Anatomy of a Conspiracy Theory

Normally, as with 9/11, a conspiracy theory involves convoluted chains of reasoning so torturous that it can take a while to determine how the conjuring trick was done: where the lie was implanted. But often, the anatomy of a conspiracy theory takes the following basic form:

Part 1 is a plausible but flawed technical claim that aims to refute an official account, and provides the starting point for Part 2, which is a multi-threaded stream of whataboutery. To connect Part 1 and 2 a sleight of hand is performed. This is the anatomy of a basic conspiracy theory.

I have been thinking about this because a relative of mine asked me for my opinion about a video that turns out to be a good case study in this form of conspiracy theory. It was a video posted by a Dr Chris Busby relating to the nerve gas used to poison the Skripals: 

So, against my better judgment, I sat through the video.

Dr Busby who comes across initially as quite affable proceeds to outline his experience at length. He says he was employed at the Wellcome Research Laboratories in Beckenham (see Note 1), where he worked, in his words, 

“… on the physical chemistry of pharmaceutical compounds or small organic compounds”, and he used “spectroscopic and other methods to determine the structure of these substances, as they were made by the chemists”. 

I have no reason to doubt his background, but equally have not attempted to verify it either; in any case, this is immaterial because I judge people on their arguments not their qualifications.

I want to pass over Busby’s first claim – that a state actor was not necessarily involved because (in his view):

“any synthetic organic chemist could knock up something like that without a lot of difficulty”

… which is questionable, but is not the main focus of this post. I do have a few observations on this subsidiary claim in Note 2.

He explains correctly that a Mass Spectroscopy spectrum (let’s abbreviate this as ‘spectrum’ in what follows) is a pattern of the masses of the ionised fragments created when a substance passes through the instrument. This pattern is characteristic of the molecule under investigation.

So a spectrum “identifies a material”. So far, so good.

He now makes his plausible but flawed technical claim. I don’t want to call it a lie because I will assume Dr Busby made it in good faith, but it does undermine his claim to be an ‘expert’, and was contained in the following statement he made:

“… but in order to do that, you need to have a sample of the material, you need to have synthesized the material”

In brief we can summarise the claim as follows: In order for you to identify a substance, you need to have synthesised it.

Curiously, later in the video he says that the USA manufactured the A-234 strain that is allegedly involved (see Note 3) and put the spectrum on the NIST database, but then later took it down. 

It does not occur to Dr Busby that Porton Down could have taken a copy of data from NIST before it was removed and used that as the reference spectrum, thereby blowing a huge hole in Busby’s chain of logic (also, see Note 4).

But there is a more fundamental reason why the claim is erroneous even if the data had never existed.

One of the whole points of having a technique like mass spectroscopy is precisely to help researchers in determining the structures of unknown substances, particularly in trace quantities where other structural techniques cannot be used (see Note 5).

To show you why the claim is erroneous, here is an example of a chemistry lecturer taking his students through the process of analysing the spectrum of a substance, in order to establish its structure (Credit: Identify a reasonable structure for the pictured mass spectrum of an unknown sample, Professor Heath’s Chemistry Channel, 6th October 2016).

This method uses knowledge of chemistry, logic and arithmetic to ‘reverse engineer’ the chemical structure, based on the masses of the fragments:

Now it is true that with a library of spectra for known substances, the analysis is greatly accelerated, because we can then compare a sample’s spectrum with ones in the library. This might be called ‘routine diagnostic mass spectroscopy’.

He talked about having done a lot of work on pharmaceuticals that had been synthesised “in Spain or in India”, and clearly here the mode of application would have been the comparison of known molecules manufactured by (in this case Wellcome) with other samples retrieved from other sources – possibly trying to break a patent – but giving away their source due to impurities in the sample (see Note 6).

It then struck me that he must have spent so much time doing this routine diagnostic diagnostic mass spectroscopy that he is now presenting this as the only way in which you can use mass spectroscopy to identify a substance.

He seems to have forgotten the more general use of the method by scientists.

This flawed assumption leads to the scientific and logical chain of reasoning used by Dr Busby in this video. 

The sleight of hand arrives when he uses the phrase ‘false flag’ at 6’55” into a 10’19” video.  

The chain of logic has been constructed to lead the viewer to this point. Dr Busby was in effect saying ‘to test for the agent, you need to have made it; if you can make it, maybe it got out; and maybe the UK (or US) was  responsible for using it!’.

This is an outrageous claim but he avoids directly accusing the UK or US Governments; and this is the sleight of hand. He leaves the viewer to fill in the gap.

This then paves the way for Part 2 of his conspiracy theory which now begins in earnest on the video. He cranks up the rhetoric and offers up an anti-American diatribe, full of conspiracy ideation.

He concludes the video as follows:

“There’s no way there’s any proof that that material that poisoned the Skripal’s came from Russia. That’s the take home message”

On the contrary, the message I took away is that it is sad that an ex-scientist is bending and abusing scientific knowledge to concoct conspiracy theories, to advance his political dogma, and helping to magnify the Kremlin’s whataboutery.

Now, Dr Busby might well respond by saying “but you haven’t proved the Russians did it!”.  No, but I would reply ‘you haven’t proved that they didn’t, and as things stand, it is clear that they are the prime suspect’; ask any police inspector how they would assess the situation.

My purpose here was not to prove anything, but to discuss the anatomy of conspiracy theories in general, and debunk this one in particular.

But I do want to highlight one additional point: those that are apologists for the Russian state will demand 100% proof the Russians did it, but are lazily accepting of weak arguments – including Dr Busby’s video – that attempt to point the finger at the UK or US Governments. This is, at least, double standards.

By all means present your political views and theories on world politics, Dr Busby – the UK is a country where we can express our opinions freely – but please don’t dress them up with flawed scientific reasoning masquerading as scientific expertise.

Hunting down a plausible but flawed technical claim is not always as easy as in the case study above, but remember the anatomy, because it is usually easy to spot the sleight of hand that then connects with the main body of a conspiracy theory.

We all need to be inoculated against this kind of conspiracy ideation, and I hope my dissection of this example is helpful to people.

——

© Richard W. Erskine, 2018

NOTES

Note 1: The Wellcome Research Laboratories in Beckenham closed in 1995, when the GlaxoWellcome merged company was formed, and after further mergers transformed into the current leading pharmaceutical global entity GSK.

Note 2: Busby’s first claim is that the nerve agent identified by Porton Down is a simple organic compound and therefore easy for a chemist to synthesise. Gary Aitkenhead, the chief executive of the government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) said on Sky News (here reported in The Guardian)

“It’s a military-grade nerve agent, which requires extremely sophisticated methods in order to create – something that’s probably only within the capabilities of a state actor.”

But the difficulty of synthesising a molecule is not simply based on the number of atoms in the molecule, but rather the synthetic pathway, and all that, and in the case of a nerve agent, the practical difficulties involved in making the stuff in a safe environment, then preparing it in some ‘weaponized’ formulation.

Vil Mirzayanov who was a chemist who worked on Novichok has said that  that this process is extremely difficult. Dr Busby thinks he knows better but not being a synthetic chemist (remember, he had chemists making the samples he analysed), cannot claim expertise on the ease or difficulty of nerve agent synthesis.

The UK position is that the extremely pure nature of the samples found in Salisbury point to a state actor. Most of us, and I would include Dr Busby, without experience of the synthesis of the nerve agent in question and its formulation as a weapon, cannot really comment with authority on this question.

Simply saying it is a simple molecule really doesn’t stand up as an argument.

Note 3: While the Russian Ambassador to the UK claims that the strain is A-234, neither the UK Government, nor Porton Down, nor the OPCW have stated which strain was used, and so the question regarding what strain or strains the USA might or might not have synthesized, is pure speculation.

Note 4: He says that if the USA synthesised it (the strain of nerve agent assumed to have been used), then it is possible that Porton Down did so as well. I am not arguing this point either way. The point of this post is to challenge what Dr Busby presents as an unassailable chain of logic, but which is nothing of the sort.

Note 5: There are many other techniques used in general for structuralwork, but not all are applicable in every situation. For large complex biological molecules, X-Ray Crystallography has been very successful, and more recently CryoEM has matured to the point where it is taking over this role. Neither will have used in the case of trace quantities of a nerve agent.

Note 6: He also talks about impurities that can show up in a spectrum and using these as a way to identify a laboratory of origin (in relation to his pharmaceuticals experience), but this is a separate argument, which is irrelevant if the sample is of high purity, which is what OPCW confirmed in relation to the nerve gas found in Salisbury.

.. o O o ..

 

 

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Cambridge Analytica and the micro-targeting smokescreen

I have an hypothesis.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) won’t find any retained data at Cambridge Analytica (CA) gleaned from Facebook user’s. They might even find proof it was deleted in a timely manner.

So, would that mean CA did not provide an assist to the Trump campaign? No.

Because the analysis of all that data would have been used to provide knowledge and insight into which buttons to push in the minds of voters, and crucially, in which States this would be most effective.

At that point you can delete all the source Facebook data.

The knowledge and insight would have powered a broad spectrum campaign using good old fashioned media channels and social media. At this point, it is not micro-targeting, but throwing mud knowing it will stick where it matters.

Maybe the focus on micro-targeting is a smokescreen, because if the ICO don’t find retained data, then CA can say “see, we are innocent of all charges of interference”, when in fact the truth could be quite the opposite.

It is important the ICO, Select Committees in the UK Parliament and, when they get their act together, committees on Capitol Hill, ask the right questions, and do not succumb to smokescreens.

But then, that is only an hypothesis.

What do I know?

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2018

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The Myth of Facebook’s Free Lunch

We all know that there is no such thing as a free lunch, don’t we?

Except when we get the next offer of a free lunch. It’ll be different this time, because they are so nice and well, what could go wrong?

The Facebook offer was always the offer of a free lunch. No need to pay anything for you account, and just share and share alike.

In fact the encouragement to be as open and sharing as possible was made easier by the byzantine complexity of the access controls (to allow people to be more private). It never occurred to Facebook that humans have complex lives where the family friends was a non-overlapping set of people to the tennis club friends, or the ‘stop the fracking’ friends!

No, there is a binary reductionism to the happy clappy religion which is ‘the world is my friend’  dogma of social media, of which Facebook is the prime archetype.

Of course, the business model was always to monetise our connectivity. We view a few pages on artist materials, and suddenly we are deluged by adverts for artist materials. Basic stuff you might say, and often it is; small minded big data. But it feels like and is an intrusion. Facebook is wanting to take business away from WPP and the rest and uses the social desire to connect as the vehicle for gaining a better insight into our lives than traditional marketing can achieve. Why did Facebook not make this clear to people from the start?

The joke was always that marketing companies know that 50% of their spending is wasted but don’t know which parts make up that 50%.

Facebook will now say that they know.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Facebook, because it reunited me with a long lost ‘other’ family. That is another story but I am eternally grateful to Facebook for making that connection. It also provides the town I live in the ability to connect over local issues. It can be a force for good.

But the most egregious issue that Facebook is now facing (and seem in denial about) is that the bill for the lunch is now proving to be exceptionally high indeed.

If Facebook data effectively helped Cambridge Analytica help Trump and the Brexit campaigns to win even a marginal assist – as is now alleged – that could have been crucial, as both won by a marginal amount.

We cannot go back to a pre-digital world.

We need trust in institutions and in what will happen to our data, and not just the snaps we took of the new kitten playing on the sofa. We want the benefits that combining genomics and clinical data will do to revolutionise medicine. We want to develop ground-up social enterprises to address issues like climate change. We need to be able to move beyond primitive cloudscum fileshares or private storage devices to a truly trusted, long term repository for personal data; guaranteed to a level no less than a National Archive.

There are many reasons we need community governed, rigorously audited and regulated data, to help in many aspects of our personal lives, social enterprises, and as safe places for retention of knowledge and cultural assets in the digital world.

Even without the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the geek-driven models of Facebook, Google and the rest betray a level of naivety and lack of insight into this challenge which is breathtaking.

Call it Web 4.0 or choose a higher number if you like.

But what this episode proves is that the current generation of social media is barely a rough draft on what society needs in the digital world of the 21st Century.

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Communicating Key Figures from IPCC Reports to a Wider Public

If you were to think about ranking the most important Figures from the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, I would not be surprised if the following one (SPM.10) did not emerge as a strong candidate for the number one slot:

IPCC AR5 Figure SPM.10

This is how the Figure appears in the main report, on page 28 (in the Summary for Policymakers) of The Physical Basis Report (see References: IPCC, 2013). The Synthesis Report includes a similar figure with additional annotations.

Many have used it in talks because of its fundamental importance (for example, Sir David King in his Walker Institute Annual Lecture (10th June 2015), ahead of COP21 in Paris). I have followed this lead, and am sure that I am not alone.

This Figure shows an approximately linear1 relationship between the cumulative carbon dioxide we emit2, and the rise in global average surface temperature3 up to 2100. It was crucial to discussions on carbon budgets held in Paris and the goal of stabilising the climate.

I am not proposing animating this Figure in the way discussed in my previous essay, but I do think its importance warrants additional attention to get it out there to a wider audience (beyond the usual climate geeks!).

So my question is:

“Does it warrant some kind of pedagogic treatment for a general audience (and dare I say, for policy-makers who may themselves struggle with the density of information conveyed)?”

My answer is yes, and I believe that the IPCC, as guardians of the integrity of the report findings, are best placed to lead such an effort, albeit supported by skills to support the science communications.

The IPCC should not leave it to bloggers and other commentators to furnish such content, as key Figures such as this are fundamental to the report’s findings, and need to be as widely understood as possible.

While I am conscious of Tufte’s wariness regarding Powerpoint, I think that the ‘build’ technique – when used well – can be extremely useful in unfolding the information, in biteable chunks. This is what I have tried to do with the above Figure in a recent talk. I thought I would share my draft attempt.

It can obviously do with more work, and the annotations represent my emphasis and use of  language4. Nevertheless, I believe I was able to truthfully convey the key information from the original IPCC Figure more successfully than I have before; taking the audience with me, rather than scaring them off.

So here goes, taken from a segment of my talk … my narrative, to accompany the ‘builds’, is in italics …

Where are we now?

“There is a key question: what is the relationship between the peak atmospheric concentration and the level of warming, compared to a late 19th century baseline, that will result, by the end of the 21st century?”

“Let’s start with seeing where we are now, which is marked by a X in the Figure below.” 

Unpacking SYR2.3 - Build 1

“Our cumulative man-made emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) have to date been nearly 2000 billion tonnes (top scale above)”

“After noting that 50% of this remains in the atmosphere, this has given rise to an increase in the atmospheric concentration from its long-standing pre-industrial value of 280 parts per million to it current value which is now about 400 parts per million (bottom scale above).”

“This in turn has led to an increase in averaged global surface temperature of  1oC above the baseline of 1861 to 1880 (vertical scale above).”

Where might we be in 2100?

“As we add additional carbon dioxide, the temperature will rise broadly in proportion to the increased concentration in the atmosphere. There is some uncertainty between “best case” and “worst case” margins of error (shown by the dashed lines).” 

Unpacking SYR2.3 - Build 2

“By the end of the century, depending on how much we emit and allowing for uncertainties, we can end up anywhere within the grey area shown here. The question marks (“?”) illustrate where we might be by 2100.”

Can we stay below 2C?

“The most optimistic scenario included in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) was based on the assumption of a rapid reduction in emissions, and a growing role for the artificial capture of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (using a technology called BECCS).” 

Unpacking SYR2.3 - Build 3

“This optimistic scenario would meet the target agreed by the nations in Paris, which is to limit the temperature rise to 2oC.”

“We effectively have a ‘carbon budget’; an amount of fossil fuels that can be burned and for us to stay below 2oC”. 

“The longer we delay dramatically reducing emissions, the faster the drop would need to be in our emissions later, as we approach the end of the ‘carbon budget’.” 

“Some argue that we are already beyond the point where we can realistically move fast enough to make this transition.” 

“Generally, experts agree it is extremely challenging, but still not impossible.”

Where will we be in 2100?  – Paris Commitments

“The nationally determined contributions (or NDCs) – the amounts by which carbon dioxide emissions will fall – that the parties to the Paris Agreement put forward have been totted up and they would, if implemented fully, bring us to a temperature rise of between 2.5 and 3.5 oC (and an atmospheric concentration about twice that of pre-industrial levels).”

Unpacking SYR2.3 - Build 4

 “Now, the nations are committed to increase their ‘ambition’, so we expect that NDCs should get better, but it is deeply concerning that at present, the nations’ current targets are (1) not keeping us unambiguously clear of catastrophe, and (2) struggling to be met. More ambition, and crucially more achievement, is urgent.”

“I have indicated the orange scenarios as “globally severe”, but for many regions “catastrophic” (but some, for example, Xu and Ramanathan5, would use the term “Catastrophic” for any warming over 3oC, and “Unknown” for warming above 5oC). The IPCC are much more conservative in the language they use.”

Where will we be in 2100? – Business As Usual Scenario

“The so-called ‘business as usual’ scenario represents on-going use of fossil fuels, continuing to meet the majority of our energy needs, in a world with an increasing population and increasing GDP per capita, and consequently a continuing growth in CO2 emissions.”

Unpacking SYR2.3 - Build 5

”This takes global warming to an exceptionally bad place, with a (globally averaged) temperature rise of between 4 and 6 oC; where atmospheric concentrations will have risen to between 2.5 and 3 times the pre-industrial levels.”

“The red indicates that this is globally catastrophic.”

“If we go above 5oC warming we move, according to Xu and Ramanathan,  from a “catastrophic” regime to an “unknown” one. I have not tried to indicate this extended vocabulary on the diagram, but what is clear is that the ‘business as usual’ scenario is really not an option, if we are paying attention to what the science is telling us.”

That’s it. My draft attempt to convey the substance and importance of Figure SPM.10, which I have tried to do faithfully; albeit adding the adjectives “optimistic” etc. to characterise the scenarios.

I am sure the IPCC could do a much better job than me at providing a more accessible presentation of Figure SPM.10 and indeed, a number of high ranking Figures from their reports, that deserve and need a broader audience.

© Richard W. Erskine

Footnotes

  1. The linearity of this relationship was originally discussed in Myles Allen et al (2009), and this and other work has been incorporated in the IPCC reports. Also see Technical Note A below.
  1. About half of which remains in the atmosphere, for a very long time
  1. Eventually, after the planet reaches a new equilibrium, a long time in the future. Also see Technical Note B below.
  1. There are different opinions are what language to use – ‘dangerous’, ‘catastrophic’, etc. – and at what levels of warming to apply this language. The IPCC is conservative in its use of language, as is customary in the scientific literature. Some would argue that in wanting to avoid the charge of being alarmist, it is in danger of obscuring the seriousness of the risks faced. In my graphics I have tried to remain reasonably conservative in the use of language, because I believe things are serious enough; even when a conservative approach is taken.
  1. Now, Elizabeth Kolbert has written in the New Yorker:

In a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, two climate scientists—Yangyang Xu, of Texas A. & M., and Veerabhadran Ramanathan, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography—proposed that warming greater than three degrees Celsius be designated as “catastrophic” and warming greater than five degrees as “unknown??” The “unknown??” designation, they wrote, comes “with the understanding that changes of this magnitude, not experienced in the last 20+ million years, pose existential threats to a majority of the population.”

References

  • IPCC, 2013: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovern- mental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1535 pp.
  • IPCC, 2001: Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Houghton, J.T., Y. Ding, D.J. Griggs, M. Noguer, P.J. van der Linden, X. Dai, K. Maskell, and C.A. Johnson (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 881pp.
  • Myles Allen at al (2009), “Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions towards the trillionth tonne”,Nature 458, 1163-1166
  • Kirsten Zickfeld et al (2016), “On the proportionality between global temperature change and cumulative CO2 emissions during periods of net negative CO2 emissions”, Environ. Res. Lett. 11 055006

Technical Notes

A. Logarithmic relationship?

For those who know about the logarithmic relationship between added CO2 concentration and the ‘radiative forcing’ (giving rise to warming) – and many well meaning contrarians seem to take succour from this fact – the linear relationship in this figure may at first sight seem surprising.

The reason for the linearity is nicely explained by Marcin Popkiewicz in his piece “If growth of COconcentration causes only logarithmic temperature increase – why worry?”

The relative warming (between one level of emissions and another) is related to the ratio of this logarithmic function, and that is approximately linear over the concentration range of interest.

In any case, it is worth noting that CO2 concentrations have been increasing exponentially, and a logarithm of an exponential function is a linear function.

There is on-going work on wider questions. For example, to what extent ‘negative emissions technology’ can counteract warming that is in the pipeline?

Kirsten Zickfield et al (2016), is one such paper, “…[suggests that] positive CO2 emissions are more effective at warming than negative emissions are at subsequently cooling”. So we need to be very careful in assuming we can reverse warming that is in the pipeline.

B. Transient Climate Response and Additional Warming Commitment

The ‘Transient Climate Response’ (TCR) reflects the warming that results when CO2 is added at 1% per year, which for a doubling of the concentration takes 70 years. This is illustrated quite well in a figure from a previous report (Reference: IPCC, 2001):

TAR Figure 9.1

The warming that results from this additional concentration of CO2 occurs over the same time frame. However, this does not include all the the warming that will eventually result because the earth system (principally the oceans and atmosphere) will take a long time to reach a new equilibrium where all the flows of energy are brought back into a (new) balance. This will take at least 200 years (for lower emission scenarios) or much longer for higher emission levels.  This additional warming commitment must be added to the TCR. However, the TCR nevertheless does represent perhaps 70% of the overall warming, and remains a useful measure when discussing policy options over the 21st Century.

This discussion excludes more uncertain and much longer term feedbacks involving, for example, changes to the polar ice sheets (and consequentially, the Earth’s albedo), release of methane from northern latitudes or methane clathrates from the oceans. These are not part of the ‘additional warming commitment’, even in the IPCC 2013 report, as they are considered too speculative and uncertain to be quantified.

. . o O o . .

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Animating IPCC Climate Data

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is exploring ways to improve the communication of its findings, particularly to a more general  audience. They are not alone in having identified a need to think again about clear ‘science communications’. For example, the EU’s HELIX project (High-End Climate Impacts and Extremes), produced some guidelines a while ago on better use of language and diagrams.

Coming out of the HELIX project, and through a series of workshops, a collaboration with the Tyndall Centre and Climate Outreach, has produced a comprehensive guide (Guide With Practical Exercises to Train Researchers In the Science of  Climate Change Communication)

The idea is not to say ‘communicate like THIS’ but more to share good practice amongst scientists and to ensure all scientists are aware of the communication issues, and then to address them.

Much of this guidance concerns the ‘soft’ aspects of communication: how the communicator views themself; understanding the audience; building trust; coping with uncertainty; etc.

Some of this reflects ideas that are useful not just to scientific communication, but almost any technical presentation in any sector, but that does not diminish its importance.

This has now been distilled into a Communications Handbook for IPCC Scientists; not an official publication of the IPCC but a contribution to the conversation on how to improve communications.

I want to take a slightly different tack, which is not a response to the handbook per se, but covers a complementary issue.

In many years of being involved in presenting complex material (in my case, in enterprise information management) to audiences unfamiliar with the subject at hand, I have often been aware of the communication potential but also risks of diagrams. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but this is not true if you need a thousand words to explain the picture!

The unwritten rules related to the visual syntax and semantics of diagrams is a fascinating topic, and one which many – and most notably Edward Tufte –  have explored. In chapter 2 of his insightful and beautiful book Visual Explanations, Tufte argues:

“When we reason about quantityative evidence, certain methods for displaying and analysing data are better than others. Superior methods are more likely to produce truthful, credible, and precise findings. The difference between an excellent analysis and a faulty one can sometimes have momentous consequences”

He then describes how data can be used and abused. He illustrates this with two examples: the 1854 Cholera epidemic in London and the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster.

Tufte has been highly critical of the over reliance on Powerpoint for technical reporting (not just presentations) in NASA, because the form of the content degrades the narrative that should have been an essential part of any report (with or without pictures). Bulletized data can destroy context, clarity and meaning.

There could be no more ‘momentous consequences’ than those that arise from man-made global warming, and therefore, there could hardly be a more important case where a Tuftian eye, if I may call it that, needs to be brought to bear on how the information is described and visualised.

The IPCC, and the underlying science on which it relies, is arguably the greatest scientific collaboration ever undertaken, and rightly recognised with a Nobel Prize. It includes a level of interdisciplinary cooperation that is frankly awe-inspiring; unique in its scope and depth.

It is not surprising therefore that it has led to very large and dense reports, covering the many areas that are unavoidably involved: the cryosphere, sea-level rise, crops, extreme weather, species migration, etc.. It might seem difficult to condense this material without loss of important information. For example, Volume 1 of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, which covered the Physical Basis of Climate Change, was over 1500 pages long.

Nevertheless, the IPCC endeavours to help policy-makers by providing them with summaries and also a synthesis report, to provide the essential underlying knowledge that policy-makers need to inform their discussions on actions in response to the science.

However, in its summary reports the IPCC will often reuse key diagrams, taken from the full reports. There are good reasons for this, because the IPCC is trying to maintain mutual consistency between different products covering the same findings at different levels of detail.

This exercise is fraught with risks of over-simplification or misrepresentation of the main report’s findings, and this might limit the degree to which the IPCC can become ‘creative’ with compelling visuals that ‘simplify’ the original diagrams. Remember too that these reports need to be agreed by reviewers from national representatives, and the language will often seem to combine the cautiousness of a scientist with the dryness of a lawyer.

So yes, it can be problematic to use artistic flair to improve the comprehensibility of the findings, but risk losing the nuance and caution that is a hallmark of science. The countervailing risk is that people do not really ‘get it’; and do not appreciate what they are seeing.

We have seen with the Challenger reports, that people did not appreciate the issue with the O rings, especially when key facts were buried in 5 levels of indented bullet points in a tiny font, for example or, hidden in plain sight, in a figure so complex that the key findings are lost in a fog of complexity.

That is why any attempt to improve the summaries for policy makers and the general public must continue to involve those who are responsible for the overall integrity and consistency of the different products, not simply hived off to a separate group of ‘creatives’ who would lack knowledge and insight of the nuance that needs to be respected.  But those complementary skills – data visualizers, graphics artists, and others – need to be included in this effort to improve science communications. There is also a need for those able to critically evaluate the pedagogic value of the output (along the lines of Tufte), to ensure they really inform, and do not confuse.

Some individuals have taken to social media to present their own examples of how to present information, which often employs animation (something that is clearly not possible for the printed page, or its digital analogue, a PDF document). Perhaps the most well known example to date was Professor Ed Hawkin’s spiral picture showing the increase in global mean surface temperature:

spiral_2017_large

This animation went viral, and was even featured as part of the Rio Olympics Opening Ceremony. This and other spiral animations can be found at the Climate Lab Book site.

There are now a number of other great producers of animations. Here follows a few examples.

Here, Kevin Pluck (@kevpluck) illustrates the link between the rising carbon dioxide levels and the rising mean surface temperature, since 1958 (the year when direct and continuous measurements of carbon dioxide were pioneered by Keeling)

Kevin Pluck has many other animations which are informative, particularly in relation to sea ice.

Another example, from Antti Lipponen (@anttilip), visualises the increase in surface warming from 1900 to 2017, by country, grouped according to continent. We see the increasing length/redness of the radial bars, showing an overall warming trend, but at different rates according to region and country.

A final example along the same lines is from John Kennedy (@micefearboggis), which is slightly more elaborate but rich in interesting information. It shows temperature changes over the years, at different latitudes, for both ocean (left side) and land (right side). The longer/redder the bar the higher the increase in temperature at that location, relative to the temperature baseline at that location (which scientists call the ‘anomaly’). This is why we see the greatest warming in the Arctic, as it is warming proportionally faster than the rest of the planet; this is one of the big takeaways from this animation.

These examples of animation are clearly not dumbing down the data, far from it. They  improve the chances of the general public engaging with the data. This kind of animation of the data provides an entry point for those wanting to learn more. They can then move onto a narrative treatment, placing the animation in context, confident that they have grasped the essential information.

If the IPCC restricts itself to static media (i.e. PDF files), it will miss many opportunities to enliven the data in the ways illustrated above that reveal the essential knowledge that needs to be communicated.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2018

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When did you learn about the Holocaust?

“Where were you when Kennedy was shot?”,

used to be the question everyone asked, but of course is an increasingly irrelevant question, in an ageing population.

But a question that should never age, and should stay with us forever, is

“When did you learn about the holocaust?”.

I remember when I first learned about the holocaust, and it remains seared into my consciousness, thanks to a passionate and dedicated teacher, Mr Cromie.

I was a young child at a boarding school Stouts Hill Preparatory School, in the little village of Uley in Gloucestershire. The school no longer exists but that memory never fades. You cannot ‘unlearn’ something like that.

I was no more than 12 at the time, so this would have been 1965 or earlier, and our teacher told us about the mass murder of the Jews in Nazi Germany, but with a sense of anger and resentment at the injustice of this monstrous episode in history. And it has often occurred to me since that the peak of this programme of murder was just 10 years before I was born.

But what did I learn and what did I remember? I learned about the gas chambers, and the burning of bodies, but it was all a kind of vague memory of an atrocity, difficult to properly make sense of at that age.

What we did not really learn was the process by which a civilised country like Germany could turn from being at the centre of European culture to a murderous genocidal regime in just a decade.

For British viewers, this story of inhumanity was often framed through the lens of Bergen-Belsen, because it was the Brits that liberated this Concentration Camp, and the influential Richard Dimbleby was there to deliver his sonorous commentary on the horrors of the skeletal survivors and piles of corpses.

But it is curious how this story is still the reflex image that many Britons have of the holocaust, and I have often wondered why.  The Conversation tried to provide an answer:

“But even though many, if not most, of those involved in the rescue and relief effort were aware of the fact that Jews made up the largest number of the victims, the evolving official British narrative sidestepped this issue. The liberation of Bergen-Belsen became separated from what the people held in this camp had had to endure, and why they had been incarcerated in the first place.

Instead, the liberation of Bergen-Belsen was transformed into a British triumph over “evil”. The event was used to confirm to the wider British public that the British Army had fought a morally and ethically justified war, that all the personal and collective sacrifices made to win the war had now been vindicated. Bergen-Belsen gave sense and meaning to the British military campaign against Nazi Germany and the Allied demand for an unconditional surrender. The liberation of the camp became Britain’s finest hour.”

Each country, each culture, and each person, constructs their own narrative to try to make sense of the horror.

But despite the horror of Bergen-Belsen, and the 35,000 who died there, it is barely a footnote in the industrialised murder campaign that the Nazi leadership planned and executed.

Despite the fact that most people are vaguely aware of a figure of several million Jews and others dying, they are rather less aware of the distinction between Concentration Camps and Death Camps (also know as Extermination Camps).

Many died in the numerous Concentration Camps, as Wikipedia describes:

“Many of the prisoners died in the concentration camps due to deliberate maltreatment, disease, starvation, and overwork, or they were executed as unfit for labor. Prisoners were transported in inhumane conditions by rail freight cars, in which many died before reaching their final destination. The prisoners were confined in the boxcars for days or even weeks, with little or no food or water. Many died of dehydration in the intense heat of summer or froze to death in winter. Concentration camps also existed in Germany itself, and while they were not specifically designed for systematic extermination, many of their inmates perished because of harsh conditions or they were executed.”

The death camps at Chełmno, Treblinka, Sobibór and Belzec were designed purely as places of murder.  It is not simply about the arithmetic of the holocaust. After all, the death squads and related actions in the east accounted for 2.5 million murders, and the death camps over 3 million. But it is the sheer refinement of the industrialization of murder at the Extermination Camps that is difficult to comprehend:

“Visitors to the sites of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka (of who there are far, far fewer than travel to Auschwitz) are shocked by how tiny these killing camps were. A total of around 1.7 million people were murdered in these three camps – 600,000 more than the murder toll of Auschwitz – and yet all three could fit into the area of Auschwitz-Birkenau with room to spare. In a murder process that is an affront to human dignity at almost every level, one of the greatest affronts – and this may seem illiogical unless you have actually been there – is that so many people were killed in such a small area.”

Auschwitz: The Nazis & The ‘Final Solution’ – Laurence Rees, BBC Books, 2005

Majdanek and Auschwitz also became Extermination Camps, but were dual purpose, also being used as Concentration Camps, so they had accommodation, bunks, and so forth that where not needed in the small camps designed purely for murder.

It is helpful to those who deny the holocaust or its full horror that Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka have not entered into the public imagination in the way that Auschwitz has. Being dual use it is then easier to play on this apparent ambiguity, to construct a denial narrative along the lines of: many died from hard labour, it was not systematic murder.

And of course, not knowing about Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Chełmno is a lot easier than knowing, because they expose the full, unadulterated horror.

Remember that the Final Solution came after a decade of murderous projects – the death squads in the east, the euthanasia programmes, and early experiments with gassing – which led to the final horror of the Extermination Camps.

You can never stop learning, because you will never hear all the details, read all the books, or hear all the testimonies.

But if you ever find yourself not feeling deeply uncomfortable (as well as deeply moved) by the horrors of the Holocaust, then it is time to not turn away. To take another look.

For us today, the most important lesson is that it is possible for even a sophisticated and educated country to succumb to a warped philosophy that blames the ‘other’ for  problems in society, and to progressively desensitize the people to greater and greater levels of dehumanisation.

While nothing on the scale of the holocaust has occurred again, can we be confident that it never could? When we see what has happened under Pol Pot, or in Srebrenica, or in Rwanda, we know that the capacity of people to dehumanise ‘others’ for reasons of ethnicity or politics, and to murder them in large numbers, has not gone away.

The price of freedom, and decency in a society, is eternal vigilance.

Calling out hate speech is therefore, in a small way, honouring the 6 million – the great majority of whom were Jews – who died in the holocaust. It is stamping out that first step in that process of dehumanisation that is the common precursor of all genocidal episodes in history. It is always lurking there, waiting to consume a society that is looking for simple answers, and for someone to blame.

When did I learn about the holocaust?

I never stop learning.

 

#HolocaustMemorialDay #WeRemember

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Matt Ridley shares his ignorance of climate science (again)

Ridley trots out a combination of long-refuted myths that are much loved by contrarians; bad or crank science; or misunderstandings as to the current state of knowledge. In the absence of a Climate Feedback dissection of Ridley’s latest opinion piece, here is my response to some of his nonsense …

Here are five statements he makes that I will refute in turn.

1. He says: Forty-five years ago a run of cold winters caused a “global cooling” scare.

I say:

Stop repeating this myth Matt! A few articles in popular magazines in the 70s speculated about an impending ice age, and so according to dissemblers like Ridley, they state or imply that this was the scientific consensus at the time (snarky message: silly scientists can’t make your mind up). This is nonsense, but so popular amongst contrarians it is repeated frequently to this day.

If you want to know what scientists were really thinking and publishing in scientific papers read “The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus”, by Thomas Peterson at al (2008), American Meteorological Society.

Warming, not cooling was the greater concern. It is astonishing that Ridley and others continue to repeat this myth. Has he really been unable – in the ten years since it was published – to read this oft cited article and so disabuse himself of the myth? Or does he deliberately repeat it because he thinks his readers are too lazy or too dumb to check the facts? How arrogant would that be?

2. He says: Valentina Zharkova of Northumbria University has suggested that a quiescent sun presages another Little Ice Age like that of 1300-1850. I’m not persuaded. Yet the argument that the world is slowly slipping back into a proper ice age after 10,000 years of balmy warmth is in essence true.

I say:

Oh dear, he cites the work of Zharkova, saying he is not persuaded, but then talks of ‘slowly slipping into a proper ice age’. A curious non sequitur. While we are on Zharkova, her work suffered from being poorly communicated.

And quantitatively, her work has no relevance to the current global warming we are observing. The solar minimum might create a -0.3C contribution over a limited period, but that would hardly put a dent in the +0.2C per decade rate of warming.

But, let’s return to the ice age cycle. What Ridley obdurately refuses to acknowledge is that the current warming is occurring due to less than 200 years of man-made changes to the Earth’s atmosphere, raising CO2 to levels not seen for nearly 1 million years (equal to 10 ice age cycles), is raising the global mean surface temperature at an unprecedented rate.

Therefore, talking about the long slow descent over thousands of years into an ice age that ought to be happening (based on the prior cycles), is frankly bizarre, especially given that the man-made warming is now very likely to delay a future ice age. As the a paper by Ganopolski et al, Nature (2016) has estimated:

“Additionally, our analysis suggests that even in the absence of human perturbations no substantial build-up of ice sheets would occur within the next several thousand years and that the current interglacial would probably last for another 50,000 years. However, moderate anthropogenic cumulative CO2 emissions of 1,000 to 1,500 gigatonnes of carbon will postpone the next glacial inception by at least 100,000 years.”

And why stop there, Matt? Our expanding sun will boil away the oceans in a billion years time, so why worry about Brexit; and don’t get me started on the heat death of the universe. It’s hopeless, so we might as well have a great hedonistic time and go to hell in a handcart! Ridiculous, yes, but no less so than Ridley conflating current man-made global warming with a far, far off ice age, that recedes with every year we fail to address man-made emissions of CO2.

3. He says: Well, not so fast. Inconveniently, the correlation implies causation the wrong way round: at the end of an interglacial, such as the Eemian period, over 100,000 years ago, carbon dioxide levels remain high for many thousands of years while temperature fell steadily. Eventually CO2 followed temperature downward.

I say:

The ice ages have indeed been a focus of study since Louis Agassiz coined the term in 1837, and there have been many twists and turns in our understanding of them even up to the present day, but Ridley’s over-simplification shows his ignorance of the evolution of this understanding.

The Milankovitch Cycles are key triggers for entering, an ice age (and indeed, leaving it), but the changes in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide drives the cooling (entering) and warming (leaving) of an ice age, something that was finally accepted by the science community following Hays et al’s 1976 seminal paper (Variations in the Earth’s orbit: Pacemake of the ice ages) , over 50 years since Milankovitch first did his work.

But the ice core data that Ridley refers to confirms that carbon dioxide is the driver, or ‘control knob’, as Professor Richard Alley explains it; and if you need a very readable and scientifically literate history of our understanding of the ice cores and what they are telling us, his book “The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future” is a peerless, and unputdownable introduction.

Professor Alley offers an analogy. Suppose you take out a small loan, but then after this interest is added, and keeps being added, so that after some years you owe a lot of money. Was it the small loan, or the interest rate that created the large debt? You might say both, but it is certainly ridiculous to say the the interest rate is unimportant because the small loan came first.

But despite its complexity, and despite the fact that the so-called ‘lag’ does not refute the dominant role of CO2, scientists are interested in explaining such details and have indeed studied the ‘lag’. In 2012, Shakun and others published a paper doing just that “Global warming preceded by increasing carbon dioxide concentrations during the last deglaciation”(Jeremy D. Shakun et al, Nature 484, 49–54, 5 April 2012). Since you may struggle to see a copy of this paywalled paper, a plain-English summary is available.

Those who read headlines and not contents – like the US Politician Joe Barton – might think this paper is challenging the dominant role of CO2, but the paper does not say that.  This paper showed that some warming occurred prior to increased CO2, but this is explained as an interaction between Northern and Southern hemispheres, following the Milankovitch original ‘forcing’.

The role of the oceans is crucial in fully explaining the temperature record, and can add significant delays in reaching a new equilibrium. There are interactions between the oceans in Northern and Southern hemispheres that are implicated in some abrupt climate change events (e.g.  “North Atlantic ocean circulation and abrupt climate change during the last glaciation”, L. G. Henry et al, Science,  29 July 2016 • Vol. 353 Issue 6298).

4. He says: Here is an essay by Willis Eschenbach discussing this issue. He comes to five conclusions as to why CO2 cannot be the main driver

I say:

So Ridley quotes someone with little or no scientific credibility who has managed to publish in Energy & Environment. Its editor Dr Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen admitted that she was quite partisan in seeking to publish ‘sceptical’ articles (which actually means, contrarian articles), as discussed here.

Yet, Ridley extensively quotes this low grade material, but could have chosen from hundreds of credible experts in the field of climate science. If he’d prefer ‘the’ textbook that will take him through all the fundamentals that he seems to struggle to understand, he could try Raymond Pierrehumbert’s seminal textbook “Principles of Planetary Climate”. But no. He chooses Eschenbach, with a BA in Psychology.

Ridley used to put up the appearance of interest in a rational discourse, albeit flying in the face of the science. That mask has now fully and finally dropped, as he is now channeling crank science. This is risible.

5. He says: The Antarctic ice cores, going back 800,000 years, then revealed that there were some great summers when the Milankovich wobbles should have produced an interglacial warming, but did not. To explain these “missing interglacials”, a recent paper in Geoscience Frontiers by Ralph Ellis and Michael Palmer argues we need carbon dioxide back on the stage, not as a greenhouse gas but as plant food.

I say:

The paper is 19 pages long, which is unusual in today’s literature. The case made is intriguing but not convincing, but I leave it to the experts to properly critique it. It is taking a complex system, where for example, we know that large movements of heat in the ocean have played a key role in variability, and tries to infer (explaining interglacials) that dust is the primary driver, while discounting the role of CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

The paper curiously does not cite the seminal paper by Hays et al (1976), yet cites a paper by Willis Eschenbach published in Energy & Environment (which I mentioned earlier). All this raised concerns in my mind about this paper.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and scientific dialogue, and it is really too early to claim that this paper is something or nothing; even if that doesn’t mean waiting the 50 odd years that Milankovitch’s work had to endure, before it was widely accepted. Good science is slow, conservative, and rigorous, and the emergence of a consilience on the science of our climate has taken a very long time, as I explored in a previous essay.

Ralph Ellis on his website (which shows that his primary interest is the history of the life and times of Jesus) states:

“Ralph has made a detour into palaeoclimatology, resulting in a peer-review science paper on the causes of ice ages”, and after summarising the paper says,

“So the alarmists were right about CO2 being a vital forcing agent in ice age modulation – just not in the way they thought”.

So was this paper an attempt to clarify what was happening during the ice ages, or a contrivance, to take a pot shot at carbon dioxide’s influence on our contemporary climate change?

The co-author, Michael Palmer, is a biochemist, with no obvious background in climate science and provided “a little help” on the paper according to his website.

But on a blog post comment he offers a rather dubious extrapolation from the paper:

“The irony is that, if we should succeed in keeping the CO2 levels high through the next glacial maximum, we would remove the mechanism that would trigger the glacial termination, and we might end up (extreme scenario, of course) another Snowball Earth.”,

They both felt unembarrassed participating in comments on the denialist blog site WUWT. Quite the opposite, they gleefully exchanged messages with a growing band of breathless devotees.

But even if my concerns about the apparent bias and amateurism of this paper were allayed, the conclusion (which Ridley and Ellis clearly hold to) that the current increases in carbon dioxide is nothing to be concerned with, does not follow from this paper. It is a non sequitur.

If I discovered a strange behavour like, say, the Coriolis force way back when, the first conclusion would not be to throw out Newtonian mechanics.

The physics of CO2 is clear. How the greenhouse effect works is clear, including for the conditions that apply on Earth, with all remaining objections resolved since no later than the 1960s.

We have a clear idea of the warming effect of increased CO2 in the atmosphere including short term feedbacks, and we are getting an increasingly clear picture of how the Earth system as a whole will respond, including longer term feedbacks.  There is much still to learn of course, but nothing that is likely to require jettisoning fundamental physics.

The recent excellent timeline published by Carbon Brief showing the history of the climate models, illustrates the long slow process of developing these models, based on all the relevant fundamental science.

This history has shown how different elements have been included in the models as the computing power has increased – general circulation, ocean circulation, clouds, aerosols, carbon cycle, black carbon.

I think it is really because Ridley still doesn’t understand how an increase from 0.03% to 0.04% over 150 years or so, in the atmospheric concentration of CO2, is something to be concerned about (or as I state it in talks, a 33% rise in the principal greenhouse gas; which avoids Ridley’s deliberately misleading formulation).

He denies that he denies the Greenhouse Effect, but every time he writes, he reveals that really, deep down, he still doesn’t get it. To be as generous as I can to him, he may suffer from a perpetual state of incredulity (a common condition I have written about before).

Conclusion

Matt Ridley in an interview he gave to Russ Roberts at EconTalk.org in 2015 he reveals his inability to grasp even the most basic science:

“So, why do they say that their estimate of climate sensitivity, which is the amount of warming from a doubling, is 3 degrees? Not 1 degree? And the answer is because the models have an amplifying factor in there. They are saying that that small amount of warming will trigger a furtherwarming, through the effect mainly of water vapor and clouds. In other words, if you warm up the earth by 1 degree, you will get more water vapor in the atmosphere, and that water vapor is itself a greenhouse gas and will cause you to treble the amount of warming you are getting. Now, that’s the bit that lukewarmers like me challenge. Because we say, ‘Look, the evidence would not seem the same, the increases in water vapor in the right parts of the atmosphere–you have to know which parts of the atmosphere you are looking at–to justify that. And nor are you seeing the changes in cloud cover that justify these positive-feedback assumptions. Some clouds amplify warming; some clouds do the opposite–they would actually dampen warming. And most of the evidence would seem to suggest, to date, that clouds are actually having a dampening effect on warming. So, you know, we are getting a little bit of warming as a result of carbon dioxide. The clouds are making sure that warming isn’t very fast. And they’re certainly not exaggerating or amplifying it. So there’s very, very weak science to support that assumption of a trebling.”

He seems to be saying that the water vapour is in the form of clouds – some high altitude, some low –  have opposite effects (so far, so good), so the warming should be 1C – just the carbon dioxide component – from a doubling of CO2 concentrations (so far, so bad).  The clouds represent a condensed (but not yet precipitated) phase of water in the atmosphere, but he seems to have overlooked that water also comes in a gaseous phase (not clouds). Its is that gaseous phase that is providing the additional warming, bringing the overall warming to 3C.

The increase in water vapour concentrations is based on “a well-established physical law (the Clausius-Clapeyron relation) determines that the water-holding capacity of the atmosphere increases by about 7% for every 1°C rise in temperature” (IPCC AR4 FAQ 3.2)

T.C. Chamberlin writing in 1905 to Charles Abbott, explained this in a way that is very clear, explaining the feedback role of water vapour:

“Water vapour, confessedly the greatest thermal absorbent in the atmosphere, is dependent on temperature for its amount, and if another agent, as CO2 not so dependent, raises the temperature of the surface, it calls into function a certain amount of water vapour, which further absorbs heat, raises the temperature and calls forth more [water] vapour …”

(Ref. “Historical Perspectives On Climate Change” by James Fleming, 1998)

It is now 113 years since Chamberlin wrote those words, but poor Ridley is still struggling to understand basic physics, so instead regales us with dubious science intended to distract and confuse.

When will Matt Ridley stop feeling the need to share his perpetual incredulity and obdurate ignorance with the world?

© Richard W. Erskine, 2018

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Ending The Climate Solution Wars: A Climate Solutions Taxonomy

If you spend even a little time looking at the internet and social media in search of enlightenment on climate solutions, you will have noted that there are passionate advocates for each and every solution out there, who are also experts in the shortcomings of competing solutions!

This creates a rather unhelpful atmosphere for those of us trying to grapple with the problem of addressing the very real risks of dangerous global warming.

There are four biases – often implied but not always stated – that lie at the heart of these unproductive arguments:

  • Lack of clear evidence of the feasibility of a solution;
  • Failure to be clear and realistic about timescales;
  • Tendency to prioritize solutions in a way that marginalizes others;
  • Preference for top-down (centralization) or bottom-up (decentralization) solutions.

Let’s explore how these manifest themselves:

Feasibility: Lack of clear evidence of the feasibility of a solution

This does not mean that an idea does not have promise (and isn’t worthy of R&D investment), but refers to the tendency to champion a solution based more on wishful thinking than any proven track record. For example, small modular nuclear has been championed as the path to a new future for nuclear – small, modular, scaleable, safe, cheap – and there are an army of people shouting that this is true. We have heard recent news that the economics of small nuclear are looking a bit shaky. This doesn’t mean its dead, but it does rather put the onus on the advocates to prove their case, and cut the PR, as Richard Black has put it. Another one that comes to mind is ‘soil carbon’ as the single-handed saviour (as discussed in Incredulity, Credulity and the Carbon Cycle). The need to reform agriculture is clear, but it is also true (according to published science) that a warming earth could make soils a reinforcer of warming, rather than a cooling agent; the wisdom of resting hopes in regenerative farming as the whole of even a major contributor, is far from clear. The numbers are important.

Those who do not wish to deal with global warming (either because they deny its seriousness or because they do not like the solutions) quite like futuristic solutions, because while we are debating long-off solutions, we are distracted from focusing on implementing existing solutions.

Timescale: Failure to be clear and realistic about timescales

Often we see solutions that seem to clearly have promise and will be able to make a major contribution in the future. The issue is that even when they have passed the feasibility test, they fail to meet it on a timescale required. There is not even one timescale, as discussed in Solving Man-made Global Warming: A Reality Check, as we have an immediate need to reduce carbon emissions (say, 0-10 years), then an intermediate timeframe in which to implement an energy transition (say, 10-40 years). Renewable energy is key to the latter but cannot make sufficient contribution to the former (that can only be done by individual and community reductions in their carbon intensity). And whatever role Nuclear Fusion has for the future of humanity, it is totally irrelevant to solving the challenge we have in the next 50 years to decarbonize our economy.

The other aspect of timescale that is crucial is that the eventual warming of the planet is strongly linked to the peak atmospheric concentration, whereas the peak impacts will be delayed for decades or even centuries, before the Earth system finally reaches a new equilibrium. Therefore, while the decarbonization strategy required for solutions over, say, the 2020-2050 timeframe; the implied impacts timeframe could be 2050-2500, and this delay can make it very difficult to appreciate the urgency for action.

Priority: Tendency to prioritize solutions in a way that precludes others

I was commenting on Project Drawdown on twitter the other day and this elicited a strong response because of a dislike of a ‘list’ approach to solutions. I also do not like ‘lists’ when they imply that the top few should be implemented and the bottom ones ignored.  We are in an ‘all hands on deck’ situation, so we have to be very careful not to exclude solutions that meet the feasibility and timescale tests. Paul Hawken has been very clear that this is not the intention of Project Drawdown (because the different solutions interact and an apparently small solution can act as a catalyst for other solutions).

Centralization: Preference for top-down (centralization) or bottom-up (decentralization) solutions.

Some people like the idea of big solutions which are often underwritten at least by centralised entities like Governments. They argue that big impact require big solutions, and so they have a bias towards solutions like nuclear and an antipathy to lower-tech and less energy intensive solutions like solar and wind.

Others share quite the opposite perspective. They are suspicious of Governments and big business, and like the idea of community based, less intensive solutions. They are often characterized as being unrealistic because of the unending thirst of humanity for consumption suggests an unending need for highly intensive energy sources.

The antagonism between these world views often obscures the obvious: that we will need both top-down and bottom-up solutions. We cannot all have everything we would like. Some give and take will be essential.

This can make for strange bedfellows. Both environmentalists and Tea Party members in Florida supported renewable energy for complementary reasons, and they became allies in defeating large private utilities who were trying to kill renewables.

To counteract these biases, we need to agree on some terms of reference for solving global warming.

  • Firstly, we must of course be guided by the science (namely, the IPCC reports and its projections) in order to measure the scale of the response required. We must take a risk management approach to the potential impacts.
  • Secondly, we need to start with an ‘all hands on deck’ or inclusive philosophy because we have left it so late to tackle decarbonization, we must be very careful before we throw out any ideas.
  • Thirdly, we must agree on a relevant timeline for those solutions we will invest in and scale immediately. For example, for Project Drawdown, that means solutions that are proven, can be scaled and make an impact over the 2020-2050 timescale. Those that cannot need not be ‘thrown out’ but may need more research & development before they move to being operationally scaled.
  • Fourthly, we allow both top-down (centralized) and bottom-up (solutions), but recognise that while Governments dither, it will be up to individuals and social enterprise to act, and so in the short-medium term, it will be the bottom solutions that will have greater impact. Ironically, the much feared ‘World Government’ that right-wing conpiracy theorists most fear, is not what we need right now, and on that, the environmentalists mostly agree!

In the following Climate Solutions Taxonomy I have tried to provide a macro-level view of different solution classes. I have included some solutions which I am not sympathetic too;  such as nuclear and geo-engineering. But bear in mind that the goal here is to map out all solutions. It is not ‘my’ solutions, and is not itself a recommendation or plan.

On one axis we have the top-down versus bottom-up dimension, and on the other axis, broad classes of solution. The taxonomy is therefore not a simple hierarchy, but is multi-dimensional (here I show just two dimensions, but there are more).

Climate Solutions Taxonomy macro view

While I would need to go to a deeper level to show this more clearly, the arrows are suggestive of the system feedbacks that reflect synergies between solutions. For example, solar PV in villages in East Africa support education, which in turn supports improvments in family planning.

It is incredible to me that while we have (properly) invested a lot of intellectual and financial resources in scientific programmes to model the Earth’s climate system (and impacts), there has been dramatically less modelling effort on the economic implications that will help support policy-making (based on the damage from climate change, through what are called Integrated Assessment Models).

But what is even worse is that there seems to have been even less effort – or barely any –  modelling the full range of solutions and their interactions. Yes, there has been modelling of, for example, renewable energy supply and demand (for example in Germany), and yes, Project Drawdown is a great initiative; but I do not see a substantial programme of work, supported by Governments and Academia, that is grappling with the full range of solutions that I have tried to capture in the figure above, and providing an integrated set of tools to support those engaged in planning and implementing solutions.

This is unfortunate at many levels.

I am not here imagining some grand unified theory of climate solutions, where we end up with a spreadsheet telling us how much solar we should build by when and where.

But I do envisage a heuristic tool-kit that would help a town such as the one I was born (Hargesia in Somaliland), or the town in which I now live (Nailsworth in Gloucestershire in the UK), to be able to work through what works for them, to plan and deliver solutions. Each may arrive at different answers, but all need to be grounded in a common base of data and ‘what works’, and a more qualitative body of knowledge on synergies between solutions.

Ideally, the tool-kit would be usable at various levels of granularity, so it could be used at different various scales, and different solutions would emerge at different scales.

A wide range of both quantitative and qualitative methods may be required to grapple with the range of information covered here.

I am looking to explore this further, and am interested in any work or insights people have. Comments welcome.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017

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Deficit, Debt and stalling carbon dioxide emissions

This essay is based on an extract from a talk I did recently that was well received. This specific part of the talk was described as very helpful in clarifying matters related to our carbon dioxide emissions. I hope others also find it useful. 

David Cameron said on 24 January 2013 “We’re paying down Britain’s debts” and got a lot of stick for this misleading statement. Why? Let me try to explain.

The deficit is the annual amount by which we spend more than we get in taxes. Whereas, the debt is the cumulative sum of year on year deficits.

As many politicians do, Cameron was using language designed to be, shall we say, ‘economical with the truth’. He was not the first, and he won’t be the last.

We can picture deficit being added to our debt using the following picture (or for greater dramatic effect, do it live if you are giving a talk):

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 17.10.49

If the deficit declines this year compared to last year, that may be of great solace to the Chancellor (and that was the situation in 2013), because maybe it’s the start of a trend that will mean that the debt may reach a peak.

Cameron could have said “Our debt keeps rising, but at least the rate at which it is rising is slightly less than last year. We’ll need to borrow some more to cover the additional deficit”, would the a honest statement, but he didn’t. It simply wouldn’t have cut it with the spin doctors.

The reality is that the only thing we can conclude from a deficit this year that is smaller than last year is that that the debt has increased by an amount less than last year. That’s it. It doesn’t sound quite so great put that way, does it?

You need year-on-year surpluses to actually bring the debt down.

Deficit and debt are useful in making an analogy with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, because the confusion – intended or accidental – over deficit and debt, is very similar to the confusion that occurs in the mind of the public when the media report changes in our carbon emissions.

Let’s explore the analogy by replacing “Deficit” with “Emissions”, and “Debt” with “Atmospheric Concentration” …

The annual emissions add to the cumulative emissions in the atmosphere, i.e. the raised Atmospheric Concentration.

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 17.11.25

There are two differences with the financial analogy when we think about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Firstly, when we add, say, 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (the green coloured area represents the added carbon dioxide) …

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 17.11.37

… then, within a short time (about 5 years) 50% of the added carbon dioxide (that is 20 billion tonnes, in this illustration), is absorbed in oceans and biosphere, balancing the remainder of carbon dioxide added to atmosphere, and we can visualize this balance as follows (Credit: Rabett Run, which includes a more technical description and an animation) –

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 17.11.52

Secondly, unlike with the economy, once the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide goes up, it stays up for hundred of years (and to get back to where it started, thousands of years), because for one thing, the processes to take carbon from the upper ocean to the deep ocean are very slow.

Unlike with the economy, our added carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere always goes in the wrong direction; it increases.

So when we see stories that talk about “emissions stalling” or other phrases that seem to offer reassurance, remember, they are talking about emissions (deficit) NOT concentrations (debt).

The story title below is just one example, taken from the Financial Times ( and I am not picking on the FT, but it shows that this is not restricted to the tabloids).

Whenever we see a graph of emissions over the years (graph on the left), the Health Warning should always be the Keeling Curve (graph on the right).

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 17.12.05

So the global garbon dioxide emissions in 2014 and 2015 where 36.08 and 36.02 billion tonnes, respectively. Cause for cautious rejoicing? Well, given the huge number of variables that go into this figure (the GDP of each nation; their carbon intensity; the efficiency level for equipment and transport; and so on), projecting a trend from a few years is a tricky business, and some have devoted their lives to tracking this figure. Important work for sure.

Then 2016 came along and the figure was similar but slightly raised, at 36.18 billion tonnes.

But we were said to be stalled … 36.08, 36.02 and 36.18.

I liken this to heading for the cliff edge at a steady pace, but at least no longer accelerating. Apparently that is meant to be reassuring.

Then comes the projected figure for 2017, which includes a bit of a burp of carbon dioxide from the oceans – courtesy of the strong El Nino – and this was even predicted, and horror of horrors, it makes headline news around the world.

We have jumped by 2% over the previous year (actually 1.7% to 36.79 billion tonnes). Has the ‘stall’ now unstalled? What next?

The real headline is that we are continuing to emit over 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, year on year without any sign of stopping.

Only when emissions go down to 0 (zero), will the atmospheric concentration STOP rising.

So in relation to our emissions what word do we want to describe it? Not stall, not plateau, not ease back, but instead, stop, finito or end. They’ll do.

I have discovered – from talking to people who do not follow climate change on twitter, or the blogosphere, and are not fans of complex data analysis – that what I explained above was very helpful but also not widely appreciated.

But in a sense, this is probably the most important fact about climate change that everyone needs to understand, that

the carbon dioxide concentration will only stop rising when emissions completely stop.

The second most important fact is this:

whatever value the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide gets to – at that point in the future when we stop adding more – that it is where it will stay for my grandchild, and her grandchildren, and their grandchildren, and so on … for centuries* to come.

The Keeling Curve  – which measures the global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide – is the only curve that matters, because until it flattens, we will not know how much warming there will actually be, because of the third most important fact people must understand is this:

broadly speaking, the level of warming is proportional to the the peak concentration of carbon dioxide.

So when we see stories that talk about “emissions stalling” or other phrases that seem to offer hope that we’ve turned a corner, remember, they are talking about emissions (deficit) NOT concentrations (debt).

It is amazing how often the deficit/ debt confusion is played on by policitians regarding the nations finances.

The ’emissions stalling’ narrative of the last few years has led many to imagine we are, if not out of the woods, then on our way, but I think the confusion here is a failure of the media and other science communicators to always provide a clear health warning.

The truth is that we, as a species, are a long way still from showing a concerted effort to get out of the woods. Worse still, we are arguing amongst ourselves about which path to take.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017

 

[* Unless and until we find a way to artificially extract and sequester carbon dioxide; this is still only R&D and not proven at scale yet, so does not rescue the situation we face in the period leading to 2050. We need to halt emissions, not just “stall” them.]

#carbondioxide #emissions #debt #deficit

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Musing on the loss of European Medicines Agency (EMA) from the UK

People are arguing as to whether the loss of the EMA from the UK will hurt us or not, and I think missing some nuance.

The ICH (International Committee on Harmonization) has helped pharma to harmonize the way drugs are tested, licensed and monitored globally (albeit with variations), enabling drugs to be submitted for licensing in the largest number of countries possible.

For UK’s Big Pharma, the loss of EMA is a blow but not a fatal one, they have entities everywhere, they’ll find a way.

There are 3 key issues I see, around Network, Innovation and Influence:

  1. Network – New drug development is now more ‘ecosystem’ based, not just big pharma alone, and UK has lots of large, medium and small pharma, in both private and public institutions (Universities, Francis Crick Institute, etc.). And so do other EU countries, which form part of the extended network of collaboration. UK leaving EU will disrupt this network, and loss of EMA subtly changes the centre of power.
  2. Innovation – Further to the damage to networks, and despite ICH’s harmonization, being outside of EU inevitably creates issues for the smaller innovators with less reach, shallower pockets, and a greater challenge in adapting to the new  reality.
  3. Influence – not being at the EMA table (wherever its HQ is based) means that we cannot guide the development of regulation, which is on an inexorable path of even greater harmonization. Despite the UK’s self-loathing re. ‘not being as organized as the Germans’, the Brits have always been better than most at regulation, its deep in our culture (indeed much of the EU regulations neoliberals rail against have been gold-plated by the UK when they reach our shores). But outside the EU, and outside EMA, we won’t be in a position to apply these skills, and our influence will wane.

Unfortunately, the Brexiters have shown that they misunderstand the complexity not merely of supply chains in the automotive sector, for example, but the more subtle connections that exist in highly sophisticated development lifecycles, and highly regulated sectors, like pharmaceuticals.

A key regulatory body moving from our shores will have long term consequences we cannot yet know.

Can Britain adapt to the new reality?

Of course it can, but do not expect it to be easy, quick or cheap to do so.

Expect some pain.

 

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Solving Man-made Global Warming: A Reality Check

Updated 11th November 2017 – Hopeful message following Figure added.

It seems that the we are all – or most of us – in denial about the reality of the situation we are in with relation to the need to address global warming now, rather than sometime in the future.

We display seesaw emotions, optimistic that emissions have been flattening, but aghast that we had a record jump this year (which was predicted, but was news to the news people). It seems that people forget that if we have slowed from 70 to 60 miles per hour, approaching a cliff edge, the result will be the same, albeit deferred a little. We actually need to slam on the breaks and stop! Actually, due to critical erosion of the cliff edge, we will even need to go into reverse.

I was chatting with a scientist at a conference recently:

Me: I think we need to accept that a wide portfolio of solutions will be required to address global warming. Pacala and Socolow’s ‘wedge stabilization’ concept is still pertinent.

Him: People won’t change; we won’t make it. We are at over 400 parts per million and rising, and have to bring this down, so some artificial means of carbon sequestration is the only answer.

This is just an example of many other kinds of conversations of a similar structure that dominate the blogosphere. It’s all about the future. Future impacts, future solutions. In its more extreme manifestations, people engage in displacement behaviour, talking about any and every solution that is unproven in order to avoid focusing on proven solutions we have today.

Yet nature is telling us that the impacts are now, and surely the solutions should be too; at least for implementation plans in the near term.

Professors Kevin Anderson and Alice Larkin of the Tyndall Centre have been trying to shake us out of our denial for a long time now. The essential argument is that some solutions are immediately implementable while others are some way off, and others so far off they are not relevant to the time frame we must consider (I heard a leader in Fusion Energy research on the BBC who sincerely stated his belief that it is the solution to climate change; seriously?).

The immediately implementable solution that no politician dares talk about is degrowth – less buying stuff, less travel, less waste, etc. All doable tomorrow, and since the top 10% of emitters globally are responsible for 50% of emissions (see Extreme Carbon Inequality, Oxfam), the quickest and easiest solution is for that 10% or let’s say 20%, to halve their emissions; and do so within a few years. It’s also the most ethical thing to do.

Anderson & Larkin’s credibility is enhanced by the fact that they practice what they advocate, as for example, this example of an approach to reduce the air miles associated with scientific conferences:

Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 11.51.25

Some of people in the high energy consuming “West” have proven it can be done. Peter Kalmus, in his book Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution describes how he went from a not untypical US citizen responsible for 19 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year, to now something like 1 tonne; which is one fifth of the global average! It is all about what we do, how we do it, and how often we do it.

Anderson and Larkin have said that even just reaching half the European average, at least, would be a huge win: “If the top 10% of emitters were to reduce their emissions to the average for EU, that would mean a 33% in global emissions” (Kevin Andreson, Paris, Climate & Surrealism: how numbers reveal another reality, Cambridge Climate Lecture Series, March 2017).

This approach – a large reduction in consumption (in all its forms) amongst high emitters in all countries, but principally the ‘west’ – could be implemented in the short term (the shorter the better but let’s say, by 2030). Let’s call these Phase 1 solutions.

The reason we love to debate and argue about renewables and intermittency and so on is that it really helps to distract us from the blinding simplicity of the degrowth solution.

It is not that a zero or low carbon infrastructure is not needed, but that the time to fully implement it is too long – even if we managed to do it in 30 years time – to address the issue of rising atmospheric greenhouse gases. This has already started, but from a low base, but will have a large impact in the medium term (by 2050). Let’s call these Phase 2 solutions.

Project Drawdown provides many solutions relevant to both Phase 1 and 2.

And as for my discussion that started this, artificial carbon sequestration methods, such as BECCS and several others (are explored in Atmosphere of Hope by Tim Flannery) will be needed, but it is again about timing. These solutions will be national, regional and international initiatives, and are mostly unproven at present; they live in the longer term, beyond 2050. Let’s call these Phase 3 solutions.

I am not here wanting to get into geo-engineering solutions, a potential Phase 4. A Phase 4 is predicated on Phases 1 to 3 failing or failing to provide sufficient relief. However, I think we would have to accept that if, and I personally believe only if, there was some very rude shock (an unexpected burp of methane from the Arctic, and signs of a catastrophic feedback), leading to an imminent > 3C rise in global average temperature (as a possible red-line), then some form of geo-engineering would be required as a solution of last resort. But for now, we are not in that place. It is a matter for some feasibility studies but not policy and action. We need to implement Phase 1, 2 and 3 – all of which will be required – with the aim of avoiding a Phase 4.

I have illustrated the three phases in the figure which follows (Adapted from Going beyond dangerous climate change: does Paris lock out 2°C? Professors Kevin Anderson & Alice Bows-Larkin, Tyndall Centre – presentation to School of Mechanical Aerospace & Civil Engineering University of Manchester February 2016, Douglas, Isle of Man).

My adapted figure is obviously a simplification, but we need some easily digestible figures to help grapple with this complex subject; and apologies in advance to Anderson & Larkin if I have taken liberties with my colourful additions and annotations to their graphic (while trying to remain true to its intent).

Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 12.19.57

A version of this slide on Twitter (@EssaysConcern) seemed to resonate with some people, as a stark presentation of our situation.

For me, it is actually a rather hopeful image, if as I, you have a belief in the capacity for people to work together to solve problems which so often we see in times of crisis; and this is a crisis, make no mistake.

While the climate inactivists promote a fear of big Government, controlling our lives, the irony here is that Phase 1 is all about individuals and communities, and we can do this with or without Government support. Phase 2 could certainly do with some help in the form of enabling legislation (such a price on carbon), but it does not have to be top-down solutions, although some are (industrial scale energy storage). Only when we get to Phase 3 are we seeing national solutions dominating, and then only because we have an international consensus to execute these major projects; that won’t be big government, it will be responsible government.

The message of Phases 1 and 2 is … don’t blame the conservatives, don’t blame the loss of feed-in tarifs, or … just do it! They can’t stop you!

They can’t force you to boil a full kettle when you only need one mug of tea. They can’t force you to drive to the smoke, when the train will do. They can’t force you to buy new stuff that can be repaired at a cafe.

And if your community wants a renewable energy scheme, then progressives and conservatives can find common cause, despite their other differences. Who doesn’t want greater community control of their energy, to compete with monopolistic utilities?

I think the picture contains a lot of hope, because it puts you, and me, back in charge. And it sends a message to our political leaders, that we want this high on the agenda.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017

 

 

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Incredulity, Credulity and the Carbon Cycle

Incredulity, in the face of startling claims, is a natural human reaction and is right and proper.

When I first heard the news about the detection on 14th September 2015 of the gravitational waves from two colliding black holes by the LIGO observatories I was incredulous. Not because I had any reason to disagree with the predictions of Albert Einstein that such waves should exist, rather it was my incredulity that humans had managed to detect such a small change in space-time, much smaller than the size of a proton.

How, I pondered, was the ‘noise’ from random vibrations filtered out? I had to do some studying, and discovered the amazing engineering feats used to isolate this noise.

What is not right and proper is to claim that personal incredulity equates to an error in the claims made. If I perpetuate my incredulity by failing to ask any questions, then it’s I who is culpable.

And if I were to ask questions then simply ignore the answers, and keep repeating my incredulity, who is to blame? If the answers have been sufficient to satisfy everyone skilled in the relevant art, how can a non expert claim to dispute this?

Incredulity is a favoured tactic of many who dispute scientific findings in many areas, and global warming is not immune from the clinically incredulous.

The sadly departed Professor David Mackay gives an example in his book Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air (available online):

The burning of fossil fuels is the principal reason why CO2 concentrations have gone up. This is a fact, but, hang on: I hear a persistent buzzing noise coming from a bunch of climate-change inactivists. What are they saying? Here’s Dominic Lawson, a columnist from the Independent:  

“The burning of fossil fuels sends about seven gigatons of CO2 per year into the atmosphere, which sounds like a lot. Yet the biosphere and the oceans send about 1900 gigatons and 36000 gigatons of CO2 per year into the atmosphere – … one reason why some of us are sceptical about the emphasis put on the role of human fuel-burning in the greenhouse gas effect. Reducing man-made CO2 emissions is megalomania, exaggerating man’s significance. Politicians can’t change the weather.”

Now I have a lot of time for scepticism, and not everything that sceptics say is a crock of manure – but irresponsible journalism like Dominic Lawson’s deserves a good flushing.

Mackay goes on to explain Lawson’s error:

The first problem with Lawson’s offering is that all three numbers that he mentions (seven, 1900, and 36000) are wrong! The correct numbers are 26, 440, and 330. Leaving these errors to one side, let’s address Lawson’s main point, the relative smallness of man-made emissions. Yes, natural flows of CO2 are larger than the additional flow we switched on 200 years ago when we started burning fossil fuels in earnest. But it is terribly misleading to quantify only the large natural flows into the atmosphere, failing to mention the almost exactly equal flows out of the atmosphere back into the biosphere and the oceans. The point is that these natural flows in and out of the atmosphere have been almost exactly in balance for millenia. So it’s not relevant at all that these natural flows are larger than human emissions. The natural flows cancelled themselves out. So the natural flows, large though they were, left the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and ocean constant, over the last few thousand years.

Burning fossil fuels, in contrast, creates a new flow of carbon that, though small, is not cancelled.

I offer this example in some detail as an exemplar of the problem often faced in confronting incredulity.

It is natural that people will often struggle with numbers, especially large abstract sounding numbers. It is easy to get confused when trying to interpret numbers. It does not help that in Dominic Lawson’s case he is ideologically primed to see a ‘gotcha’, where none exists.

Incredulity, such as Lawson’s, is perfectly OK when initially confronting a claim that one is sceptical of; we cannot all be informed on every topic. But why then not pick up the phone, or email a Professor with skills in the particular art, to get them to sort out your confusion?  Or even, read a book, or browse the internet? But of course, Dominic Lawson, like so many others suffers from a syndrome that  many have identified. Charles Darwin noted in The Descent of Man:

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”

It is this failure to display any intellectual curiosity which is unforgivable in those in positions of influence, such as journalists or politicians.

However, the incredulity has a twin brother, its mirror image: credulity. And I want to take an example that also involves the carbon cycle,.

In a politically charged subject, or one where there is a topic close to one’s heart, it is very easy to uncritically accept a piece of evidence or argument. To be, in the technical sense, a victim of confirmation bias.

I have been a vegetarian since 1977, and I like the idea of organic farming, preferably local and fresh. So I have been reading Graham Harvey’s book Grass Fed Nation. I have had the pleasure of meeting Graham, as he was presenting a play he had written which was performed in Stroud. He is a passionate and sincere advocate for his ideas on regenerative farming, and I am sure that much of what he says makes sense to farmers.

The recently reported research from Germany of a 75% decline in insect numbers is deeply worrying, and many are pointing the finger at modern farming and land-use methods.

However, I found something in amongst Harvey’s interesting book that made me incredulous, on the question of carbon.

Harvey presents the argument that, firstly, we can’t do anything to reduce carbon emissions from industry etc., but that secondly, no need to worry because the soils can take up all the annual emissions with ease; and further, that all of extra carbon in the industrial era could be absorbed in soils over coming years.

He relies a lot on Savory’s work, famed for his visionary but contentious TED talk. But he also references other work that makes similar claims.

I would be lying if I said there was not a part of me that wanted this to be true. I was willing it on. But I couldn’t stop myself … I just had to track down the evidence. Being an ex-scientist, I always like to go back to the source, and find a paper, or failing that (because of paywalls), a trusted source that summarises the literature.

Talk about party pooper, but I cannot find any such credible evidence for Harvey’s claim.

I think the error in Harvey’s thinking is to confuse the equilibrium capacity of the soils with their ability to take up more, every year, for decades.

I think it is also a inability to deal with numbers. If you multiply A, B and C together, but then take the highest possible ranges for A, B and C you can easily reach a result which is hugely in error. Overestimate the realistic land that can be addressed; and the carbon dioxide sequestration rate; and the time till saturation/ equilibrium is reached … and it is quite easy to overestimate the product of these by a factor of 100 or more.

Savory is suggesting that over a period of 3 or 4 decades you can draw down the whole of the anthropogenic amount that has accumulated (which is nearly 2000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide), whereas a realistic assessment (e.g. www.drawdown.org) is suggesting a figure of 14 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (more than 100 times less) is possible in the 2020-2050 timeframe.

There are many complex processes at work in the whole carbon cycle – the biological, chemical and geological processes covering every kind of cycle, with flows of carbon into and out of the carbon sinks. Despite this complexity, and despite the large flows of carbon (as we saw in the Lawson case), atmospheric levels had remained stable for a long time in the pre-industrial era (at 280 parts per million).  The Earth system as a whole was in equilibrium.

The deep oceans have by far the greatest carbon reservoir, so a ‘plausibility argument’ could go along the lines of: the upper ocean will absorb extra CO2 and then pass it to the deep ocean. Problem solved! But this hope was dashed by Revelle and others in the 1950s, when it was shown that the upper-to-lower ocean processes are really quite slow.

I always come back to the Keeling Curve, which reveals an inexorable rise in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere since 1958 (and we can extend the curve further back using ice core data). And the additional CO2 humans started to put into the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution (mid-19th century, let us say) was not, as far as I can see, magically soaked up by soils in the pre-industrial-farming days of the mid-20th century, when presumably traditional farming methods pertained.

FCRN explored Savory’s methods and claims, and find that despite decades of trying, he has not demonstrated that his methods work.  Savory’s case is very weak, and he ends up (in his exchanges with FCRN) almost discounting science; saying his methods are not susceptible to scientific investigations. A nice cop-out there.

In an attempt to find some science to back himself up, Savory referenced Gattinger, but that doesn’t hold up either. Track down Gattinger et al’s work  and it reveals that soil organic carbon could (on average, with a large spread) capture 0.4GtC/year (nowhere near annual anthropogenic emissions of 10GtC), and if it cannot keep up with annual emissions, forget soaking up the many decades of historical emissions (the 50% of these that persists for a very long time in the atmosphere).

It is interesting what we see here.

An example of ‘incredulity’ from Lawson, who gets carbon flows mixed up with net carbon flow, and an example of ‘credulity’ from Harvey where he puts too much stock in the equilibrium capacity of carbon in the soil, and assumes this means soils can keep soaking up carbon almost without limit. Both seem to struggle with basic arithmetic.

Incredulity in the face of startling claims is a good initial response to startling claims, but should be the starting point for engaging one’s intellectual curiosity, not as a perpetual excuse for confirming one’s bias; a kind of obdurate ignorance.

And neither should hopes invested in the future be a reason for credulous acceptance of claims, however plausible on face value.

It’s boring I know – not letting either one’s hopes or prejudices hold sway – but maths, logic and scientific evidence are the true friends here.

Maths is a great leveller.

 

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017

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JFK Conspiracy Story: Another Science Fail by BBC News

It seems only yesterday that the BBC was having to apologise for not challenging the scientifically illiterate rants of Lord Lawson … oh, but it was yesterday!

So how delightful to see another example of BBC journalism that demonstrates the woeful inability of journalists to report science accurately, or at least, to use well informed counter arguments when confronted with bullshit.

A Story by Owen Amos on the BBC Website (US & Canada section), with clickbait title “JFK assassination: Questions that won’t go away”  … is a grossly ill-informed piece, repeating ignorant conspiracy theories by Jefferson Morley (amongst others), without any challenge (BBC’s emphasis):

“Look at the Zapruder film,” says Morley. “Kennedy’s head goes flying backwards.

I know there’s a theory that if you get hit by a bullet from behind, the head goes towards the source of the bullet.

But as a common sense explanation, it seems very unlikely. That sure looks like a shot from the front.” 

That’s it then, common sense.

Case settled.

If it’s good enough for Oliver Stone and Jefferson Morley, who are we to argue?

But wait a minute!

The theory in question, if Morley is really interested, is the three centuries old  theory called Newtonian Mechanics (Reference: “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica“, Issac Newton, 1687).

Are we to cast that aside and instead listen to a career conspiracy theorist.

You can if you must, but the BBC shouldn’t be peddling such tripe.

As Luis Alvarez, the Nobel Laureate, pointed out long ago, the head MUST kick back in order to conserve both Momentum and Energy.  You need a picture?

IMG_2409

[I have not included the maths, but it is high school maths, trust me, you don’t need a Nobel Prize to do the calculation]

Morley would get a Nobel Prize if he disproved it. He hasn’t and won’t.

It seems that Morley has been doing the rounds in the media, and there is no problem finding gullible victims.

You might like to look at the Penn & Teller video of 2006 which demonstrates the physics in practice (with a melon), for the Newtonian sceptics like Morley.

Amos/BBC is gullible in uncritically replaying this nonsense, without mentioning Alvarez. Amos could have said something like

“this rationale (the head kick back) for a second gunman is completely unfounded as it flies in the face of basic Newtonian mechanics .. see this video

Unfortunately this fails the clickbait test for irresponsible journalism, which requires ‘debate’ by idiots in response to experts. It’s balanced reporting after all.

Why are journalists so incapable of understanding 300 years old basic physics, or so carelessly cast it aside. The same physics, by the way, that helps us design airplanes that fly, and a major pillar in climate science too (the science that so persistently eludes Lord Lawson).

I am waiting patiently for another BBC apology for crimes against scientific literacy and an inability to ask searching, informed questions of peddlars of bullshit, be they Lawson or Morley.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017.

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Trust, Truth and the Assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia 

How far do we go back to find examples of investigations of injustice or the abuse of power?

Maybe Roger Casement’s revelations on the horrors of King Leopold’s Congo, or the abuses of Peruvian Indians were heroic examples for which he received a Knighthood, even if later, his support for Irish independence earned him the noose.

Watergate was clearly not the first time that investigative journalism fired the public imagination, but it must be a high point, at least in the US, for the power of the principled and relentless pursuit of the truth by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

And then I call to mind the great days of the Sunday Times’ ‘Insight’ team that conducted many investigations. I recall the brilliant Brian Deer, who wrote for The Times and Sunday Times, and revealed the story behind Wakefield’s fake science on MMR, even while other journalists were shamelessly helping to propagate the discredited non-science.

But those days seem long ago now.

Today, you are just as likely to find The Times, The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Spectator – desperate to satisfy their ageing and conservative readership, or in need of clickbait advertising revenue – to regurgitate bullshit, including the anti-expert nonsense that fills the blogosphere. This nonsense has been called out many times, such as in Climate Feedback.

Despite Michael Gove’s assertion that “Britain has had enough with experts” the IPSOS More Veracity Index of 2016 suggests differently  – It appears that nurses, doctors, lawyers and scientists are in the upper quartile of trust, whereas journalists, estate agents and politicians lurk in the lower quartile.

No wonder the right-wingers who own or write for the organs of conservatism are so keen to attack those in the upper quartile, and claim there is a crisis of trust. This is  displacement activity by politicians and journalists: claiming that there is a crisis of trust with others to deflect it from themselves. The public are not fooled.

It is a deeply cynical and pernicious to play the game of undermining evidence and institutions.

As Hannah Arendt said in The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

But investigative journalism is not dead.

In Russia there are many brave journalists who expose corruption and the abuse of power, and they have paid with their lives: 165 murdered since 1993, with about 50% of these since Putin came to power. He didn’t start the killing, but then, he didn’t stop it either.

The nexus of political, business and mafia-style corruption makes it easy from the leadership to shrug off responsibility.

And so we come to Malta, where the same nexus exists. Daphne Caruana Galizia has been exposing corruption for so long, there were no shortage of enemies, including the politicians and police that failed to protect her. Her assassination is a scar on Malta that will take a long time to heal.

The EU has produced anodyne reports on partnership with Malta and programmes continue despite a breakdown in the rule of law and governance, that have provided a haven for nepotism and racketeering. Is Malta really so different to Russia in this regard?

Is the EU able to defend the principles it espouses, and sanction those who fail to live up to them?

The purveyors of false news detest brave investigative journalists as much as they love to attack those like scientists who present evidence that challenges their interests. Strong institutions are needed to defend society against these attacks.

Remainers like myself defend the EU on many counts, but we also expect leadership when that is needed, not merely the wringing of hands.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017.

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America’s Gun Psychosis

This was originally written on 2nd October 2017 following the Las Vegas shooting where Stephen Paddock murdered 58 people and injured 851 more. The latest mass shooting (a phrase that will become out of date, almost before the ink is dry) at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. This is also the 17th school shooting in the USA in the first 45 days of 2018. I have not made any changes to the essay below (because this is tragically the same psychosis), but have added Venn Diagrams to visualize the issue of mental health and guns. Mental health is not the issue here. It is people with homicidal tendencies (many of whom will indeed have mental problems) having easy access to guns. We should not stigmatise a growing number of people with mental health problems. We should reduce access to guns.

If ever one needed proof of the broken state of US politics, the failure to deal with this perpetual gun crisis is it.

After 16 children and 1 teacher were killed in the Dunblane massacre on 13th March 1996, the UK acted.

After 35 people were killed in the PortArthur massacre on 28th April 1996, Australia acted.

It’s what any responsible legislature would do.

So far in 2017, US deaths from shootings totals a staggering 11,652 (I think not including the latest mass shooting in Las Vegas, and with 3 months still to run in 2017 – see gunsviolencearchive – and note this excludes suicides).

The totals for the previous 3 years 2014, 2015 and 2016 are 12,571; 13,500; and 15,079.

The number of those injured comes in at about two times those killed (but note that the ratio for the latest Las Vegas shooting is closer to 10, with the latest Associated Press report at the time of writing, giving 58 people dead and 515 injured).

One cannot imagine the huge number of those scarred by these deaths and injuries – survivors, close families, friends, colleagues, classmates, first-responders, relatives at home and abroad. Who indeed has not been impacted by these shootings, in the US and even abroad?

I write as someone with many relatives and friends in America, and having owed my living to great American companies for much of my career. But I am also someone whose family has been touched by this never-ending obsession that America has with guns.

And still Congress and Presidents seem incapable of standing up to the gun lobby and acting.

The US, far from acting, loosens further the access to guns or controls on them.

This is a national psychosis, and an AWOL legislature.

In both the UK and Australian examples, it was actually conservative administrations that brought in the necessary legislation, so the idea that only ‘liberals’ are interested in reducing the number and severity of shootings, by introducing gun control, is simply wrong. This should not be a party political issue.

In the US some will argue against gun control, saying that a determined criminal or madman can always get hold of a gun. This is a logical fallacy, trying to make the best be the enemy of the good. Just because an action is not guaranteed to be 100% perfect, is no reason for not taking an action that could be effective, and the case of the UK and Australia, very effective. Do we fail to deliver chemotherapy to treat cancer patients because it is not guaranteed to prevent every patient from dying; to be 100% perfect? Of course not. But this is just one of the many specious arguments used by the gun lobby in the USA to defend the indefensible.

But at its root there is, of course, a deeply polarised political system in the USA. The inability to confront the guns crisis, is the same grid-locked polarisation that is preventing the US dealing with healthcare, or the justice system, or endemic racism, or indeed, climate change.

How will America – a country that has given so much to the world – overcome this debilitating polarization in the body politic?

America needs a Mandela – a visionary leader able to bring people together to have a rationale, evidence based conversation – but none is in sight.

It’s enough to make one weep.

The 3 branches of the US Government ought to be ashamed, but expect more platitudinous ‘thoughts and prayers’ … the alternative to them doing their job.

Trump is now praying for the day when evil is banished, for god’s sake! An easy but totally ineffective substitute for actually doing anything practical to stem the carnage, and protect US citizens.

Some pictures added 16th February 2018 to illustrate the problem facing the USA …

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 08.08.32Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 08.08.41

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BBC Science Reporting: Evidence, Values and Pollability

In his Harveian Oration to the Royal College of Physicians on 15th October 2015, Professor Sir Mark Walport made the following observation:

“My PhD supervisor, Sir Peter Lachmann, has framed the distinction between the subjective and the objective in a different way, by considering whether questions are ‘pollable’ or ‘non- pollable’; that is, whether a question can be answered in principle by a vote (a pollable question), or whether the question has a right answer that is independent of individual preferences and opinions (a non-pollable question). This distinction can be easily illustrated by a couple of examples. It is a non-pollable question as to whether there is an anthropogenic contribution to climate change. There is a correct answer to this question and your opinion or mine is ultimately irrelevant. The fact that there may be uncertainties about the scale and the nature of the contribution does not change the basic nature of the question. In contrast, it is a pollable question as to whether nuclear energy is an acceptable solution to providing low-carbon power, and I will return to this later.”

The question presents itself: does the BBC understand the distinction between pollable and non-pollable questions related to science?

BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday 12th September included two discussions on the nature of science reporting and how it has changed over the years, particularly at the BBC.

The first was with Steve Jones , Emeritus Professor of Human Genetics at University College, who led a  review of the way the BBC itself reports science, about the changing nature of science reporting, while the second was with Richard Dawkins, Professor of evolutionary biology and David Willetts a former science minister, considering the “public’s evolving relationship with science, evidence and truth”.

Subsequent to this I wrote a letter to the Today team at the BBC, which is reproduced below, which I am now sharing on my blog:

Dear Sir/ Madam

I wanted to thank the BBC Today team for two excellent discussions that John Humphreys had, first with Prof. Steve Jones, and then subsequently with David Willetts and Richard Dawkins.

John Humphreys posed the challenge to Prof. Jones, as to why we should ‘believe’ climate change; and I am paraphrasing his words:

A. The world is warming

B. This warming is man made, and

C. There is only one way of stopping it.

This was an alarming way to approach the topic, for two reasons.

Firstly, the science – and by virtue of that statement, scientists – unequivocally answer A and B with a resounding ‘Yes’.  There is an aggregation of scientific evidence and analysis going back at least to John Tyndall in the mid 19th Century that brought us – no later than the 1980s in fact – to a consilience of science on these questions. I discuss this history and the nature of ‘consilience’ in an essay, here: https://essaysconcerning.com/2017/05/02/a-climate-of-consilience-or-the-science-of-certitude/ 

To question this is at the same level as questioning whether cigarettes cause lung cancer. There is no debate to be had here.  Yes, debate on how to get teenagers  to stop taking up smoking, but that’s a different question.  To say that everyone can have an opinion, and to set up a controversial ‘debate’ on these questions is the “false balance” Professor Jones identified in the report he did for the BBC. Representing opinions is not a license to misrepresent the evidence, by using ‘false balance’ in this way.

Secondly, however, scientists do NOT speak with one voice on how to stop it, as John Humphrey’s phrased his C question.  That is a why the UNFCCC takes up the question here which require policy input, and yes, the input of ‘values’.  Whilst the A and B questions are not questions where it is appropriate to bring values to bear on the answers; solutions are full of value-based inputs.  So the C that John Humphreys should be opening a dialogue on this:

C(amended): There are many solutions that can contribute to addressing the given man-made global warming – either by mitigation or adaptation – which ones do you advocate and why?

And of course many subsidiary questions arise when debating these solutions:

  • Are we too late to prevent dangerous climate change, therefore need a massive reduction in consumption – a degrowth strategy?
  • Can we solve this with a kind of Marshall Plan to decarbonise our energy supply, but also heat buildings and transport, through electrification?
  • What role does nuclear energy play?
  • Given the long time that excess carbon dioxide levels remain in the atmosphere, and the legacy of the developed worlds emissions, how can the developing world receive carbon justice?
  • Even if we decarbonised everything tomorrow, what solutions are feasible for reducing the raised levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; what degree of sea-level rise are we prepared to tolerate, ‘baked in’ already to the Earth system?
  • Is a carbon tax ultimately the only way forward, and what price do we put on carbon?
  • … and so on.

Yes, science can help answer these kinds of questions, but the values play a large part too.  

The fact the BBC still gets stuck in the groove of ‘debating’ A and B, is I think woeful. As woeful as ‘debating’ if smoking causes cancer.

I think David Willetts acknowledged the difference in these classes of question, whereas Richard Dawkins was disappointingly black and white; not recognising the role of values in the C(amended) class of questions.

David Willetts made the interesting point that in social science, there is often greater difficulty in getting to the truth, and this is highly problematic for politicians, but that for the physical sciences, if we’ve discovered the Higgs Boson, it is much clearer.  He made a lot of the need to bring values to bear on decisions and ‘not being able to wait for yet another report’. However, there is a qualitative difference with climate change: it requires long term strategic thinking and it is a challenge to the normal, national political cycles.

On the question of Lord Lawson. By all means invite him to discuss the economics of decarbonising the economy. But last time he was asked on – more or less to do this – and had a discussion with Justin Webb, he was asked by Justin to comment on Al Gore’s statement that we needed to push ahead with the solutions that are already available to us. Move on, in other words.

Instead of answering this question Lord Lawson tried to poke holes in unequivocal science (A and B), instead of addressing C; he has no intention of moving on.  He lost, and seems quite bitter about it; as he went on to make personal attacks on Al Gore.  While the interviewer cannot stop Lord Lawson saying these things, he should be called out on them.

“I am not a scientist” is a statement that US Republican Congressman use to avoid confronting the fact that A and B are true, and not up for debate.  John Humphreys should not be using the same statement (but he did on this episode). 

If climate change is “the big one” as he himself noted, surely it is time he made the effort to educate himself to the point where he understands why A and B are unequivocally “Yes”, in the same way that “Does smoking cause lung cancer?” has an unequivocally “Yes” answer.  There are no shortage of scientists at the Met Office, Cambridge, Oxford, UCL and elsewhere who I am sure would be happy to help him out here.

Today was a good discussion – even a great step forward – but the BBC is still failing in its public service duty, on this topic of global warming.

Kind regards,

Richard Erskine

What seems to be clear to me is that John Humphreys is not alone amongst journalists in failing to distinguish between non-pollable (where evidence accumulated over many years holds sway, and values have no place) and pollable questions (where values can have as big a part to play as the science).

It is about time they started.

o o O o o

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The Zeitgeist of the Coder

When I go to see a film with my wife, we always stick around for the credits, and the list has got longer and longer over the years … Director, Producer, Cinematographer, Stuntman, Grips, Special Effects … and we’ve only just started. Five minutes later and we are still watching the credits! There is something admirable about this respect for the different contributions made to the end product. The degree of differentiation of competence in a film’s credits is something that few other projects can match.

Now imagine the film reel for a typical IT project … Project Manager, Business Analyst, Systems Architect, Coder, Tester and we’re almost done, get your coat. Here, there is the opposite extreme; a complete failure to identify, recognise and document the different competencies that surely must exist in something as complex as a software project. Why is this?

For many, the key role on this very short credits list is the ‘coder’. There is this zeitgeist of the coders – a modern day priesthood – that conflates their role with every other conceivable role that could or should exist on the roll of honour.

A good analogy for this would be the small scale general builder. They imagine they can perform any skill: they can fit a waterproof membrance on a flat roof; they can repair the leadwork around the chimney; they can mend the lime mortar on that Cotswold stone property. Of course, each of these requires deep knowledge and experience of the materials, tools and methods needed to plan and execute them right.  A generalist will overestimate their abilities and underestimate the difficulties, and so they will always make mistakes.

The all purpose ‘coder’ is no different, but has become the touchstone for our digital rennaissance. ‘Coding’ is the skill that trumps all others in the minds of the commentariat.

Politicians, always keen to jump on the next bandwagon, have for some years now been falling over themselves to extol the virtues of coding as a skill that should be promoted in schools, in order to advance the economy.  Everyone talks about it, imagining it offers a kind of holy grail for growing the digital economy.  But can it be true? Is coding really the path to wealth and glory, for our children and our economy?

Forgetting for a moment that coding is just one of the skills required on a longer list of credits, why do we all need to become one?

Not everyone is an automotive engineer, even though cars are ubiquitous, so why would driving a car mean we all have to be able to design and build one? Surely only a few of us need that skill. In fact, whilst cars – in the days when we called them old bangers – did require a lot of roadside fixing, they are now so good we are discouraged from tinkering with them at all.  We the consumers have become de-skilled, while the cars have become super-skilled.

But apparently, every kid now needs to be able to code, because we all use Apps. Of course, it’s nonsense, for much the same reasons it is nonsense that all car drivers need to be automotive engineers. And as we decarbonise our economy Electric Vehicles will take over, placing many of the automotive skills in the dustbin. Battery engineers anyone?

So why is this even worth discussing in the context of the knowledge economy? We do need to understand if coding has any role in the management of our information and knowledge, and if not, what are the skills we require. We need to know how many engineers are required, and crucially, what type of engineers.

But lets stick with ‘coding’ for a little while longer. I would like to take you back to the very birth of computing, to deconstruct the wording ‘coding’ and place into context. The word coding originates the time when programming a computer meant knowing the very basic operations expressed as ‘machine code’ – Move a byte to this memory location, Add these two bytes, Shift everything left by 2 bytes – which was completely indecipherable to the uninitiated. It also had a serious drawback in that a program would have to be re-written to run on another machine, with its own particular machine code. Since computers were evolving fast, and software needed to be migrated from old to new machines, this was clearly problematic.

Grace Hooper came up with the idea of a compiler in 1952, quite early in the development of computers. Programs would then be written in a machine-agnostic ‘high level language’ (which was designed to be readable, almost like a natural language, but with a simple syntax to  allow logic to be expressed … If (A = B) Then [do-this] Else [do-that]). A compiler on a machine would take a program written in a high-level language and ‘compile’ it into the machine code that could run on that machine.  The same program could thereby run on all machines.

In place of ‘coders’ writing programs in machine code, there were now ‘programmers’ doing this in high-level language such as Cobol or FORTRAN (both of which were invented in the 1950s), and later ones as they evolved.

So why people still talk about ‘coders’ rather than ‘programmers’ is a mystery to me. Were it just an annoying misnomer, one could perhaps ignore it as an irritant, but it reveals a deeper and more serious misunderstanding.

Coding … I mean Programming … is not enough, in so many ways.  When the politician pictures a youthful ‘coder’ in their bedroom, they imagine the next billionaire creating an App that will revolutionize another area of our lives, like Amazon and Uber have done.

But it is by no means clear that programming as currently understood, is the right skill  for the knowledge economy.  As Gottfried Sehringer wrote in an article “Should we really try to teach everyone to code?” in WiRED, even within the narrow context of building Apps:

“In order to empower everyone to build apps, we need to focus on bringing greater abstraction and automation to the app development process. We need to remove code — and all its complexity — from the equation.”

In other words, just as Grace Hooper saw the need to move from Coding to Programming, we need to move from Programming to something else. Let’s call it Composing: a visually interactive way to construct Apps with minimal need to write lines of text to express logical operations. Of course, just as Hooper faced resistance from the Coders, who poured scorn on the dumbing down of their art, the same will happen with the Programmers, who will claim it cannot be done.

But the world of digital is much greater than the creation of ‘Apps’. The vast majority of the time spent doing IT in this world is in implementing pre-built commercial packages.  If one is implementing them as intended, then they are configured using quite simple configuration tools that aim to eliminate the need to do any programming at all. Ok, so someone in SAP or Oracle or elsewhere had to program the applications in the software package, but they are a relatively small population of technical staff when compared to the numbers who go out to implement these solutions in the field.

Of course it can all go wrong, and often does. I am thinking of a bank that was in trouble because their creaking old core banking system – written in COBOL decades ago by programmers in the bank – was no longer fit for purpose. Every time changes were made to financial legislation, such as tax, the system needed tweaking. But it was now a mess, and when one bug was fixed, another took its place.

So the company decided to implement an off-the-shelf package, which would do everything they needed, and more. The promise was the ability to become a  really ‘agile’ bank. They would be able to introduce new products to market rapidly in response to market needs or to respond to new legislation. It would take just a few weeks, rather than the 6 months it was currently taking. All they needed to do was to do some configurations of the package so that it would work just as they needed it too.

The big bosses approved the big budget then left everyone to it. They kept on being told everything was going well, and so much wanted to believe this, so failed to ask the right questions of the team. Well, guess what, it was a complete disaster. After 18 months and everything running over time and over budget, what emerged?  The departmental managers had insisted on keeping all the functionality from their beloved but creaking old system; the big consultancy was being paid for man-hours of programming so did not seem to mind that the off-shored programmers were having to stretch and bend the new package out of shape to make it look like the old system. And the internal project management was so weak, they were unable to call out the issues, even if they had fully understood them.

Instead of merely configuration, the implementation had large chunks of custom programming bolted onto the package, making it just as unstable and difficult to maintain as the old system. Worse still, it made it very difficult to upgrade the package; to install the latest version (to derive benefits from new features), given the way it had been implemented. There was now a large support bill just to keep the new behmoth alive.

In a sense, nothing had changed.

Far from ‘coding’ being the great advance for our economy, it is often, as in this sorry tale, a great drag on it, because this is how many large system implementations fail.

Schools, Colleges and Universities train everyone to ‘code’, so what will they do when in the field? Like a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, even when a precision milling machine was the right tool to use.

Shouldn’t the student be taught how to reframe their thinking to use different skills that are appropriate to the task in hand? Today we have too many Coders and not enough Composers, and its seems everyone is to blame, because we are all seduced by this zeitgeist of the ‘coder’.

When we consider the actual skills needed to implement, say, a large, data-oriented software package – like that banking package – one finds that activities needed are, for example: Requirements Analysis, Data Modelling, Project Management, Testing, Training, and yes of course, Composing.  Programming should be restricted to those areas such as data interfaces to other systems, where it must be quarantined, so as not to undermine the upgradeability of the software package that has been deployed.

So what are the skills required to define and deploy information management solutions, which are document-oriented, aimed at capturing, preserving and reusing the knowledge within an organization?

Let the credits roll: Project Manager; Information Strategist; Business Analyst; Process Architect; Information Architect; Taxonomist; Meta-Data Manager; Records Manager; Archivist; Document Management Expert; Document Designer; Data Visualizer; Package Configurer; Website Composer; … and not a Coder, or even a Programmer, in sight.

The vision of everyone becoming coders is not only the wrong answer to the question; its also the wrong question. The diversity of backgrounds needed to build a knowledge economy is very great. It is a world beyond ‘coding’ which is richer and more interesting, open to those with backgrounds in software of course, but also in science and the humanities. We need linguists as much as it we need engineers; philosophers as much we need data analysts; lawyers as much as we need graphics artists.

To build a true ‘knowledge economy’ worthy of that name, we need to differentiate and explore a much richer range of competencies to address all the issues we will face than the way in which information professionals are narrowly defined today.

(C) Richard W. Erskine, 2017

——

Note:

In his essay I am referring to business and institutional applications of information management. Of course there will be areas such as scientific research or military systems which will always require heavy duty, specialist software engineering; but this is another world when compared to the vast need in institutions for repeatable solutions to common problems, where other skills are argued to be much more relevant and important to success.

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Elf ‘n Safety and The Grenfell Tower fire

The tragic fire at Grenfell Tower breaks one’s heart.

There was a question asked tonight on BBC’s Newsnight which amounted to:

How is it, in 21st Century UK, a rich and prosperous country despite everything, that a fire can engulf a tower block in the way it did last night?

This got me thinking.

People from the council, politicians and others talk of the need to ‘learn lessons’ in a way that makes one wonder if they really believe it.

Apparently, in the British Army they ban the use of such language. Because we all know what this means. Another report. Another expert ignored. Another tragedy, and another lesson unheard, and ignored. A lesson demonstrated through a change in behaviour, great, but some aspirational statement that one will change at some indeterminate time in the future? No thanks.

We know that tragedies like this are multi-causal, so no single cause can explain it. But that doesn’t mean it was unforeseen. In this case there are factors that have been raised:

  • cladding that is not fire-retardant, but rather designed to make a building more aesthetically pleasing, with scant regard for how it undermines the underlying fire-safety of the original building;
  • a lack of any alarm to warn the residents of fire;
  • a lack of sprinklers in rooms or hallways (whereas in hotels this is standard practice; why the difference);
  • a failure to implement a report by a Select Committee of Parliament published following a previous tower-block fire;
  • a building with only one staircase for escape;
  • building standards that are evidently not fit for purpose and widely criticised (for some time) as providing a very low bar for compliance;
  • an arms length management organisation that refused to listen to the concerns of residents.

These and no doubt other factors compounded to either make the fire worse than it should have been, or the response to the fire by residents and rescue workers less effective than it could have been.

No doubt there will be questions about how it is that experts have known about the risks of the kind of cladding used, and have published papers on this, but their knowledge has fallen on deaf ears. No one in authority has had the smidgen of intellectual curiosity or moral impulse to track it down using Google. We apparently need another report to rediscover stuff we already knew, which who knows, maybe they will read this time.

No doubt there are questions to be asked of organisations like the British Standards Institute (BSI) that produces standards in this case that seem to fail to challenge the industry to reach the highest common factor for health and safety, but instead, to arrive a lowest common denominator of standard. They specify tests that are clearly not real-world tests. One is bound to ask if the BSI is fit for purpose, and whether its processes lead to an excessive chumminess with the industries it works with. It has a business model where it generates and sells standards and associated consultancy. Better not rock too many boats? No doubt the standards are “pragmatic” in the business-speak synonym for barely adequate.

Christoper Miers, in his conclusion of a report entitled “Fire Risks From External Cladding Panels – A Perspective From The UK”, wrote:

“Can anything be done about the worldwide legacy of buildings with combustible cored composite panels?  Unless something radical is done, such as national retro-fitting subsidy schemes, it seems inevitable that there will be further fires involving aluminium-faced polyethylene core panels.  Nightmare scenarios include multiple-fatality building-engulfing fires as in China, or given the proximity of towers in some districts, the ignition of neighbouring buildings’ cladding from an external cladding fire, or disintegrated burning panels igniting the roofs of lower buildings adjacent.

It is difficult to envisage owners voluntarily stripping off entire existing aluminium composite panel facades and replacing them with Fire Code-compliant cladding panels, as the cost would be prohibitive.  Partial replacement with barrier bands of fire resistant panels has been suggested to stop fires spreading, [48] but given the flame heights at the Tamweel, Torch and The Address, such barrier bands would have to be substantially large.  The works necessary to provide these barriers would involve much of the scaffolding and associated costs of full replacement.

It seems inevitable that insurers will differentiate between buildings with and without combustible aluminium composite panels and will charge higher premiums for higher risks.  One or two more fires, or a fatal fire, could lead to insurance cover being refused if the risk is considered excessive.  Insurance issues, bad publicity and loss of property value might then make retro-fitting external cladding a viable option in commercial, as well as fire safety terms.”

But despite all these unlearned lessons, there is something far more insidious at work here.

The sneering right wing commentators like Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Fail have waged a campaign for many years against what they claim is an over-weaning attempt by the liberal elite to protect us from ourselves, which goes under the catchy title of “elf ’n safety” (snigger, snigger, sneer). Imagine …

Poor Johnny can’t even go diving off some rocks without someone doing a bloody risk assessment, then someone else has to hold a flag. 

Stuff and nonsense – in my day we used to ski down black runs blindfolded. Never did us any harm.

You get the picture.

I remember once doing a study for the HSE (Health & Safety Executive) back in the 90s, and some of the horror stories of what used to happen in industries like farming and chemicals would make your hair stand on end.

And of course deaths and injury in these and other industries have fallen dramatically in the last few decades, thanks to organisations like the HSE. Far from hurting productivity, it has helped it, by enhancing efficiency and professionalism. In some industries it even drives innovation, as with the noise regulations for aircraft.

And even in the more parochial area of school trips, there was plenty of evidence that just a little bit of prior planning might well prevent poor performance (and injury).

But no, to Richard Littlejohn and his ilk, the “world has gone mad”.

Too often the bureaucrats seem to have bought into – maybe unconsciously – this background noise of derision towards health and safety. They feel inclined to dismiss the concerns raised by experts or ride roughshod over citizens concerns.

What do they know? Business must go on.

And once again we have the chumminess effect: councillors too close to developers, and lacking the critical faculties to ask searching questions, or even obvious ones.

For example, one might have imagined a councillor asking the questions …

“This cladding we plan use… is it anything like that used on that tower block that went up in flames in Dubai? Have we assessed the risks? Can we assure the tenants we have investigated this, and its OK?”.  

There is good box-ticking (in the cock-pit of an aeroplane) and the bad kind. The good kind is used by engineers, pilots, surgeons, school-teachers and others who are skilled in their respective arts.

The bad kind is used by bureaucrats wanting to cover their arses. We heard some of this  last night on Newsnight “we got the design signed off”, “we followed the standards”, etc.

Where is the imagination, the critical thinking, the challenging of lazy assumptions?

And most importantly, where is the answering of tenants’ questions and concerns, and taking health and safety seriously as the number one requirement, not as an afterthought?

But risk assessment planning and execution is incessantly mocked by the sneering, curled lip brigade who inhabit the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and other right wing denigrators of “elf ’n safety”.

This has created a culture of jocular disregard for safety.

Try this. Go to a cafe with a few friends and ask “shall we have a chat about health and safety?”. I bet you that they will – whatever their political views – either laugh or roll their eyes.

Well, maybe not any more. Maybe they may feel suitably chasticised for a while at least, and stop their lazy sneering.

The champion sneerers have been successful through their drip, drip of cherry-picked stories or outright myths; their project has had an insidious effect, and has done its worst inundermining respect for health and safety.

But you see, it is not really health and safety that they have in their sights.  It’s just the easy to mock first hurdle in a wider programme.

There is a bigger prize: regulation!

What the de-regulators like Daniel Hannan want from Brexit is a bonfire of regulations, as he wrote about in his 2015 ‘vision’.

David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, claims not to know the difference between a ‘soft’ Brexit and a hard one.

Well, here’s a guide, David.

A hard Brexit is one where we have a bonfire of regulations; where we have no truck with experts who advise us on risks of ethylene-based cladding or excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere; where ‘risk assessment’ is a joke we have down the club; where the little people enjoy the fruits of ‘trickle down’ economics in a  thriving Britain, free of (allegedly) over-weaning regulation.

But the British have made it clear they do not want a hard Brexit.

I hope and trust that the time is over for the sneering, arrogant advocates for de-regulation, and their purile and dangerous disregard for people’s health, and their safety.

Whether in bringing forth and implementing effective measures to prevent another terrible fire like at Grenfell Tower, or in all the other areas of life and work in the UK that are important for a safe and secure future, the time to take experts and regulations seriously is needed now, more than ever.

 

Richard W. Erskine, 15th June 2017.

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A Climate of Consilience (or the science of certitude)

There seems to be a lot of discussion about an apparently simple question:

Can science be ‘certain’ about, well, anything? 

If that meant not doing anything – not building a bridge; not releasing a new drug; not taking off for the flight to New York; not flying a spacecraft to Saturn; not vaccinating the whole world against polio; not taking action to decarbonise our energy supply; Etc. – then this lack of 100% certainty might totally debilitate a modern society, frozen with doubt and so unable to act.

But of course, we do not stop implementing solutions based on our current best knowledge of nature and the world, however limited it might be. We make judgments. We assess risks. We weigh the evidence. We act.

I think scientists often fall into the trap of answering a quite different question:

Do we have a complete and all encompassing theory of the world (or at least, ‘this’ bit of the world, say how black holes work or how evolution played out)?

And everyone will rush defensively to the obvious answer, “no”. Why? Because we can always learn more, we can always improve, and indeed sometimes – although surprisingly rarely – we can make radical departures from received bodies of knowledge.

We are almost 100% certain of the ‘Second Law of Thermodynamics’ and Darwin’s ‘Evolution by Natural Selection’, but almost everything else is of a lower order.

But even when we do make radical departures, it doesn’t always mean a complete eradication of prior knowledge. It does when moving from superstition, religious dogma, witch-doctoring and superstitious theories of illness: as when we move to the germ theory of disease and a modern understanding biology, because people get cured, and ignorance is vanquished.

But take Newtonian mechanics. This remains valid for the not too small (quantum mechanical) and not too massive or fast (relativistic) domains of nature, and so remains a perfectly good approximation for understanding snooker balls, the motion of the solar system, and even the motion of fluids.

As Helen Czerski describes in her book Storm In A Teacup, the physics of the everyday covers many interesting and complex phenomena.

In the following Figure, from her entertaining TEDxManchester talk The fascinating physics of everyday life, she shows how the physics of the every day applies over a huge range of scales (in time and space); bracketed between the exotic worlds of the extremely small (quantum mechanics) and extremely large (general relativity) which tend to dominate our cultural perceptions of physics today.

Screen Shot 2017-10-31 at 07.25.28

Want to build a bridge, or build a solar system, or understand Saturn’s rings? Move over Schrodinger and Einstein, come on board Newton!

And yes, if you want to understand the interaction of molecules? Thank you Schrodinger.

Want to predict gravitational waves from a distant galaxy where two neutron stars are collinding? Thank you Einstein.

That is why the oft promulgated narrative of science – the periodic obliteration of old theories to be replaced by new ones – is often not quite how things work in practice.  Instead of a vision of a singular pyramid of knowledge that is torn down when someone of Einstein’s genius comes along and rips away its foundations, one instead sees new independent pyramids popping up in the desert of ignorance.

The old pyramids often remain, useful in their own limited ways. And when confronting a complex problem, such as climate change, we see a small army of pyramids working together to make sense of the world.

As one such ‘pyramid’, we have the long and tangled story of the ‘atom’ concept, a story that began with the ancient greeks, and has taken centuries to untangle. Building this pyramid – the one that represents our understanding of the atom – we follow many false trails as well as brilliant revelations. Dalton’s understanding of the uniqueness and differentiation of atoms was one such hard fought revelation. There was the kinetic theory of gases that cemented the atomic/ molecular role in the physical properties of matter: the microscopic behaviour giving rise to the macroscopic properties such as temperature and pressure. Then there was the appreciation of the nuclear character and the electronic properties of atoms, leading ultimately to an appreciation of the fundamental reason for the structure of the periodic table, with a large dose of quantum theory thrown in. And then, with Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron, a resolution of the reason for isotopes very existence. Isotopes that, with the help of Urey’s brilliant insight, enabled their use in diverse paleoclimatogical applications that have brought glaciologists, chemists and atmospheric physicists together to track the progress of our climate and its forcing agents.

We can trace a similar story of how we came to be able to model the dynamical nature of our weather and climate. The bringing together of the dynamics of fluids, their thermodynamics, and much more.

Each brick in these pyramids starting as a question or conundrum and then leading to decades of research, publications, debate and resolutions, and yes, often many new questions.

Science never was and never will be the narrative of ignorance overcome by heroic brilliance overnight by some hard pressed crank cum genius. Galilieo was no crank, neither was Newton, nor was Einstein.

Even if our televisual thirst for instant gratification demands a science with instant answers, the reality is that the great majority of science is a long process of unfolding and developing the consequences of the fundamental principles, to see how these play out. Now, with the help of the computational facilities that are part of an extended laboratory (to add to the test tube, the spectometer, x-ray diffration, and so much more) we can see further and test ideas that were previously inaccessible to experimentation alone (this is true in all fields). Computers are the microscope of the 21st Century, as one molecular biologist has observed.

When we look at climate change we have a subject of undoubted complexity, that is a combination of many disciplines. Maybe for this reason, it was only in the late 1950s that these disparate disciplines recognised the need to come together: meteorology, glaciology, atmospheric chemistry, paleoclimatology, and much more. This convergence of disciplines ultimately led to the formation 30 years later to the IPCC in 1988.

At its most basic, global warming is trivial, and beyond any doubt: add more energy to a system (by adding more infra-red absorbing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere), and the system gets hotter (because, being knocked out of equilibrium, it will heat up faster than it loses heat to space, up and until it reaches a new equilibrium).  Anyone who has spent an evening getting a frying pan to the point where it is hot enough to fry a pancake (and many to follow), will appreciate the principle.

Today, we have moved out of a pre-existing equilibrium and are warming fast, and have not yet reached a new equilibrium. That new equilibrium depends on how much more fossil fuels we burn. The choice now is between very serious and catastrophic.

The different threads of science that come together to create the ‘climate of consilience’ are diverse. They involve everything from the theory of isotopes; the understanding of Earth’s meteorological system; the nature of radiation and how different gases react with different types of radiation; the carbonate chemistry of the oceans; the dynamics of heat and moisture in the atmosphere based on Newtonian mechanics applied to fluids; and so much more.

Each of these threads has a well established body of knowledge in its own right, confirmed through published evidence and through their multiple successful applications.

In climate science these threads converge, and hence the term consilience.

So when did we know ‘for certain’ that global warming was real and is now happening?

Was it when Tyndall discovered in 1859 that carbon dioxide strongly absorbed infra-red radiation, whereas oxygen and nitrogen molecules did not?  Did that prove that the world would warm dangerously in the future? No, but it did provide a key building block in our knowledge.

As did the findings of those that followed.

At each turn, there was always some doubt – something that suggested a ‘get out clause’, and scientists are by nature sceptical …

Surely the extra carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by human activities would be absorbed by the vast oceans?

No, this was shown from the chemistry of the oceans to be wrong by the late 1950s, and thoroughly put to bed when sufficient time passed after 1958, when Charles Keeling started to accurately measure the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The ‘Keeling Curve’ rises inexorably.

Surely the carbon dioxide absorption of heat would become ‘saturated’ (unable to absorb any more heat) above a certain concentration.

No, this was raised in the early 20th Century but thoroughly refuted in the 1960s. Manabe & Wetherald’s paper in 1967 was the final nail in the coffin of denial for those that pushed against the ‘carbon dioxide’ theory.  To anyone literate in science, that argument was over in 1967.

But will the Earth system not respond in the way feared … won’t the extra heat be absorbed by the oceans?

Good news, bad news. Yes, 93% of the extra heat is indeed being absorbed by the oceans, but the remainder is more than enough to ensure that the glaciers are melting; the great ice sheets are losing ice mass (the loses winning out over any gains of ice); seasons are being affected; sea levels are rising inexorably; and overall the surface temperature is rising. No need for computer models to tell us what is happening, it is there in front of us, for anyone who cares to look.

Many pour scorn on consensus in science.

They say that one right genius is better than 100 fools, which is a fine argument, except when uttered by a fool.

Even the genius has to publish, and fools never will or can, but shout from the sidelines and claim genius. All cranks think they are geniuses, whereas the converse is not true.

Einstein published, and had to undergo scrutiny. When the science community finally decided that Einstein was right, they did so because of the integrity of the theory and weight of evidence were sufficient. It was not a show of hands immdiately after he published, but in a sense, it was a show of hands after years of work to interrogate and test his assertions.

It was consilience followed by consensus (that’s science), not consensus followed by consilience (that’s political dogms).

We are as certain that the Earth has warmed due to increases in greenhouse gases – principally carbon dioxide, arising from human activities – as we are of the effects of smoking on human health, or the benefits of vaccination, and much more.  And we are in part reinforced in this view because of the impact that is already occuring (observations not only theory).

The areas of doubt are there – how fast will the West Antarctica Ice Sheet melt – but these are doubts in the particulars not in the general proposition.  Over 150 years of accumulated knowledge have led to this consilience, and was until recently, received wisdom amongst leaders of all political persuasions, as important and actionable knowledge.

The same is true of the multiple lines of enquiry that constitute the umbrella of disciplines we call ‘climate science’. Not a showing of hands, but a showing of published papers that have helped create this consilience of knowledge, and yes, a consensus of those skilled in their various arts.

It would be quicker to list the various areas of science that have not impacted on climate science than those that have.

In the two tables appended to the end of this essay, I have included:

Firstly, a timeline of selected discoveries and events over a long period – from 1600 to nearly the present – over which time either climate has been the topic or the underlying threads of science have been the topic.  I have also included parallel events related to institutions such as the formation of meteorological organisations, to show both scientific and social developments on the same timeline.

Secondly, I have listed seminal papers in the recent history of the science (from 1800 onwards), with no doubt omissions that I apologise for in advance (comments welcome).

When running workshops on climate fluency I used a 5 metre long roll – a handwritten version of the timeline – and use it to walk along and refer to dates, personalities, stories and of course, key publications. It seems to go down very well (beats Powerpoint, for sure) …

Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 06.56.56.png

All this has led to our current, robust, climate of consilience.

There was no rush to judgment, and no ideological bias.

It is time for the commentariat – those who are paid well to exercise their free speech in the comment sections of the media, at the New York Times, BBC, Daily Mail, or wherever –  to study this history of the science, and basically, to understand why scientists are now as sure as they can be. And why they get frustrated with the spurious narrative of ‘the science is not yet in’.

If they attempted such arguments in relation to smoking, vaccination, germ theory or Newtonian mechanics,  they would be laughed out of court.

The science of global warming is at least as robust as any of these, but the science community is not laughing … it’s deeply concerned at the woeful blindness of much of the media.

The science is well beyond being ‘in’; it is now part of a textbook body of knowledge. The consilience is robust and hence the consequent 97% consensus.

It’s time to act.

And if you, dear commentator, feel unable to act, at least write what is accurate, and avoid high school logical fallacies, or bullshit arguments about the nature of science.

Richard Erskine, 2nd May 2017 

Amended on 17th July 2017 to include Tables as streamed Cloudup content (PDFs), due to inability of some readers to view the tables. Click on the arrow on bottom right of ‘frame’ to stream each document in turn, and there will then be an option to download the PDF file itself.

Amended 31st October 2017 to include a Figure I came across from Helen Czerski TED Talk, which helps illustrate a key point of the essay.

TABLE 1 – Timeline of Selected Discoveries and Events (since 1600)

 

TABLE 2 – Key Papers Related to Climate Science (since 1800)

 

END of DOCUMENT

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Lest we regret: science not silence

Cherish not only those who you love, but that which you love. Yesterday I went with my wife on the March for Science in Bristol, the city where we fell in love many years ago. We were on one of over 600 marches globally, to express a love for the science that has brought us so much, and promises so much more.

We do not want in the future to find ourselves mournfully recalling the words of some great poet, words of regret at our careless disregard, our taking for granted –

“When to the session of sweet silent thought,
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste….” 

(Shakespeare, Sonnet 30)

Humanity needs more experts now than ever before, but it also needs poets and novelists too to find that voice, that will reach the hearts of those who will be hurt by the cynical disregard for truth, for evidence.

This is no longer the preserve of cranks, but now influences men (and it is mostly men) in power who attack the science of evolution, vaccination and climate change, that has saved the lives of billions and promises to save the lives of billions more in the future. Notwithstanding the more prosaic inability to live without the fruits of science (try having a no science friday).

That is why the over 600 cities that Marched for Science yesterday spoke with a true voice. Science is for everyone and we all benefit from its fruits but just as few really know where their food comes from, we have become blind to the processes and creativity of the scientists who will bring us the next wonders, and the next solutions to the challenges we face. We the people, and scientists, must both now pledge to remedy our careless assumption that the Englightenment will prevail against the tide of ignorance that has reached the pinnacle of power, without strong and systemic defenses.

We ignore these threats at our peril.

Let’s not regret being so careless that we allowed an opinionated, ideologically motivated few to use their positions of power to drown out the voices of reason.

Let us, most of all, not waste our dear, precious time.

. . .. o o O o o .. . .

 

Richard W. Erskine, essaysconcerning.com, 23rd April 2017

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The speakers at the Bristol event were Professor Bruce Hood from the Bristol University’s School of Experimental Psychology; TV naturalist Chris Packham; science writer and scientist Dr Simon Singh; At-Bristol’s creative director Anna Starkey; and, scientist and writer Dr Suzi Gage.

Youtube videos of their speeches available here >

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLz3n5TyzhVlR88vhkd8guOjH8F53kizSt 

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Beyond Average: Why we should worry about a 1 degree C rise in average global temperature

When I go to the Netherlands I feel small next to men from that country, but then I am 3 inches smaller than the average Brit, and the average Dutchman is 2 inches taller than the average Brit. So I am seeing 5 inches of height difference in the crowd around me when surrounded by Dutch men. No wonder I am feeling an effect that is much greater than what the average difference in height seems to be telling me on paper.

Averages are important. They help us determine if there is a real effect overall. Yes, men from the Netherlands are taller than men from Britain, and so my impressions are not merely anecdotal. They are real, and backed up by data.

If we are wanting to know if there are changes occurring, averages help too, as they ensure we are not focusing on outliers, but on a statistically significant trend. That’s not to say that it is always easy to handle the data correctly or to separate different factors, but once this hard work is done, the science and statistics together can lead us to knowing important things, with confidence.

For example, we know that smoking causes lung cancer and that adding carbon dioxide into the atmosphere leads to increased global warming.

But, you might say, correlation doesn’t prove causation! Stated boldly like that, no it doesn’t. Work is required to establish the link.

Interestingly, we knew the fundamental physics of why carbon dioxide (CO2) is a causative agent for warming our atmosphere – not merely correlated – since as early as Tyndall’s experiments which he started in 1859, but certainly no later than 1967, when Manabe & Wetherald’s seminal paper resolved some residual physics questions related to possible saturation of the infra-red  absorption in the atmosphere and the co-related effect of water vapour. That’s almost 110 years of probing, questioning and checking. Not exactly a tendency on the part of scientists to rush to judgment! And in terms of the correlation being actually observed in our atmosphere, it was Guy Callendar in 1938 who first published a paper showing rising surface temperature linked to rising levels of CO2.

Whereas, in the case of lung cancer and cigarettes correlation came first, not fundamental science. It required innovations in statistical methods to prove that it was not merely correlation but was indeed causation, even while the fundamental biological mechanisms were barely understood.

In any case, the science and statistics are always mutually supportive.

Average Global Warming

In the discussions on global warming, I have been struck over the few years that I have been engaging with the subject how much air time is given to the rise in atmospheric temperature, averaged for the whole of the Earth’s surface, or GMST as the experts call it (Global Mean Surface Temperature).  While it is a crucial measure, this can seem a very arcane discussion to the person in the street.

So far, it has risen by about 1 degree Centigrade (1oC) compared to the middle of the 19th Century.

There are regular twitter storms and blogs ‘debating’ a specific year, and last year’s El Nino caused a huge debate as to what this meant. As it turns out, the majority of recent warming is due to man-made global warming, and this turbo-charged the also strong El Nino event.

Anyone daring to take a look at the blogosphere or twitter will find climate scientists arguing with opinion formers ill equipped to ‘debate’ the science of climate change, or indeed, the science of anything.

What is the person in the street supposed to make of it? They probably think “this is not helping me – it is not answering the questions puzzling me – I can do without the agro thanks very much”.

To be fair, many scientists do spend a lot of time on outreach and in other kinds of science communications, and that is to be applauded. A personal favourite of mine is Katharine Hayhoe, who always brings an openness and sense of humility to her frequent science communications and discussions, but you sense also, a determined and focused strategy to back it up.

However, I often feel that the science ‘debate’ generally gets sucked into overly technical details, while basic, or one might say, simple questions remain unexplored, or perhaps assumed to be so obvious they don’t warrant discussion.

The poor person in the street might like to ask (but dare not for fear of being mocked or being overwhelmed with data), simply:

“Why should we worry about an average rise of 1oC temperature, it doesn’t seem that much, and with all the ups and downs in the temperature curve; the El Nino; the alleged pause; the 93% of extra heat going into the ocean I heard about … well, how can I really be sure that the surface of the Earth is getting warmer?”

There is a lot to unpick here and I think the whole question of ‘averages’ is part of the key to approaching why we should worry.

Unequivocally Warming World

Climate Scientists will often show graphs which include the observed and predicted annual temperature (GMST) over a period of 100 years or more.

Now, I ask, why do they do that?

Surely we have been told to that in order to discern a climate change trend, it is crucial to look at the temperature averaged over a period of at least 10 years, and actually much better to look at a 30-year average?

In this way we smooth out all the ups and downs that are a result of the energy exchanges that occur between the moving parts of the earth system, and the events such as volcanic eruptions or humans pumping less sulphur into the atmosphere from industry. We are interested in the overall trend, so we can see the climate change signal amongst the ‘noise’.

We also emphasis to people – for example, “the Senator with a snowball” – that climate change is about averages and trends, as distinct from weather (which is about the here and now).

So this is why the curve I use – when asked “What is the evidence that the world is warming?” – is a 30-year smoothed curve (red line) such as the one shown below (which used the GISS tool):

30 yr rolling average of GMST

[also see the Met Office explainer on global surface temperature]

The red line shows inexorable warming from early in the 20th Century, no ifs, no buts.

End of argument.

When I challenged a climate scientist on Twitter, why don’t we just show this graph and not get pulled into silly arguments with a Daily Mail journalist or whoever, I was told that annual changes are interesting and need to be understood.

Well sure, for climate scientists everything is interesting! They should absolutely try to answer the detailed questions, such as the contribution global warming made to the 2016 GMST. But to conflate that with the simpler and broader question does rather obscure the fundamental message for the curious but confused public who have not even reached base camp.

They may well conclude there is a ‘debate’ about global warming when there is none to be had.

There is debate amongst scientists about many things: regional impact and attribution; different feedback mechanisms and when they might kick in; models of the Antarctic ice sheet; etc. But not about rising GMST, because that is settled science, and given Tyndall et al, it would be incredible if it were not so; Nobel Prize winning incredible!

If one needs a double knock-out, then how about a triple or quadruple knock-out?

When we add the graphs showing sea level rise, loss of glaciers, mass loss from Greenland and Antarctica, and upper ocean temperature, we have multiple trend lines all pointing in one direction: A warming world. It ain’t rocket science.

We know the world has warmed – it is unequivocal.

Now if a the proverbial drunk, duly floored, still decides to get up and wants to rerun the fight, maybe we should be choosing not to play his games!?

So why do arguments about annual variability get so frequently aired on the blogosphere and twitter?

I don’t know, but I feel it is a massive own goal for science communication.

Surely the choice of audience needs to be the poor dazed and confused ‘person in the street’, not the obdurately ignorant opinion columnists (opinion being the operative word).

Why worry about a 1oC rise?

I want to address the question “Why worry about a 1oC rise (in global mean surface temperature)?”, and do so with the help of a dialogue. It is not a transcript, but along the lines of conversations I have had in the last year. In this dialogue, I am the ClimateCoach and I am in conversation with a Neighbour who is curious about climate change, but admits to being rather overwhelmed by it; they have got as far as reading the material above and accept that the world is warming.

Neighbour:  Ok, so the world is warming, but I still don’t get why we should worry about a measly 1oC warming?

ClimateCoach: That’s an average, over the whole world, and there are big variations hidden in there. Firstly, two thirds of the surface of the planet is ocean, and so over land we are already talking about a global land mean surface temperature in excess of 1oC, about 1.5oC. That’s the first unwelcome news, the first kicker.

Neighbour: So, even if it is 5oC somewhere, I still don’t get it. Living in England I’d quite like a few more Mediterranean summers!

ClimateCoach: Ok, so let’s break this down (and I may just need to use some pictures).  Firstly we have an increase in the mean, globally. But due to meteorological patterns there will be variations in temperature and also changes in precipitation patterns around the world, such as droughts in California and increased Monsoon rain in India. This  regionality of the warming is the second kicker.

Here is an illustration of how the temperature increase looks regionally across the world.

GISTEMP global regional

Neighbour: Isn’t more rain good for Indian farmers?

ClimateCoach: Well, that depends on timing. It has started to be late, and if it doesn’t arrive in time for certain crops, that has serious impacts. So the date or timing of impacts is the third kicker.

Here is an illustration.

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 08.45.34.png

Neighbour: I noticed earlier that the Arctic is warming the most. Is that a threat to us?

ClimateCoach: Depends what you mean by ‘us’. There is proportionally much greater warming in the Arctic, due to a long-predicted effect called ‘polar amplification’, in places as much as 10oC of warming. As shown in this map of the arctic. But what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.

Arctic extremes

Neighbour: I appreciate that a warming Arctic is bad for ecosystems in the Arctic – Polar Bears and so on – but why will that effect us?

ClimateCoach: You’ve heard about the jet stream on the weather reports, I am sure [strictly, the arctic polar jet stream]. Well, as the Arctic is warmed differentially compared to latitudes below the Arctic, this causes the jet stream to become more wiggly than before, which can be very disruptive. This can create, for example, fixed highs over Europe, and very hot summers.

Neighbour: But we’ve had very hot summers before, why would this be different?

ClimateCoach: It’s not about something qualitatively different (yet), but it is quantitatively. Very hot summers in Europe are now much more likely due to global warming, and that has real impacts. 70,000 people died in Europe during the 2003 heatwave.  Let me show you an illustrative graph. Here is a simple distribution curve and it indicates a temperature at and above which (blue arrow) high impacts are expected, but have a low chance. Suppose this represents the situation in 1850.

Normal distribution

Neighbour: Ok, so I understand the illustration … and?

ClimateCoach: So, look at what happens when we increase the average by just a little bit to a higher temperature, say, by 1oC to represent where we are today. The whole curve shifts right. The ‘onset of high impact’ temperature is fixed, but the area under the curve to the right of this has increased (the red area has increased), meaning a greater chance than before. This is the fourth kicker.

In our real world example, a region like Europe, the chance of high impact hot summers has increased within only 10 to 15 years from being a one in 50 year event to being a 1 in 5 year event; a truly remarkable increase in risk.   

Shifted Mean and extremes

Neighbour: It’s like loading the dice!

ClimateCoach: Exactly. We (humans) are loading the dice. As we add more CO2 to the atmosphere, we load the dice even more. 

Neighbour: Even so, we have learned to cope with very hot summers, haven’t we? If not, we can adapt, surely?

ClimateCoach: To an extent yes, and we’ll have to get better at it in the future. But consider plants and animals, or people who are vulnerable or have to work outside, like the millions of those from the Indian sub-continent who work in construction in the Middle East.  It doesn’t take much (average) warming to make it impossible (for increasingly long periods) to work outside without heat exhaustion. And take plants. A recent paper in Nature Communications showed that crop yields in the USA would be very vulnerable to excessive heat.

Neighbour: Can’t the farmers adapt by having advanced irrigation systems. And didn’t I read somewhere that extra CO2 acts like a fertiliser for plants?

ClimateCoach: To a point, but what that research paper showed was that the warming effect wins out, especially as the period of excessive heat increases, and by the way the fertilisation effect has been overstated. The extended duration of the warming will overwhelm these and other ameliorating factors. This is the fifth kicker.

This can mean crop failures and hence impacts on prices of basic food commodities, even shortages as impacts increase over time.

Neighbour: And what if we get to 2oC?  (meaning 2oC GMST rise above pre-industrial)

ClimateCoach: Changes are not linear. Take the analogy of car speed and pedestrian fatalities. After 20 miles per hour the curve rises sharply, because the car’s energy is a function of the square of the speed, but also the vulnerability thresholds in the human frame. Global warming will cross thresholds for both natural and human systems, which have been in balance for a long time, so extremes get increasingly disruptive. Take an impact to a natural species or habitat: one very bad year, and there may be recovery in the following 5-10 years, which is ok if the frequency of very bad years is 1 in 25-50 years. But suppose very bad years come 1 in every 5 years? That would mean no time to recover. Nature is awash with non-linearities and thresholds like this.

Neighbour: Is that what is happening with the Great Barrier Reef – I heard something fleetingly on BBC Newsnight the other night?

ClimateCoach: I think that could be a very good example of what I mean. We should talk again soon. Bring friends. If they want some background, you might ask them to have a read of my piece Demystifying Global Warming & Its Implications, which is along the lines of a talk I give.

Putting it together for the person in the street.

I have explored one of many possible conversations I could have had. I am sure it could be improved upon, but I hope it illustrates the approach. We should be engaging those people (the majority of the population) who are curious about climate change but have not involved themselves so far, perhaps because they feel a little intimidated by the subject.

When they do ask for help, the first thing they need to understand is that indeed global warming is real, and is demonstrated by those average measures like GMST, and the other ones mentioned such as sea-level rise, ice sheet mass loss, and ocean temperature; not to mention the literally thousands of indicators from the natural world (as documented in the IPCC 5th Assessment Report).

There are also other long-term unusual sources of evidence to add to this list, as Dr Ed Hawkins has discussed, such as the date at which Cherry blossom flowers in Kyoto, which is trending earlier and earlier.  Actually, examples such as these, are in many ways easier for people to relate to.

Gardeners the world over can relate to evidence of cherry blossom, wine growers to impacts on wine growing regions in France, etc. These diverse and rich examples are in many ways the most powerful for a lay audience.

The numerous lines of evidence are overwhelming.

So averages are crucial, because they demonstrate a long-term trend.

When we do raise GMST, make sure you show the right curve. If it is to show unequivocal global warming at the surface, then why not show one that reflects the average over a rolling 30 year period; the ‘smoothed’ curve. This avoids getting into debates with ‘contrarians’ on the minutae of annual variations, which can come across as both abstract and arcane, and puts people off.

This answers the first question people will be asking, simply: “Is the world warming?”. The short answer is “Unequivocally, yes it is”. And that is what the IPCC 5th Assessment Report concluded.

But averages are not the whole story.

There is the second but equally important question “Why worry about a 1oC rise (in global mean surface temperature)?”

I suspect many people are too coy to ask such a simple question. I think it deserves an answer and the dialogue above tried to provide one.

Here and now, people and ecosystems experience weather, not climate change, and when it is an extreme event, the impacts are viscerally real in time and place, and are far from being apparently arcane debating points.

So while a GMST rise of 1oC sounds like nothing to the untutored reader, when translated into extreme weather events, it can be highly significant.  The average has been magnified to yield a significant effect, as evidenced by the increasing chance of extreme events of different kinds, in different localities, which can increasingly be attributed to man-made global warming.

The kickers highlighted in the dialogue were:

  • Firstly, people live on land so experience a higher ‘GMST’ rise (this is not to discount the impacts on oceans);
  • Secondly, geographical and meteorological patterns mean that there are a wide range of regional variations;
  • Thirdly, the timing (or date) at which an impact is felt is critical for ecosystems and agriculture, and bad timing will magnify the effect greatly;
  • Fourthly, as the average increases, so does the chance of extremes. The dice are getting loaded, and as we increase CO2, we load the dice more.
  • Fifthly, the duration of an extreme event will overwhelm defences, and an extended duration can cross dangerous thresholds, moving from increasing harm into fatal impacts, such as crop failure.

I have put together a graphic to try to illustrate this sequence of kickers:

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 08.36.37.png

As noted on this graphic (which I used in some climate literacy workshops I ran recently), the same logic used for GMST can be applied to other seemingly ‘small’ changes in global averages such as rainfall, sea-level rise, ocean temperature and ocean acidification. To highlight just two of these other examples:

  • an average global sea-level rise translates into impacts such as extreme storm surges, damaging low-lying cities such as New York and Miami (as recently reported and discussed).
  • an average ocean temperature rise, translates into damage to coral reefs (two successive years of extreme events have caused serious damage to two thirds of the Great Barrier Reef, as a recent study has confirmed).

Even in the relatively benign context of the UK’s temperate climate, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), in a report just released, is advising gardeners on climate change impacts and adaptation. The instinctively conservative ‘middle England’ may yet wake up to the realities of climate change when it comes home to roost, and bodies such as the RHS reminds them of the reasons why.

The impacts of man-made global warming are already with us, and it will only get worse.

How much worse depends on all of us.

Not such a stupid question

There was a very interesting event hosted by CSaP (Centre for Science and Policy) in Cambridge recently. It introduced some new work being done to bring together climate science and ‘big data analytics’. Dr Emily Schuckburgh’s talk looked precisely at the challenge of understanding local risks; the report of the talk included the following observation:

“Climate models can predict the impacts of climate change on global systems but they are not suitable for local systems. The data may have systematic biases and different models produce slightly different projections which sometimes differ from observed data. A significant element of uncertainty with these predictions is that they are based on our future reduction of emissions; the extent to which is yet unknown.

To better understand present and future climate risks we need to account for high impact but low probability events. Using more risk-based approaches which look at extremes and changes in certain climate thresholds may tell us how climate change will affect whole systems rather than individual climate variables and therefore, aid in decision making. Example studies using these methods have looked at the need for air conditioning in Cairo to cope with summer heatwaves and the subsequent impact on the Egyptian power network.”

This seems to be breaking new ground.

So maybe the eponimous ‘person in the street’ is right to ask stupid questions, because they turn out not to be so stupid after all.

Changing the Conversation

I assume that the person in the street is curious and has lots of questions; and I certainly don’t judge them based on what newspaper they read. That is my experience. We must try to anticipate and answer those questions, and as far as possible, face to face. We must expect simple questions, which aren’t so stupid after all.

We need to change the focus from the so-called ‘deniers’ or ‘contrarians’ – who soak up so much effort and time from hard pressed scientists – and devote more effort to informing the general public, by going back to the basics. By which I mean, not explaining ‘radiative transfer’ and using technical terms like ‘forcing’, ‘anomaly’, or ‘error’, but using plain English to answer those simple questions.

Those embarrasingly stupid questions that will occur to anyone who first encounters the subject of man-made global warming; the ones that don’t seem to get asked and so never get answered.

Maybe let’s start by going beyond averages.

No one will think you small for doing so, not even a Dutchman.

[updated 15th April]

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Complexity ain’t that complex

According to Megan McArdle in a Bloomberg View opinion piece we cannot trust computer models of the climate because economists have failed when they tried to model complex economic systems.

Leaving aside the fundamental fact that the ‘atoms’ of physics (molecules, humidity, etc.) are consistent in their behaviour, whereas the ‘atoms’ of economics (humans) are fickle and prone to ‘sentiment’, this is a failed form of denialism.

You do not have to be Champagne maker Taittinger investing in sparkling wine production in Kent (England), for example, to know that global warming is real, because there are thousands of scientifically observed and published indicators of a warming world. Most of these receive little attention in the media compared to the global average surface temperature (important though it is).

In her article she repeats something I believe is a key confusion in her piece:

“This lesson from economics is essentially what the “lukewarmists” bring to discussions about climate change. They concede that all else equal, more carbon dioxide will cause the climate to warm. But, they say that warming is likely to be mild unless you use a model which assumes large positive feedback effects.”

Matt Ridley is also often railing against the fact that the feedback from increased humidity turns a warming of 1C (from doubling CO2 from pre-industrial levels) into closer to 3C (as the mean predicted level of warming).

This has nothing to do with the inherent complexity in the climate models as it is derived from basic physics (the Infra-Red spectra of CO2 and H2O; the Clausius–Clapeyron relation that determines the level of humidity when the atmosphere warms; some basics of radiative transfer; etc.). Indeed, it is possible to get to an answer on the basic physics with pencil and paper, and the advanced computer models come to broadly the same conclusion (what the models are increasingly attempting to do is to resolve more details on geographic scales, time scales and within different parts of the Earth system, such as that big block of ice called Antarctica).

But even in the unlikely event that Megan McArdle were to accept these two incontrovertible points (the world is warming and the central feedback, from H2O, are not in any way compromised by some hinted at issue of ‘complexity’), she might still respond with something like:

“oh, but we do rely on complex models to make predictions of the future and things are too chaotic for this to be reliable.”

Well, we have learned from many great minds like Ilya Prigogine that there is complex behaviour in simple systems (e.g. the orbit of Pluto appears on one level to perform according to simple Newtonian mechanics, but in addition, has apparently random wobbles). One needs therefore to be careful at specifying at what level of order ‘chaotic behaviour’ exists. Pluto is both ordered and chaotic.

Whereas for other system that are complex (e.g. the swirling atmosphere of Jupiter) they can display ’emergent’ ordered behaviour (e.g. the big red spot). We see this all around us in the world, and ‘complexity theory’ is now a new branch of science addressing many phenomena that were otherwise inaccessible to pencil and paper: the computer is an essential tool in exploring these phenomena.

Complexity is therefore not in itself a reason for casting out a lazy slur against models, that predictability is impossible.  There is often an ability to find order, at some level, in a system, however complex it is.

Yet, it can also be very simple.

At its most basic, adding energy to the climate system as we are doing by adding heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere, tends to warm things up, because of well established basic physics.

In a similar way, printing too much money in an economy tends to lead to inflation, despite the irreducible random factors in human nature.

It ain’t rocket science and you don’t need to be an expert in complexity theory to understand why we are a warming world.

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The Climate of Clive James

Clive James is known as a man of letters and, in the UK at least, as an erudite and  witty commentator on culture, for which he is widely respected. He has also been extremely courageous in sharing his thoughts on his terminal cancer, with his customary wit and flair.

For all these reasons it is sad that he has decided to become embroiled in climate change in the way he has. For sure he has the right to an opinion, but he seems to have muddied the art he loves, with the science that he clearly does not, and the result will satisfy neither discipline.

For those in broadcasting and the media, paid to express a view on anything and everything, it must be easy to develop a self assurance that belies any lack of knowledge. We are now resigned to the almost daily stream of nonsense that those such as Melanie Philips and others produce, given free rein to fulminate in the press.

Clive James’s poem “Imminent Catastrophe” was published in the New Statesman, and discussed  in an article by Kaya Burgess in The Times, 17 March 2016  is barely more subtle, even shrouded as it is in the form of a poem.

The poem reveals more about Clive James’ self-declared ignorance on climate change than it does about the scientists, and if there is a metre absent then it is surely in his poetry, not the predicted sea level rise.

Let’s unpick the poem.

“imminent catastrophe”

No self-respecting climate scientists has ever talked about “imminent” catastrophe. The timescales vary greatly depending on the impacts in question. Yes, there is a strong argument about how fast we need to stop emitting carbon dioxide, in order to avoid the medium to long term consequences. But that is a distinction lost on CJ.

“Not showing any signs of happening”

There are many signs and CJ must either be too lazy or too blinkered to find out about them. The receding mountain glaciers are not imminent, they are already well on their way, and there are many other signs, as illustrated in NASA’s ‘Vital Signs’.

“The ice at the North Pole should have gone” 

A typical exaggerated straw-man statement, rather than an accurate reflection of the scientific position. The clear evidence is that the minimum in sea ice is on a downward trend. “The Arctic Ocean is expected to become essentially ice free in summer before mid-century”, says NASA (see Vital Signs above).

“Awkwardly lingering”

Yes it is … rather like those discredited contrarian memes, that CJ slavishly trots out.  Not much creativity at work here I am afraid on his part.

“It seems no more than when we were young” 

CJ’s anecdotal personal experience is worthless, like those who claim that smoking is safe because granny smoked 20 a day and lived to 90, so it must be ok. The disrupted weather systems are already bringing extremes in terms of both wetter winters and hot summers, depending on the region. While ‘attribution’ can get us into the difficult area of probabilities, the dice is already slightly loaded towards more extreme weather, and the loading will increase as the world warms. The National Academy of Sciences have just reported on this  (But once again, I am sure that CJ will not want his opinion to be confused by facts).

“Continuing to not go up by much”

Well, CJ might not be impressed by the sea level rise so far, but the projected sea level rise is expected to be up to 1 metre by the end of the century, which would have a devastating impact on many countries and many cities situated near sea level. The long term picture, over millennia, offers little solace because of the long time it takes for elevated concentrations of carbon dioxide to remain in the atmosphere.

“sure collapse of the alarmist view” 

A word of caution here from CJ regarding the sceptics’ who “lapse into oratory”, but he clearly shares the belief that those who warn of serious impacts of global warming should be labelled alarmist, while at the same time being affronted at the label denialist. Sauce for the goose is apparently not sauce for the gander.

He lazily conflates the science with those that who at first sight may easily be cast in the mould of  alarmist: those dreaded environmentalists.  Let us assume for arguments sake that some of who he objects to are shrill alarmists. Does that have any bearing on the veracity of the science? Of course not, yet he applies his broad brush to tar anyone who might dare raise a concern.

Scientists for their part are often a rather quiet and thoughtful bunch. They often take years before publishing results, so they can check and re-check. But what are they to do about global warming? Keep quiet and they could be criticised for not raising the alarm; yet if they tell us about the worst prognostications in the calmest of voices, they will surely be accused of alarmism. A no-win situation.

It is rather easy for those like CJ, whose opinions are unencumbered by knowledge, to discount thousands of diligent scientists with an insulting and pejorative label.

“His death … motivates the doomsday fantasist”

Scientists such as  Sagan have demonstrated a far less parochial view of the future than CJ. Boltzmann foresaw the heat death of the universe and scientists routinely remind us of what tiny specks we humans are in the universe. It is CJ not they that need reminding of how insignificant we all are.

Scientists show an amazing ability to have both a deep knowledge which challenges our deepest assumptions of the world, and a positive attitude to humanity. A combination of realism and optimism that is often inspiring.

The real fantasists here are those like CJ who imagine that they can stand judgment on 200 years of cumulative scientific knowledge, by rubbishing all those men and women who have established the understanding we now have, including the scientific evidence for global warming resulting from human activities that is now incontrovertible.

It is sad that someone who knows and loves poetry should decide to adulterate his art with this hatchet job on another discipline, science, for which he has little empathy and even less knowledge, but feels qualified to insult with the poetic equivalent of a latter day Margarita Pracatan.

Entertaining for some no doubt, but a rather sad reflection on CJ. He could have used a poem to provide a truly reflective and transcendent piece on the subject of climate change, but instead merely offered an opinion piece masquerading as art, clouded by contrarian myths.

We still love you Clive, but I really hope this poem is not your last.

 

(c) Richard Erskine, 2016

Note: If readers would like a presentation of a golden thread through the science, in plain English, then my essay Demystifying Global Warming & Its Implications aims to provide just that.

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Data catching Santa in the exploding digital universe!

At this time of year, cynics and sceptics pour scorn on Santa and his faithful reindeer, the prancers and dancers of this festive time. The gauntlet is often laid down as follows. Santa will visit all those children who want presents from him – in about one billion homes – which he has to visit on Christmas Eve.

Thankfully, Fermilabs published the calculations some years ago and proved that Santa, travelling at close to the speed of light, would have no problems covering the ground, in 500 seconds, leaving a generous but fleeting 0.15 milliseconds per dwelling to wolf down some sherry and mince pies. We are of course assuming there is just one Santa, but please note that in Iceland they have 13 Santa Clauses, sons of a horrible mountain hag called Grýla (we leave the re-calculation as an exercise for the reader!).

So what about data? Let’s think not about boring networks and bandwidth, but something more fantastic: the whole of our digital universe.

The Guardian reported back in 2009 that “At 487bn gigabytes (GB), if the world’s rapidly expanding digital content were printed and bound into books it would form a stack that would stretch from Earth to Pluto 10 times.”

Assuming 500bn Gb was being added every 18 months, the speed of the 2009 virtual stack of books was about 1000 kilometres per second. This is fast but well short of the speed of light, that is 300 times this value.

The rate of growth is not constant. It too is doubling every 18 months. It is no wonder this was characterised as the “expanding digital universe”. IDC’s fifth annual study on the digital universe published in June 2011 estimated that we had reached 1.8 trillion gigabytes. We are exploding according to plan!

Translated into a velocity, I have calculated that the exponentially accelerating virtual stack of books, reaching well beyond our solar system, will be travelling at more than the speed of light by 2018. Unlike Santa and crew, our ‘virtual stack’ does not have to comply with the special theory of relativity (Einstein, 1905).

So data will not only catch Santa, but accelerate well beyond him, if we carry on at this rate.

With some thought and some digital out-sourcing, maybe Santa can use this virtual stack as a delivery mechanism, and so create a little space in his busy schedule at this time of year to enjoy the mince pies and sherry at more leisure, and avoid indigestion.

Merry Yuletide.

 

Republished from my 2011 post on thoughtfeast

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Thank you, Neil MacGregor

Neil MacGregor is stepping down as director of the British Museum at the end of 2015.

What an awe inspiring interpreter of our common human history, our common humanity; and what a leader, who has reached across the world, transcending political barriers with a diplomatic skill that matches his cultural sensitivity.

If you have never read A History of The World in 100 Objects (or better, heard the original BBC Radio broadcasts, enriched by his resonant voice), then you are missing a real cultural gem.

After seeing what Neil MacGregor achieved with his equally monumental Germany: Memories of a Nation (such magnificent antidote to an often one-dimensional view of Germany in the British media), Germany could be in no doubt about their choice of him as leader of the Humboldt Forum.

We all wait expectantly to see the fruits of this new project.

New wonders await, for sure.

Thank you, Neil.

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Why James Hansen is wrong on COP21

I think that James Hansen, as much as I respect him and his huge contribution to the science of climate change, and his personal commitment to communicating the risks we face (including getting arrested), has been outrageous in calling COP21 a fraud.

What would have happened if he had chaired the meeting? Hitting everyone over the head until they agree with a carbon tax, which he sets? I suspect the meeting would have ended in acrimony and the world would be in despair at no agreement.

Diplomats may not be great at science, but the converse is also true.

Laurent Fabius possesses another kind of genius.

Is the current agreement flawed? Yes, in many ways, but it is a framework on which to take us forward with 5-yearly reviews, and things that many developing countries had requested, like loss and damage.

I marvel at the ability to bring more than 190 countries together, all with very different histories and current needs, to knit something together.

French diplomacy tonight deserves our gratitude, not our scorn.

Is 1.5C achievable? The science suggests almost certainly not. So why include it? Because low lying and vulnerable countries demanded it. It is a recognition of their plight. Is that a sop to them, a fraud? No, its called diplomacy and of course not an easy thing for scientists like Hansen to accept.

It would not be the first time that ‘creative ambiguity’ was used in the cause of a greater good (I am thinking the peace accords in Northern Ireland where, if we had instead insisted on absolutely rigorous unambiguous language, would still be in a war there).

There is a joke about the visitor to Ireland who asks a local old man for directions to a place he needs to get to … and the old man says … “If I were going where you are heading, I wouldn’t have started from here!”.

We cannot change where we are starting from, not Hansen, not Fabius.

We can all help, individually, in our towns, in our communities, as voters, etc. to help turn aspiration into reality. e.g. like three examples below:

I think we all need to stop whinging about how hard it is and #JFDI.

By we, I mean all levels of civil society across the globe, utilities, politicians, industry, engineers, and all who can contribute.

It is surprising how much can be achieved when everyone decides to work together.

That spirit of working together may be up against huge hurdles, and punishing odds, but it is not a fraud.

(c) Richard Erskine, 12th December 2015

 

 

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Climate Alarmists?

Ted Cruz decided to use a Congressional Committee to ask the question “Data or Dogma? Promoting Open Inquiry in the Debate over the Magnitude of Human Impact on Climate Change.”

A number of commentators have explored the why & wherefores of the meeting and analysed Cruz’s partisan summary .

My purpose here is not to reproduce those arguments. Detailed responses to Ted Cruz often repeated talking points are available.

I want to express my intense irritation at the dishonest use of emotional language by Ted Cruz, when labelling (the majority of) climate scientists, and those who are calling for action on global warming, as “alarmists”.

This is one of the oldest tricks in the book; to try to make your position seem reasonable by use of emotionally charges labels to apply to your opponent (or their arguments) in a debate. Unfortunately, as long as there are politicians, there will be abuse of language as a substitute for substance.

It is worth also recalling some wise words from Robert Thouless as true today as when first published in 1930:

Once we are on the look-out for this difference between factual and emotional meanings, we shall notice that words which carry more or less strong suggestions of emotional attitudes are very common and are ordinarily used in the discussion of such controversial questions as those of politics, morals, and religion. This is one reason why men can go on discussing such questions without getting much nearer to a rational solution of them. …

Those who show enthusiasm in support of proposals with which a speaker disagrees are extremists, while those showing similar enthusiasm on his own side are called staunch. If a politician wishes to attack some new proposal he has a battery of these and other words with emotional meanings at his disposal. He speaks of “this suggested panacea supported only by the bombast of extremists”, and the proposal is at once discredited in the minds of the majority of people, who like to think of themselves as moderate, distrustful of panaceas, and uninfluenced by windy eloquence. Also we may notice that it has been discredited without the expenditure of any real thought, for of real objective argument there is none, only the manipulation of words calling out emotion.

Robert Thouless, Straight and Crooked Thinking, Pan, 1930 (revised 1953)

Ted Cruz (like many politicians left and right), uses emotive words to  try to make a case that is stronger than it deserves.

But when he throws around the label global warming or climate “alarmist” to compensate for the paucity of genuine science on his side of the argument, and does this while chairing a US Senate Committee, this is abuse not merely of argument but of power.

When will Republicans realise that they are being manipulated, using the oldest tricks in the dishonest argument handbook?

 

 

 

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Falstaff prepares for battle in Paris

Christopher Monckton and his merry band of global warming contrarians have been in Paris last week plotting their next skirmish in their never ending war against the science of global warming.

Their meeting to discuss their ‘messaging’ for COP21 has been documented by a journalist from Open Democracy and gives a remarkable expose into their rambling thought processes.

I have a vision of Falstaff – a tragic, comic and hopelessly flawed figure – and his crew of weary old soldiers preparing for a new battle. For audiences of Shakespeare’s plays, these scenes provide some light relief from the more serious plots afoot in his great plays. The same was true here except that on this occasion no one was laughing.

In the main play at COP21 there are serious actors at work: mayors of cities planning to decarbonise; managers of huge investment funds now actively forcing businesses to accept fiduciary responsibility; entrepreneurs promoting zero carbon innovations in energy, transport and elsewhere; climate action networks working with citizen groups; and many more. They are not debating whether or not we have a problem – all informed people know we do – they are instead working hard on solutions. Whatever happens with the final text of COP21, the transition is underway. It cannot be stopped.

The contrarians are bound together by a suspicion, and in some cases hatred, of environmentalism, the UN and ‘big’ Government. They have no interest in exploring scientific truth, only in finding ways to create confusion in the climate debate, for the sole purpose of delaying action. So their strategy has been to challenge science in ways that are thoroughly disingenuous.

For example, over many years these people have said that you cannot reliably measure the average global surface temperature of the Earth, or have claimed it is in error because of the heat island effect or whatever (all untrue, but they keep repeating it). So guess what happens when it appears that the warming has slowed or ‘paused’? They then switch tack and say “look, its stopped warming”, now feigning a belief in the very science of global temperature measurement they were lambasting before.

I call that disingenuous.

This is a game that some people have called ‘wack a mole’, because the contrarians pop up in one place and no sooner have you wacked them there, they pop up in another place. Having no shame, they are happy to pop in the prior places where they have been thoroughly ‘wacked’, hoping no one will remember. This is ‘wack a mole’ meets Groundhog Day.

It is not merely a case of getting tangled in knots over the science. Even before we get to the science part, the contrarians deploy a myriad of debating techniques and logical fallacies. One of the favourite fallacies deployed by contrarians is what I call ‘Argument from Incredulity’.

Now, I do not blame anyone for being incredulous about the universe. I would say it is quite normal, on hearing it for the first time, to be incredulous that we are in a galaxy with a few hundred billion stars and in a universe with over 100 billion galaxies. Incredulity is often a good starting point for enquiry and discovery. But it should never be an excuse for persistent ignorance.

As a child, I was surprised when I learned that even 1oC temperature rise meant a fever and a few degrees could be fatal. It is indeed a wonder how a complex system, like the human body, works to create such a fine equilibrium, and that when the system goes even slightly out of equilibrium, it spells trouble.

The Earth’s system has also been in equilibrium. It too, can get a fever with apparently small changes that can knock it out of equilibrium.

In No. 7 of the talking points in Monckton’s rather long list is his observation that CO2 is less than a tenth of 1% of the Earth’s atmosphere (currently, it is 0.04%, or 400 parts per million [ppm])). True, but so what?

If I look through clear air along a long tube I see visible light from a torch at the other end undiminished, but if I then add a small amount of smoke there will be significant dimming out of all proportion with the relative concentration of the smoke. Why? Because if you add a small effect to a situation where there is little or no effect, the change is large.

The same is true when considering infra-red (which is invisible to the human eye but is emitted from the ground when it has been warmed by sunlight). Since 99% of the Earth’s atmosphere is transparent to this infra-red, the ‘small’ amount of CO2 (which does absorb infra-red) is very significant in relative terms. Why? Again, because if you add a small effect to a situation where there is little or no effect, the change is large.

Contrarians like to express the rise as 0.03% to 0.04% to suggest that it is small and insignificant.

Actually, a better way to express the change is that it is equivalent to a 33% increase in CO2 concentrations above pre-industrial levels (see Note).

The current 400 ppm is rising at a rate of over 2 ppm per year. All of this increase is due to human combustion of fossil fuels. That is not small, it is huge, and at a rate that is unprecedented (being over a period of 150 years not the 10s of thousands of years over the ice age cycles).

But here is the most amazing conclusion to the Monckton meeting. In trying to rehearse the arguments they should use when ‘messaging’ on the topic of the greenhouse effect:

“We accept that there is such a thing as the greenhouse effect …
yes, if you add CO2 to the atmosphere, it would cause some warming – there are some on the fringes who would deny that, but it’s tactically efficacious for us to accept that.”

Efficacious to say something you don’t believe! I don’t call that denial, I call it deceitful.

The old soldiers were naturally up in arms. Being sold out at this stage, would be a bitter pill to swallow. As the reporter noted:

Monckton suggested that they should accept that the greenhouse effect is real. There was a fair amount of disagreement in the room. The chair said “I’m trying to appeal to left wing journalists”. For a moment they lost control as a number of people shouted out their various objections. The conclusion?: “The Greenhouse Effect – the debate continues”.

Enough of dissembling contrarians, I say.

At this point the comic interlude must come to a close. Time to get back to some serious debate.

[Falstaff exits, stage Right]

[The action moves back to the main stage]

COP21 continues without interruption, despite noises off.

(c) Richard Erskine, 2015

NOTE

In fact, the Earth’s average surface temperature would be roughly the same as the Moon’s (being the same distance from the sun) without the CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, about 30oC cooler (-15oC rather than +15oC, on average). So adding even a small amount of CO2 to to an atmosphere of Oxygen, Nitrogen and Argon has a huge effect. Something on top of nothing is a big change in percentage terms.

Over the 4 last ice ages, CO2 concentrations have varied between 180 and 300 parts per million. So less than a halving or doubling of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere moved the Earth from ice age to interglacial and back again. We know that less than a doubling can have dramatic changes.

Today’s level of 400 ppm has not been seen on Earth for almost 1 million years.

For at least the last thousand years, the level has been stable at 280 ppm, up until the industrial revolution.

The question of a ‘pause’ in surface temperature is debated amongst climate scientists. One thing they do not disagree about: the increased CO2 means there is an energy imbalance that is causing the planet to warm, with over 90% of the heat going into the oceans, mountain glaciers receding apace, etc.

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Bringing Protest to the Heart of COP21

In the light of the IS attacks on Paris that has terrorised the city, thoughts inevitably turn to the climate talks in December, COP21, and how France will respond.

Will this change the venue or format of COP21?

The message is that the conference remains on course. This is the right decision. This conference is much too important to be blown off course by the actions of murderous ideologues.

The event already had in place security that is inevitably needed for an event like this, with badged access to the conference area itself. I suspect they had already factored in what many Parisians expected might be coming (even if the reality was much more shocking than anyone had imagined).

Will security be beefed up? Yes, inevitably, but it would be a mistake to create an image of a besieged COP21 with popular protest groups shut out of the conference behind even higher ‘walls’ (an impression that many protest groups already feel).

Total security for the large numbers of the ‘unbadged’ outside the conference would be impossible. What to do? Not to be heard in Paris, to stay away?

I don’t believe so, but I do believe we need to re-think the organization of the protests, and I had this feeling even before the terrorist attacks.

We, the citizens of planet Earth all qualify for a ticket to this event: ‘how to save the Earth’, and clearly we cannot all be there.

Whereas UK citizens, like me, can find low carbon ways to travel to Paris, what about a citizen of Indonesia or Canada? Flying in large numbers to Paris would not exactly send a consistent message. A couple of tonnes of carbon dioxide for each far flung protestor: is that the right price?

There needs to be protesters there for sure, and the French people are protesters par excellence. We need people there to create that energy, to help remind the delegates why we are here.

The people – and many of these student groups – understand the challenge better than the politicians, and understand the severe limitations of our politicians to speak for them, and show vision and leadership. They need their voice heard. Often, these events are accused of being ‘corporatist’ and the voices of the status quo still get undue access to the high table.

The organisers need to recognise this imbalance and not to allow the terrorist attacks on Paris to widen this imbalance further.

The COP21 organisers should create a protest space within the conference zone itself: a space where delegates must pass through and is a wall of images, tweets and statements from protest groups who are physically unable to be there. Every hour of every day, delegates must be reminded of why they are there.

We need the words of all nations represented … Bangladeshi, Egyptian, Kenyan, … not just the middle-class Europeans and North Americans who can afford to fly to be there.

If we want a global protest, inside the COP21 tent, then let’s find a way to do this that does not compromise the inevitable demands of security for delegates and observers.

Let’s bring protest to the heart of COP21.

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E O Wilson on Humanity & Biodiversity

E .O. Wilson, the great evolutionary biologist, was in conversation with Jim Al-Khalili on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Life Scientific’ (a little gem of a series)

He discussed his early years (from age 8!), discoveries, and his ideas on how Darwinian natural selection works in  creative tension between individual selection (the self gene variety) and group selection (which many biologists dispute). Fascinating stuff.

In reference to Darwin, he said …

“the man was impossible, he was always right”.

HUMANITY & BIODIVERSITY

In the latter part of this wonderful programme, Jim Al-Khalili steered the conversation to Ed Wilson’s concerns about biodiversity and the impact that humanity is having on it.

For those of you who may be unable to access the BBC iPlayer or a download of the programme, I wanted to share his words, which were so powerful and insightful I felt compelled to transcribe them (my punctuation, because this was a mesmerising stream of thought):

”Humanity has palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like power … now that’s an extremely dangerous combination” …

“We are by instinct related closely to the survival of our distant ancestors by a driving need to strike nature as hard as we could and to draw as much as we could from it, and we haven’t lost that at all;

And we now come to a higher level recognition that we struck too hard and too far and we are threatening the world that we first entered so aggressively and so successfully in Africa;

And we’ve somehow got to pull back our instincts to exploit and subordinate and convert to our immediate welfare because if we take too much more of the Earth’s biodiversity we render the biosphere unstable;

We could in the worst circumstances reach a tipping point in which the whole thing collapses, and we with it.”

Humbling and thought provoking. Nothing to add.

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