether investing in conservation in the Everglades compared to somewhere else, given climate change, is a good idea – perhaps implying that sciences like decision science or economics have little to contribute to the dialog. Not to speak of communities and their elected officials.

I like to quote the IUCN (The World Conservation Union) governance principles:

Indigenous and local communities are rightful primary partners in the development and implementation of conservation strategies that affect their lands, waters, and other resources, and in particular in the establishment and management of protected areas.

Is it more important for scientists to “devise theoretical frameworks for deciding when, how or whether to act” (sounds like decision science) or for folks in a given community, or interested in a given species, to talk about what they think needs to be done and why? There are implicit assumptions about what sciences are the relevant ones and the relationship between science and democracy, which in my opinion need to be debated in the light of day rather than assumed.

Sharon Friedman
Director, Strategic Planning
Rocky Mountain Region
USDA Forest Service

RMS Response to Forecast Evaluation

December 7th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Robert Muir-Woods of RMS has graciously provided for posting a response to the thoughts on forecast verification that I posted earlier this week. Here are his comments:

Scientifically it is of course not possible to draw any conclusion from the occurrence of two years without hurricane losses in the US, in particular following two years with the highest level of hurricane losses ever recorded and the highest ever number of severe hurricanes making landfall in a two year period. Even including 2006 and 2007, average annualized losses for the past five years are significantly higher than the long term historical average (and maybe you should also show this five year average on your plot?)

The basis for catastrophe loss modeling is that one can separate out the question of activity rate from the question as to the magnitude of losses that will be generated by the occurrence of hurricane events. In generating average annualized losses we need to explore the full ‘virtual spectrum’ of all the possible events that can occur. The question about current activity rates is a difficult one, which is why we continue to involve some of the leading hurricane climatologists, and a very wide range of forecasting methodologies, in our annual hurricane activity rate update procedure. In October 2007 an independent expert panel concluded that activity rates are forecasted to remain elevated for the next five years. While this perspective was announced and articulated by RMS, we did not originate it. Each year we undertake this exercise, we ensure that the forecasting models used to estimate activity over the next five years also reflect any additional learning from the forecasting of previous years, including the low activity experienced in 2006 and 2007. We don’t ‘declare success’ that the activity rate estimate that has emerged from this procedure over the past three years (using different forecast models and different climatologists) has scarcely changed, but the consistency in the three 5 year projections is interesting nonetheless.

You may also be surprised to learn that our five-year forward-looking perspective on hurricane risk does not inevitably produce higher losses than all other models, which use the extrapolation of the simple long-term average to estimate future activity. This is as shown in a comparison published in a report prepared by the Florida Commission on Hurricane Loss Projection Methodology for the Florida House of Representatives (see the Table 1 on page 25 of the report, which can be downloaded from here:

Robert Muir-Wood

Advise Requested for Survey Analysis

September 7th, 2007

Posted by: admin

Guest Submission by Hans von Storch and Dennis Bray

In the following we outline a research strategy to characterize sub-groups of climate scientists; the idea is to first propose a short operational list of certain interesting, mostly exclusive but not complete subgroups; these are related to three general criteria.

At this time we ask for comments on both the list of the four categories and on the three general criteria. When we have come to a conclusion with regard to the list and to these criteria, we will try to map the responses collected in our surveys of climate scientists to these groups and criteria – with the idea that in this way we may describe the a host of views , conceptions and perceptions held by these different groups.

We begin with operational definitions of the categories. They are:

1. Advocate Pro.

Scientists in this category are those who are convinced of the reality on ongoing and future anthropogenic climate change. It is the contention of these scientists that climate change will have catastrophic impacts if left unmitigated. This category of scientists perceive it as a moral and professional obligation to alert the public to the impending dangers of climate change and to lobby for political resolve in terms of significant reductions of GHG emissions and the necessary changes in lifestyle and global economy.

2. Advocate Con

Scientists in this category consider the concept of anthropogenic climate change as either insignificant or outright false. They consider the drive towards climate change policy as ill conceived and, sometimes, as a tool to push for a broader environmentalist agenda. Similar to the “advocate pro”, this groups sees lobbying as a necessity, but it is lobbying for goals that stand in opposition to the “advocate pro”.

3. Concerned Pro

Scientists in this category, like those in the “advocate pro” category, are convinced of ongoing and future anthropogenic climate change. They also contend that climate change will have significant impacts. This category differs, however, from the “advocate pro” in as much as these scientists, while accepting as a professional responsibility the undertaking of informing the public to possible dangers, do so without pushing for specific policy choices. In other words, they are information, not solution brokers.

4. Doubters

This category of scientists holds no strong conviction concerning anthropogenic climate change or its potential impacts. In this category, climate change is perceived of as a relevant scientific issue but the challenge is to generate more knowledge. Until further knowledge is available they consider anthropogenic climate change to be a significant, but albeit not dominant, issue.

We want to characterize these four categories by employing three dimensions of scientific perceptions. These dimensions are interpretation, consequence and action. Before providing dimensions we again provide operational definitions of these terms. They are:


From a Reader: Blog Intolerance

June 7th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

[A long-time reader who wishes to remain anonymous asked us to post the following excerpt from a Joe Klein column in Time magazine. -Ed.]

This is not the first time this kind of free-range lunacy has been visited upon me. Indeed, it happens, oh, once a week to each of us who post on Swampland (Karen Tumulty, Jay Carney and Ana Marie Cox are the others). A reasonable reader might ask, Why are the left-wing bloggers attacking you? Aren’t you pretty tough on the Bush Administration? Didn’t you write a few months ago that George W. Bush would be remembered as one of the worst Presidents in history? And why on earth does any of this matter?

First, let me say that I really enjoy blogging. It’s a brilliant format for keeping readers up to date on the things I care about—and for exchanging information with them. . .

But the smart stuff is being drowned out by a fierce, bullying, often witless tone of intolerance that has overtaken the left-wing sector of the blogosphere. Anyone who doesn’t move in lockstep with the most extreme voices is savaged and ridiculed—especially people like me who often agree with the liberal position but sometimes disagree and are therefore considered traitorously unreliable. Some of this is understandable: the left-liberals in the blogosphere are merely aping the odious, disdainful—and politically successful—tone that right-wing radio talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh pioneered. They are also justifiably furious at a Bush White House that has specialized in big lies and smear tactics.

And that is precisely the danger here. Fury begets fury. Poison from the right-wing talk shows seeped into the Republican Party’s bloodstream and sent that party off the deep end. Limbaugh’s show—where Dick Cheney frequently expatiates—has become the voice of the Republican establishment. The same could happen to the Democrats. The spitballs aimed at me don’t matter much. The spitballs aimed at Harman, Clinton and Obama are another story. Despite their votes, each of those politicians believes the war must be funded. (Obama even said so in his statement explaining his vote.) Each knows, as Senator Jim Webb has said repeatedly, that we must be more careful getting out of Iraq than we were getting in. But they allowed themselves to be bullied into a more simplistic, more extreme position. Why? Partly because they fear the power of the bloggers to set the debate and raise money against them. They may be right—in the short (primary election) term; Harman faced a challenge from the left in 2006. In the long term, however, kowtowing to extremists is exactly the opposite of what this country is looking for after the lethal radicalism of the Bush Administration.

Chris Landsea on New Hurricane Science

April 18th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Chris Landsea has submitted a guest post today on a recent paper on hurricanes and global warming. We share Chris’ comments below, and welcome reactions and alternative perspectives.


A Defense of Alarmism

February 22nd, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

[The thoughtful comment below is from David Adam, Environment correspondent for The Guardian was made in response to Mike Hulme's letter to Nature on press coverage of the IPCC report in the UK media. -RP]

Alarmist and proud of it
(Alarm: to fill with apprehension; to warn about danger, alert)

David Adam
Environment correspondent
The Guardian

Some definitions from the Collins English dictionary

Catastrophic: a sudden, extensive disaster or misfortune

Shocking: Causing shock

Terrifying: extremely frightening

Devastating: to confound or overwhelm

Can anyone explain to me why any of those are inappropriate for a report than said human society will ‘most likely’ raise temperatures by 4C by 2100 unless it takes drastic action (my words, but how else would you desribe a complete overhaul of the lifestyles of millions, if not billions of people) to cut emissions?

here’s another:

news: interesting or important information not previously known.

attacking newspapers for picking out the bits of the report that appear to take the debate forwards (the effects of carbon cycle feedbacks for example, which only seem to be shifting the estimates in one direction) is as pointless and idiotic as complaining that a library won’t sell you fish.

does the 2006 report not paint a picture that is “worse” than the 2001 report?

again, to the dictionary:

worse: the comparative of bad

Mike accuses us of “appealling to fear to generate a sense of urgency”

Guilty as charged. Is it not frightening? Is it not urgent?

Alarmist and proud of it
(Alarm: to fill with apprehension; to warn about danger, alert)