Archive for August, 2006

Climate Mitigation and Adaptation in India

August 31st, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. has an excellent article online about climate adaptation and mitigation in India. Here in an excerpt relevant to recent discussions here on Prometheus:


Revisiting an Old Steve Schneider Quote

August 29th, 2006

Posted by: admin

All of this discussion of ends-means reminds me of an inscrutable quote from Stanford’s Steve Schneider:

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.

Schell, J. 1989. Our fragile earth, Discover 10:44-50.

For some people this quote has been interpreted as providing a green light for making bad policy arguments (in Schneider’s terms not being “honest”) in support of desired political ends (in Schneider’s language being “effective”). Others have pointed to the last sentence and emphasized Schneider’s personal hope for honesty and effectiveness to coexist. In my view the quote is underdetermined, and thus it makes little sense to try to adjudicate these differnt perspectvies.

For my part the action is in fact in the second-to-last sentence — “Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” By acknowledging a balance between effectiveness and honesty, Schneider clearly recognized that his hope for honesty and effectiveness to happily coexist would in reality not always be the case, and trade-offs would have to be made. This is the nature of Schneider’s “double ethical bind” – how to balance means or ends when both cannot be championed at once? Schneider says that resolving this bind is a personal decision for each scientist.

In large part, my recent posts on ends-means address this exact same “double ethical bind” between ends and means. It is my perception that in contemporary science policy — including but not limited to climate policy — many scientist have decided to resolve the double ethical bind in favor of championing ends over means. Given that science deals with means and not ends, if my perception bears anything close to an accurate assessment of the current state of science in politics, then it would seem of concern to the sustainability of the scientific enterprise. The thoughtful and respectful exchanges with a few leading scientists in the comments of relevant posts here have not changed my perceptions.

Do the Ends Justify the Means?

August 28th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

On climate policy many people apparently believe that the answer is “yes!” I do not. As an example of this perspective, consider the following comment from climate sceintist Andrew Dessler:

As a citizen, there are many issues on which I have a strongly held positions (tax reform, the Iraq war, privacy issues, and yes, AGW). For each of these, I have a preferred policy. I want my policy adopted, and I don’t really care why it gets adopted. Not everyone has to agree with *my reasoning* and I don’t have to agree with theirs. If some people support action on AGW because they misunderstand the science … well then they cancel the people that oppose AGW because of a cancelling misunderstanding.

I don’t excuse misrepresentation of science, and I correct it wherever possible … but if, in the final analysis, Katrina helps get a GHG policy enacted, then I’m fine with that. [emphasis added]

[Note: To be perfectly clear, this post is not about Andrew specifically, but about the more general attitude, using Andrew's comment as an example of this perspective, which is apparently widely shared.]

From my perspective, a view that bad policy arguments should be acceptable so long as they help us “win” in political battle is exactly the sort of thinking that motivated the Bush Administration’s selling of the Iraq War. Not only did a bad policy result (i.e., one that has not achieved the ends on which it was sold on), but it has harmed the ability of the President to act (maybe a good thing in this case), and certainly diminished the credibility of intelligence. The exact same dynamics are at risk in the climate debate when scientists support their political preferences with bad policy arguments, or stand by silently while others speak for them.

Apparently my perspective is also widely shared. Hans von Storch, Nico Stehr, and Dennis Bray have written (PDF) of this attitude:

The concern for the “good” and “just” case of avoiding further dangerous human interference with the climate system has created a peculiar self-censorship among many climate scientists. Judgments of solid scientific findings are often not made with respect to their immanent quality but on the basis of their alleged or real potential as a weapon by “skeptics” in a struggle for dominance in public and policy discourse.

Oxford’s Steve Rayner provides a similar perspective (here):

The danger of using bad arguments for good causes, such as preventing unwanted climate change, is two-fold. Generally, it provides a dangerous opening for opponents who would derail environmental policy by exposing weaknesses in the underlying science. Specifically, it leads to advocating policies for reducing future storm impacts that are likely to be ineffective in achieving their declared aim. With or without greenhouse gas emissions reductions, the costs of storm damage are bound to rise. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will have far less impact on storm damage costs than moving expensive infrastructure away from coastal margins and flood plains.

For good or ill, we live in an era when science is culturally privileged as the ultimate source of authority in relation to decision making. The notion that science can compel public policy leads to an emphasis on the differences of viewpoint and interpretation within the scientific community. From one point of view, public exposure to scientific disagreement is a good thing. We know that science is not capable of delivering the kind of final authority that is often ascribed to it. Opening up to the public the conditional, and even disputatious nature of scientific inquiry, in principle, may be a way of counteracting society’s currently excessive reliance on technical assessment and the displacement of explicit values-based arguments from public life (Rayner, 2003). However, when this occurs without the benefit of a clear understanding of the importance of the substantial areas where scientists do agree, the effect can undermine public confidence.

This is of course an issue much broader than climate change, and at its core is about how science is to operate in a democracy. The practice of science, insofar as it is related to action, is all about questions of means. That is, science can tell us something about the consequences of different possible courses of action. Science however cannot tell us how to value those consequences, which is the territory of ethics, values, religion, ideology, etc..

Once a scientist (a generic scientist!) decides to elevate ends above means in the area of their own expertise then they are in fact giving up on what their science can most contribute to the political process, and that is knowledge relevant to the means we employ in pursuit of desired ends.

If you want insight on the contemporary pathological politicization of science within the scientific community, look no further than the perspective held by many scientists that on issues related to their expertise, the ends do in fact justify the means. In my view this is bad for both democracy and for the sustianability of the sceintific enterprise.

Hurricane Damage Futures

August 26th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

A futures market called Hedge Street is offering futures contracts on insured hurricane damages for the 2006 season. There are 4 different contracts offered paying out 30 November 2006. The contracts pay out $100 for damage thresholds of $100 million, $1 billion, $10 billion, or $25 billion. As of Friday the contracts last traded at the following values:

>$100M $80.30
>$1B $65.00
>$10B $24.20
>$25B $16.80

According to our research (underway, not peer-reviewed) we are currently about 25% of the way through “damage season” meaning that 75% of the historical damage has occurred after this date. We focus on total economic damages, but if we assume that insured damages are 50% of total economic then according to one of our adjustment methods (we now have 3) the past 106 years would have seen the Hedge Street thresholds exceeded with the following occurrence:

>$100M 70.8%
>$1B 48.1%
>$10B 14.2%
>$25B 5.7%

If we scale each of these figures to 75% of their value to reflect that we are a quarter of the way through damage season then they would be less. What might this mean for investing in hurricane futures?

As of Friday the bid price for each of these thresholds was as follows:

>$100M $75.00
>$1B $62.00
>$10B $15.00
>$25B $10.00

The bid price is that Hedge Street members are willing to buy a contract. If I were investing at Hedge Street (I am not, but thinking about it!) I’d probably be selling at those prices. In particular, selling the $1B contract looks particularly attractive at $62. Based on our current estimates of historical losses, that gives you about a 50% chance of making more than 160% return on your investment. Of course the downside is that you have about a 50% chance of losing your investment. I don’t see an easy way to stop loss, but maybe I am missing something. Anyone?

Pop Quiz

August 25th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Some friday fun:

The follow quote refers to what:

“I guess this is just people holding the correct [political] opinion for the wrong [science/intelligence] reasons and let’s accept it with gratitude.”

A. Dick Cheney commenting upon learning that a majority of Americans believe that 9/11 is related to Saddam Hussein and Iraq.

B. A commentator at Real Climate upon learning that a majority of Americans believe that the Katrina disaster was caused by global warming.

Hey what is a little public misunderstanding of policy arguments so long as it helps your political agenda?! ;-)

Scientific Advice at NASA

August 24th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The recent resignation of three scientists on the NASA Advisory Panel raises some interesting questions about the nature of advice versus decision making and the interests of those providing the advice in the outcomes of the decisions by those receiving their input. Science magazine makes this all a bit more concrete with some of the details of the brouhaha:


Dan Sarewitz on Research Questions for Science of Science Policy

August 23rd, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Anything Dan Sarewitz writes is worth reading. Here (PDF) is a short essay he prepared for a recent NSF workshop on the “Science of Science Policy” in which he discusses what such a research agenda might look like. Here is an excerpt:


Ceres is Misrepresenting Our Work

August 23rd, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

A while back we documented in some detail how a publication in Science by Evan Mills grossly misrepresented existing research to make the claim that human-caused climate change was observable in the economic record of disasters. In a just-released report by the group Ceres, an advocacy group focused on the insurance industry, Mr. Mills is again misrepresenting existing research, and this time it is mine.

In the report just out, co-authored by Mr. Mills (here in PDF), they write of the scientific debate over the role of climate change and disaster losses:

Thanks to a workshop held by Munich Re, a previous debate has evolved into a consensus that climate change is playing a role in the observed increase in the costs of weather-related damages.

Well, no. I co-organized the workshop with Peter Hoeppe of Munich Re (to which Mr. Mills was invited to attend but turned down). Here is what the workshop report executive summary (PDF) actually says:

Because of issues related to data quality, the stochastic nature of extreme event impacts, length of time series, and various societal factors present in the disaster loss record, it is still not possible to determine the portion of the increase in damages that might be attributed to climate change due to GHG emissions. . .

In the near future the quantitative link (attribution) of trends in storm and flood losses to climate changes related to GHG emissions is unlikely to be answered unequivocally.

The use of our work in the Ceres report represents either complete incompetence or a deliberate misrepresentation our work. In either case, if they are so cavalier with how they report my work, how can I trust that they are accurately reporting the work of others? Advocacy groups that base their arguments on flawed or erroneous representations of existing research have absolutely no credibility in my book. Science is diverse enough to be able to cherrypick and shade arguments in one’s preferred direction without misrepresentation. Ceres has in fact misrepresented my work. And that is unfortunate, because some of what Ceres has to say looks like it might make sense.

Judy Curry in the Comments

August 21st, 2006

Posted by: admin

[The below is an excerpt from a comment provided by Judy Curry, which I thought worth highlighting as our conversation has spanned several threads. RP]

100 years from now, if global warming proceeds as expected, there is a risk for whopper hurricanes with sea level rise making the risk even worse for our coastal cities. The elevated risk in terms of hurricane activity may already be upon us. No one wants to see coastal cities disappear. You are right that actions like limiting greenhouse gas emissions cannot help the hurricane situation in the short term (20 years or maybe even 50 years), but on the century time scales there should be some impact at least on the rate of sea surface temperature increase (it is the century time scales that the washington post editorial addresses). Hurricane Katrina, even tho there was no direct causal link with global warming, has served as a huge wakeup call to the American public that global warming might actually have some seriously adverse impacts if we were to see such storms more frequently in the future (this issue seems to have a much greater impact on the public than melting of polar ice gaps). The risk is there, science is important to the public and decision makers, and people are starting to talk about policy options both for the short term and the long term (e.g. the washington post editorial). Surely this is a good thing. Step back for a minute and reflect on why your position on this is so often misrepresented, misunderstood or ignored. There would be more traffic on prometheus on this issue if you would be more reflective about what the other people are trying to say, rather than trying to fit everything into something that supports your thesis (not sure how our BAMS article fell into that category) or makes no sense because it doesn’t support your thesis (e.g. the washington post editorial).

Bunk on the Potomac

August 20th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The Washington Post has published one of the worst op-eds I have ever seen. Arguments such as this one might make one think that the environmental community is hell bent on its own self-destruction (compare). Here is an excerpt:

Barring a rapid change in our nation’s relationship to fossil fuels, every American within shouting distance of an ocean — including all of us in the nation’s capital — will become de facto New Orleanians. Imagine a giant floodgate spanning the Potomac River just north of Mount Vernon, there to hold back the tsunami-like surge tide of the next great storm. Imagine the Mall, Reagan National Airport and much of Alexandria well below sea level, at the mercy of “trust-us-they’ll-hold” levees maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. Imagine the rest of Washington vulnerable to the winds of major hurricanes that churn across a hot and swollen Chesapeake Bay, its surface free of the once vast and buffering wetland grasses and “speed bump” islands that slow down storms.

Because of global warming, this is our future. Oceans worldwide are projected to rise as much as three feet this century, and much higher if the Greenland ice sheet melts away. And intense storms are already becoming much more common. These two factors together will in essence export the plight of New Orleans, bringing the Big Easy “bowl” effect here to the Washington area, as well as to Charleston, S.C., Miami, New York and other coastal cities. Assuming we want to keep living in these cities, we’ll have to build dikes and learn to exist beneath the surface of surrounding tidal bays, rivers and open seas — just like New Orleans.

Weekly World News? Nope. The Washington Post. Here is more:

In the face of this sobering data suggesting we’re bringing New Orleans to the Potomac, what should we do? Realistically, there are three major options: 1) abandon our coastal cities and retreat inland, a response too staggering to imagine, 2) stay put and try to adapt to the menacing new conditions, or 3) switch to clean energy as fast as possible.

Adapting, of course, means committing fully to the New Orleans model. It means potentially thousands of miles of levees and floodwalls across much of the region. And that’s just to handle the rising sea. For hurricane surge tides, Stevenson thinks the only solution might be to build a floodgate across the Potomac near Mount Vernon. It could be closed during periods of maximum danger, then reopened as the surge ebbs. He envisions another on the Patapsco River to protect Baltimore. The New York Academy of Sciences, meanwhile, has examined the idea of three such floodgates for New York City.

But are we truly ready to become New Orleanians, casting our lot behind ever-higher, unsustainable walls? Once we commit to fortified levees and massive floodgates, there’s no turning back. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition, as New Orleans has graphically demonstrated.

Alternatively, we can go with the third option. It’s less expensive, less risky and overall much better for us: clean energy. It’s the option that treats the disease of global warming, not just the symptoms. Only by dramatically reducing greenhouse gas pollution — by switching to hybrid cars and wind- and solar-powered electricity and high-efficiency appliances — can we slow the sea-level rise and potentially calm the growth in hurricane intensity.

We must join the rest of the world in this effort because, while the effects are local, the solution can only be global. Some adaptation to global warming will still be necessary, given the momentum built into the warming process. And a national clean-energy overhaul will represent a huge challenge to our society, especially given how little time scientists say we have left — maybe just 10 years — before runaway climate effects become a reality.

But switching to clean, efficient energy is a challenge compared to what? Compared to life below sea level with a constant eye on the Weather Channel, waiting for the next Category 5 storm to replicate the horrifying events of last Aug. 29?

There are numerous scientific errors and misstatements in the piece (e.g., confusion of wind speed and power dissipation), but these factual problems pale in the face of its absurd policy arguments. I fully support switching to clean, efficient energy. But to suggest that such a switch can play a perceptible role in modulating the impacts of future hurricanes is simply bunk. It is absolute, utter nonsense.

Leading scientists would do well to recognize that their coy flirting with environmental activists bent on emissions reductions, while at the same time trying to hide their actions behind a fig leaf of policy agnisticism, only serves to feed such absurdities. Anyone wanting to help the environmental community achieve the goal of decarbonizing the global energy system should instead try to stop such poor policy arguments in their tracks.