Don’t mock George Brandis

He’s trying to be intellectual.

In fact, today’s xkcd comic about free speech is delightfully well-timed, considering yesterday’s remarks by George Brandis about free speech in an online magazine called Spiked.

The magazine quotes Brandis as follows:

He isn’t a climate-change denier; he says he was ‘on the side of those who believed in anthropogenic global warming and who believed something ought to be done about it’. But he has nonetheless found himself ‘really shocked by the sheer authoritarianism of those who would have excluded from the debate the point of view of people who were climate-change deniers’. He describes as ‘deplorable’ the way climate change has become a gospel truth that you deny or mock at your peril, ‘where one side [has] the orthodoxy on its side and delegitimises the views of those who disagree, rather than engaging with them intellectually and showing them why they are wrong’.

Quite so, George! It’s deplorable that we’re arresting climate change deniers, gaoling them after secret trials, banning their books, preventing newspapers and TV stations from repeating their claims, and…

Oh wait, sorry, that’s what isn’t happening. It’s confusing, isn’t it?

What’s more confusing is that, while George has identified authoritarianism as the problem, he himself is the Attorney General. I don’t know if you quite understand how authoritarianism works, George, but it usually involves the government, or at least whoever is in control of the military. Is your government in control of the Australian Defence Force, George? I know this isn’t your portfolio, but perhaps you could quickly reassure us that someone else isn’t in control of the military.

And having made said reassurance, perhaps you could then explain how a bunch of scientists and activists can, without military force, engage in “authoritarianism”. Unless said scientists have developed some sort of mind-control weapon with those mysterious fountains of grant money they (apparently) keep swimming around in.

Oh, but I think I see the source of the confusion. You see, it’s not that deniers are being prevented from speaking. Indeed, they are some of the most outspoken people in the world. Rather, it’s that gangs of merciless intellectuals are refusing to take the deniers seriously. Now that is a deplorable violation of human rights if ever there was one. The deniers’ views are being delegitimised, George says. I mean, nobody has even contemplated “engaging with them intellectually and showing them why they are wrong”.

Except, now that I think about it, everyone. It’s a fine line, I suppose. I mean, it’s easy to mistake intellectual engagement for authoritarianism when your arguments are repeatedly shown to be an exemplar of the Dunning-Kruger effect. I say “repeatedly”, because no denier argument, however frequently refuted, ever just goes quietly into the night.

Of course, there is the outside chance, as deniers endlessly regurgitate long-refuted arguments and complain that nobody has “engaged” with them, that some of us may tune out.

Sorry George, I know I shouldn’t be “authoritarian”, but sometimes, when I’ve had a long day, it’s difficult to accord due respect and deference to bullshit, even yours.

Sorry Tony, you fail the Turing Test

It’s election time again, and that means its also incoherent-shouting-about-taxes time. Tony Abbott is quick off the block, claiming that “the carbon tax and the mining tax are anti Western Australian taxes.”

It’s almost too drearily, predictably inane a comment to warrant analysis. But one of Abbott’s skills, I now realise, is his soul-crushing dreariness, the effect of which is perhaps to make his opponents give up out of sheer mind-numbing boredom. He’s even worse when you actually listen to him — I can feel the long seconds of my life slipping away during the exaggerated “ah”s and “um”s that litter his speech, pointlessly punctuating a collection of words that are already drawn out and so devoid of substance that they may as well have been randomly generated. That is, by an “Ab-Bot”, if you will1.

Isn’t it a bit patronising to start calling the carbon tax “anti-WA”, when the fight has always been a national one? Presumably, had the AEC lost 1,375 ballot papers in Victoria instead, Abbott would now masterfully be describing the carbon tax as “anti-Victoria”.

Isn’t it a bit condescending to be attacking the carbon and mining taxes without even trying to offer an argument? He has in the past, of course, but since we’re still having this fight, are we fighting over ideas, or are we now just being assaulted by keywords intended to make us go crazy?

And I always think we let off politicians and commentators rather lightly for their liberal use of the “anti-” prefix. For something to be “anti-WA”, it should in principle constitute a direct existential threat to the state — an issue that brings into question the very survival of Western Australia. But while my last power bill included an estimated “carbon component” of $14.282, I can assure all concerned that I am not, in fact, teetering on the edge of oblivion. We’ve all faced down greater threats to our existence than that.

One of the threats we continue to face, it bears repeating ad nauseam, is climate change itself. The debate over the carbon tax, or rather carbon pricing generally, is lost if we forget why it was implemented in the first place. And no, it won’t instantly make climate change go away — it’s part of a very long term struggle to mitigate the damage we’re doing as a global civilisation. Nonetheless, seen in that light, a few dollars on your fossil fuel power bill, to encourage renewable energy, is not a great deal to ask. That’s the argument that needs to be made, because it’s the truth.

But it’s too risky a strategy, Abbott must think, to inject actual information or reasoning into anything he says. He’s not stupid himself, but he seems to think (or perhaps he knows) that treating us like idiots is his best chance.

  1. I can’t possibly be the first person to have made this terrible, terrible joke. But I am making it. []
  2. Higher for some, no doubt, but I would guess still very small compared to things like food and rental/mortgage payments. []

Fred Singer’s climate consensus denial

So I read with some bewilderment1 a recent article by Professor S. Fred Singer on climate change. It jumps around a bit but mostly tries to attack the idea of scientific consensus. Singer’s logic leads from platitudes like this:

Scientific veracity does not depend on fashionable thinking.

to risible conclusions like this:

In other words, the very notion of a scientific consensus is unscientific.

This makes less sense than the reader comments beneath climate-related news articles. Take any established theory from any other scientific discipline — General Relativity, the Standard Model of particle physics, Evolution, Germ Theory, Genetics, etc. ad infinitum. If you follow Singer’s logic, these are all “unscientific”, not just in spite of overwhelming scientific support, but actually because of it. Presumably something can only be “scientific” if a large number of scientists disagree with it. This takes denialism to a whole new level.

The fallacy underlying Singer’s thinking (assuming, for the hell of it, that he’s actually being honest) is that “consensus” is equivalent to groupthink. Singer hasn’t apparently grasped the idea of a conclusion being arrived at independently by many people. But that’s what you should generally expect to happen if (a) we live in a universe that obeys rules, and (b) those people apply sufficient rigour in their observations and analysis, as scientists are expected to do.

But why is consensus important? Because we rely on experts all the time. An “appeal to authority” is perfectly rational when there is a disparity in expertise, as between climate scientists and laypeople. It’s not the scientists who rely on scientific consensus. They rely on rigorous observation and analysis. But laypeople lack the time and expertise to do the same, and for them (us), the notion of a scientific consensus is immensely important as a way of assigning credibility to particular scientific ideas.

Singer’s article actually begins by denying that any consensus exists at all, which is contrary to a number of surveys, and (if you pay attention to those who write about this sort of thing) the absence of any significant pool of climate expertise on the sceptic side of the debate. Singer is aware of the 97% figure — the proportion of climate scientists who agree that climate change is real and human-cased. His response? First of all:

The degree of consensus also depends on the way the questions are phrased.  For example, we can get 100% consensus if the question is “Do you believe in climate change?”  We can get a near-100% consensus if the question is “Do you believe that humans have some effect on the climate?”  This latter question also would include also local effects, like urbanization, clearing of forests, agriculture, etc.

The word “some” (underlined by Singer) is the key to his whole argument — an issue of wording on the survey questionnaires. Here are three surveys (of actual real-world climate scientists or climate science papers) that have each independently reported a 97% consensus:

  • One by Doran and Zimmerman (2009) that I discussed three years ago, which asked scientists the question: “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?” (my underlining).
  • One by Anderegg et al. (2010), which classified 1,372 climate researchers as either convinced or unconvinced of the IPCC’s position, which is of course that humans are making a significant contribution to global temperature increases.
  • Another by John Cook et al. (2013), who examined and categorised 11,944 climate-related abstracts. Abstracts that minimised the impact of humans, or claimed that humans contribute less than half of the total effect, were counted as a rejection of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). This is another term for human-cased climate change, of course, but one that makes explicit its global nature.

In order words, the bar is set a lot higher, and so the consensus a lot more meaningful, than Singer makes out. Those who believe that humans are having “some” effect on the climate, but only a local or minimal one, have not been counted in the consensus.

Singer himself brings up a fourth survey by Oreskes (2004), which also found a consensus view among published papers. Singer only mentions this in order to dishonestly imply that something scandalous happened:

…after being challenged, Oreskes discovered having overlooked some 11,000 abstracts — and published a discreet Correction in a later issue of Science.

The “discreet” correction is advertised in large capital letters across the top of the downloadable PDF. The correction says:

The keywords used [in searching for papers] were “global climate change,” not “climate change.”

Not quite the same thing as “overlooking 11,000 abstracts”, which is Singer’s preposterous interpretation2. And notice that even the correction itself, raised by Singer just to spread doubt, again undermines his own point — we’re talking about global climate change here, not local effects.

In the midst of this, Singer has the audacity to cite his own survey without furnishing us with the wording of his questions3, finding of course that support for human-caused climate change is much lower. He does, however, tell us that it was done in 1990 with less than 100 respondents. It was also apparently targeted at the American Meteorological Society, because:

I figured those must be the experts.

Just smell the rigour. Meteorologists are not the experts — climate scientists are. But even if we assume the survey was done rigorously, it’s still much smaller than all of the above-mentioned surveys, and 24 years out of date.

But Singer also confuses surveys of climate scientists with public opinion polls:

On the other hand, independent polls by newspapers, by Pew, Gallup, and other respected organizations, using much larger samples, have mirrored the results of my earlier AMS poll.  But what has been most interesting is the gradual decline over the years in public support for DAGW, as shown by these independent polls.

The public does hold a much more cynical view of human-caused climate change than climate scientists, but Singer’s comparison here is utterly absurd. “Respected organisations” these pollsters may be, but what they do has no bearing on the existence (or otherwise) of a scientific consensus. They’re surveying laypeople, whose understanding of scientific issues is more a function of media coverage and ideology than of observation and analysis. Does Singer not understand the difference?

His other notable example is the “Oregon Petition”, said to have been signed by 31,000 “scientists and engineers”, 9,000 with PhDs. It’s clear that the list of signatories to the petition includes a very broad swathe of qualifications, most of which have nothing to do with climate science, and the majority of which probably have no connection to the active pursuit of scientific research at all (since a PhD is a basic qualification for a researcher in academia, and since less than a third of signatories claimed to have PhDs). The petition’s website itself states that only 31 signatories have a “climatology” qualification, a mere 0.1% of the total. It doesn’t say these are even PhDs, so they almost certainly include non-scientists. After all, the petition failed to ask signatories what they actually do, or in fact anything about them at all other than their name and self-reported qualifications (making the list impossible to verify). Singer also doesn’t concern himself with the difference between a petition and a survey. The former gives us a big, but ultimately meaningless number. The latter, more usefully, gives us the proportion of respondents (experts, in our case) who hold a certain view.

Singer’s other argument against the existence of the consensus is that there’s a global peer-review conspiracy. He complains about the corruption of the process — as evidenced by a few anecdotal examples gleaned from the “climategate” collection of stolen emails, in which scientists and journal editors are seen to be exercising their professional judgement. The whole point of peer review, of course, is to act as a front-line filter against the least meritorious scientific papers. Of course someone, somewhere, is going to have been making recommendations and sending communications about the worth or worthlessness of certain papers. The fact that so few climate sceptics ever get past this first hurdle annoys them terribly, but it doesn’t mean that the peer-review process across the world’s entire climate science community has become mired in systemic corruption. It could simply mean that said climate sceptics are full of shit (and doubly so for then claiming persecution). Given the quality of Singer’s other arguments, it’s hard to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Singer also briefly wheels out the “no warming for 15 years” myth, and complains that the fact of it having been the warmest decade on record is irrelevant. He comes armed with this self-defeating analogy:

It may help here to think of prices on the stock market.  The Dow-Jones index has more or less been level for the last several weeks, fluctuating between 15,000 and 16,000, showing essentially a zero trend; but it is at its highest level since the D-J index was started in 1896.

Singer argues that the current level does not indicate the trend, which is technically, pedantically true, but we’re never just talking about the current level. By saying that the Dow-Jones — or the current temperature — is the highest it’s ever been, we’re relating it to past levels, which is what a trend is all about. Singer just doesn’t want to admit that there’s such a thing as a long term trend that overwhelms whatever short-term trend he might find interesting. In the course of arguing that the Dow-Jones hasn’t changed much in weeks, Singer is actually conceding that it has changed considerably over the longer term. So, of course, has the global temperature. And it’s the long term trend that matters.

That’s certainly the case for climate models, which Singer laughs off for their apparent inability to explain short-term natural variability. But short-term variability is basically irrelevant in determining the broad magnitude and impact of climate change. A model doesn’t get “falsified” for failing to produce a level of precision that it doesn’t need and was never designed to produce. Run the models against the past temperature record and they quite successfully predict the large-scale shape and magnitude of the rise that we’ve observed.

Singer ends with a plug for one of his own creations:

The wild claims of the IPCC are being offset by the more sober, fact-based publications of the NIPCC (Non-governmental International Panel on Climate Change).

This is sheer delusion from the man who set up the NIPCC, which appears to be a group of cranks angry at not being taken seriously. The IPCC already considers and incorporates into its reports the full range of scientific opinion on climate change. Far from being “wild”, its claims are often considered quite conservative. Singer’s claims are nothing but denialism.

  1. In the naïve sense of one who expects intellectual honesty. []
  2. Presumably someone did a search for “climate change” and noticed that the tally of results was 11,000 higher than that reported by Oreskes. You might think that the simple, accidental omission of one of the search terms would explain the disparity in results. But the climate sceptics, bastions of reason that they are, know that really Oreskes must have had all those extra papers at hand and dishonestly or incompetently misplaced them. Because that sounds better. []
  3. For instance, did Singer ask survey respondents whether they believe that humans will cause the world to end, and did he count each “no” response as a rejection of human-caused climate change? He doesn’t see fit to tell us, even after raising the issue of wording. []

Denial in carbon politics

This is a follow-up to my previous post on Greg Hunt’s paradoxical lack of enthusiasm for discussing climate change policy. He’s very quiet on the Coalition’s “Direct Action” policy, and very loud on the Coalition’s promise to remove Labor’s carbon tax. (Highly suspicious, given that one is theoretically necessitated by the other.)

But will the Coalition even get the opportunity to fulfil that promise? If it wins the next federal election, the Greens are widely expected to hold onto the balance of power in the Senate. Labor and the Greens could, therefore, team up to block any Coalition attempt to scrap the carbon tax, and then a double dissolution election would be on the cards. Hunt magically extricates himself from this conundrum with the following rather optimistic reasoning:

We do not expect the Greens will ever honour a mandate given to the Coalition. However, if the ALP loses the election it is almost inconceivable that they would ignore such a clear mandate, especially given that they had no mandate to introduce the tax in the first place.

Hunt’s talk of mandates is pure fiction. The concept of one side having or not having a policy-specific mandate (e.g. to enact or repeal a carbon tax) is sustained by a narrative, usually self-serving and factually debatable, in which voters elect their representatives based on that one policy area only. It just doesn’t work like that, either in theory or in practice. Voters are never formally asked to approve specific policies, except during referendums, and there has never been a referendum on climate change policy. Elections by themselves are not referendums, and political promises are fundamentally unenforceable. (This latter fact will almost inevitably be the saving grace of Mr Hunt himself, as he must realise).

Constitutionally, the Senate is never under any obligation to toe the line of the Government. Even if the logic of mandates did apply, it must apply equally to both houses. Senators are no less democratically elected than MPs, so why on Earth should Labor or Greens Senators be obligated to do anything but adhere to their own policies and best judgment? The Coalition won’t own Labor’s eternal soul merely by beating it at the ballot box. Labor’s only moral obligation (as with everyone else in politics) is to exercise good judgment.

Despite this, Hunt expects (or claims to expect) the ALP to side with the Coalition. To slightly mangle Charles Babbage, I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such an expectation. Why, in the name of all that is good, would the ALP possibly want to (a) trash one of its own signature accomplishments, (b) replicate the very same policy back-flip that saw Kevin Rudd’s poll numbers crash, and (c) resist the opportunity, from the safety of opposition, to make a liar out of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in neat, vengeful symmetry with his side’s relentless labelling of Julia Gillard a liar over the same issue?

Hunt is virtually promising that his own political opponents will do his bidding. How much further divorced from reality can a politician be?

On symmetry, the repeal of the carbon tax is sometimes compared to Labor’s repeal of the Coalition’s Work Choices legislation. The Liberals, having lost the 2007 election, voted to repeal their own legislation, so — it is sometimes argued (though not specifically by Hunt this time) — Labor ought to do the same. This is a rather spectacular logical fallacy, because of course the two policies are totally unconnected. The Coalition backtracked on its own policy in earnest recognition of having gone too far, not because its election defeat lost it the right to have a policy. The only people arguing that Labor has gone too far are climate sceptics and political hacks.

The symmetry also breaks when you consider that the Coalition’s change of heart was motivated by strong public opposition to Work Choices — 59% opposed to 24% in favour, whereas there is now net support for the carbon tax — 46% in favour to 44% opposed. If both an election and a real referendum on the carbon tax were held simultaneously, right now, it is likely that both the Coalition and the carbon tax would win. Consider that when Hunt talks about Labor “acting in defiance of the express will of the Australian people”. It’s now more likely, on the balance of probabilities, that the Coalition would be defying the will of the Australian people, not Labor.

There is the threat of a double dissolution, of course, but Hunt must be making some rather extraordinary assumptions about the dynamics of popular opinion if he thinks he has that one sewn up. The Coalition-in-Government has potentially more to lose in an early election than the ALP-in-Opposition — the entire remainder of its policy agenda, for instance. The ALP would fight to get back into government, or at least recover some support. Even if the ALP gained no ground, there’s still no guarantee afterwards that the Coalition would have enough support in the Senate, or in a joint sitting, to scrap the carbon tax. And then what? Another double dissolution?

David Forman (in the article to which Greg Hunt is responding) goes on to suggest that the Coalition could technically scrap the carbon tax simply by bringing forward the full emissions trading scheme. After all, the carbon tax was only ever a temporary measure anyway, and Labor and the Greens would be far less likely to block their own ETS. This would be a compromise by the Coalition that really just serves to obfuscate a complete political surrender on the issue. Kevin Rudd’s proposed ETS was the menace that motivated the Coalition’s current policy — and Tony Abbott’s rise to leadership — in the first place.

The Coalition has been boxed-in by its anti-carbon pricing campaign. Given what Tony Abbott has said and promised, it’s difficult to envisage Greg Hunt having much flexibility in what he says and promises either. But there must be a price for politicians saying and promising the impossible. We may understand why they do it, and what political consequences await them if they don’t play the game, but even then we do not have to excuse it.

If not the carbon tax, then what?

Greg Hunt, the Opposition’s spokesperson on Climate Action, is trying very hard to convince anyone who will listen that the Coalition can and will repeal Labor’s carbon tax if it wins government. He responds to a well-considered piece by David Forman on the political difficulties of doing so.

I want to make two points about Hunt’s — and the Coalition’s — position. First, despite the Coalition’s furious pronouncements within the climate change policy area, it doesn’t appear to take that policy area very seriously. Second, Hunt displays brazenly wishful thinking in his estimation of his party’s ability to scrap the carbon tax if elected. I’ll address the latter in another post.

In his article, Hunt mainly just rehashes the cost effectiveness argument against the carbon tax; i.e. that it costs an awful lot and doesn’t substantially reduce carbon emissions. I don’t have the patience to sift through Hunt’s references to confirm his numbers, but his only purpose in citing them is to call the tax a “mammoth expenditure”. This is futile without some point of comparison (e.g. between Labor’s policy and the Coalition’s policy), which Hunt doesn’t provide.

The other part of the argument seeks to demonstrate that the carbon tax has very little effect. I don’t necessarily dispute this, as far as our specific implementation of the tax is concerned. Perhaps a lot more could be done much sooner. However, Hunt cites a think tank, rather misleadingly called the “Copenhagen Consensus”, which seems to argue against any sort of carbon tax or emissions trading scheme as a response to climate change. The think tank was led by Bjørn Lomborg and is now defunct.

Importantly, Hunt’s argument can’t really be understood without quietly adopting the notion that carbon pricing is purely an aspirational (or add-on) policy — something it would be nice to have, but only if it fits in with our principal goals of maximising year-to-year employment and GDP statistics. And that notion shapes our response to the policy’s success or failure. If it’s judged to be “not working”, then by implication it’s “not worth the expense” and so we can simply get rid of it and forget the whole issue. We tried it, and it didn’t work out. Oh well, let’s move on.

But not so fast. Any sensible debate over the carbon tax must maintain a connection with the consequences — economic, environmental and humanitarian — of the alternative. The Stern Review, for instance, is the most comprehensive assessment so far (as far as I know) of the economic effects of climate change. The summary of the conclusions says this:

Using the results from formal economic models, the Review estimates that if we don’t act, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20% of GDP or more.

In contrast, the costs of action – reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change – can be limited to around 1% of global GDP each year.

In other words, however hideously expensive climate change mitigation policies (like carbon taxes) might be, they must be compared to the horrific economic ruin likely to arise from unmitigated climate change.

The summary later adds this:

Three elements of policy are required for an effective global response. The first is the pricing of carbon, implemented through tax, trading or regulation. The second is policy to support innovation and the deployment of low-carbon technologies. And the third is action to remove barriers to
energy efficiency, and to inform, educate and persuade individuals about what they can do to respond to climate change.

This rather underpins the government’s policy, at least in principle if not magnitude.

Of course, in the politics of climate change, we have a difficult time connecting policy to reality, because it is an unfathomably complex subject. Moreover, there is an army of ideological warriors ready to wage war upon any and all supporting evidence and analysis with an ever-growing arsenal of well-rehearsed factoids. But either you buy into the global conspiracy theory, or you don’t. There’s no half-way point that makes any sense. (Even if you were to discredit three quarters of the world’s climate research as fraudulent, what remains is still more than enough to support climate action.) So, let’s say your understanding of human nature is such that you don’t think countless thousands of nerdy, egotistical, hyper-competitive, human researchers are all working together to choreograph a super-villainous, comic-book-esque deception on a scale never before imagined. And let’s say you don’t quite grasp the logic of free-market libertarians who appear to believe that, since the free market cannot apparently solve the problem of climate change without government intervention, the problem therefore cannot possibly exist in the first place. (That last link actually deals with libertarian reactions to a hypothetical asteroid impact, but the principle is the same.)

There is real data and real analysis that paints an increasingly dark picture of the consequences of climate change. We have begun to contemplate a 4-6 degree temperature rise, far beyond the 2 degrees that international negotiations have targeted. Why? In part, future climate projections have relied on very optimistic assumptions about political action, which we have resoundingly failed to meet. These kinds of temperature increases are easily catastrophic, according to even the World Bank (of all institutions).

Even more importantly, this is not a case of “Oh well, our carbon tax didn’t work. Let’s forget about it and go home”. There is no “it’s already as bad as it can get, so let’s not worry”. The problem will simply keep getting worse and worse and worse until we fix it. Warming and sea-level rises will not stop in the year 2100, for instance (the oft-used time frame for climate projections). For temperature rises exceeding 7 degrees, parts of the world are likely to become uninhabitable — too hot and humid for humans to maintain our necessary body temperature, even with wind and water1. Given what is at stake, we can’t walk away from the table; we can’t get out of the game. Perhaps we’ve already failed on climate change, but there are many degrees of failure, so to speak, and even now we can make things so much worse than they already are. This is not an academic curiosity that would be a good idea to address if only it was a little more convenient to do so. Climate change will eventually, inevitably reshape our whole global civilisation.

So, it is important to debate whether (and to what extent) the carbon tax will succeed or fail. Perhaps it is failing. Perhaps there ought to be a subtly or radically different policy. It is entirely appropriate for Greg Hunt (and others) to point out the relative lack of effect the carbon tax will have on our domestic carbon emissions. These concerns and criticisms go to the heart of an immensely important issue.

However, Greg Hunt is more than a commentator. He represents the alternative government, and as such his talk of the carbon tax being an “environmental failure” must be matched by an alternative policy that is objectively, demonstrably more likely to succeed. Given his title, you would presume it is his job to co-ordinate and articulate such a policy. The Opposition does have a climate policy, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Hunt’s response. He doesn’t see fit to even mention it. Think about that. Even when going out of his way to respond to an article about his party’s position on climate action, the Shadow Minister for Climate Action declines to discuss his actual policy.

That policy, even taken at face value, is highly dubious. It is intended to match the government’s commitment to a 5% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 (below levels in 2000). Yet, sequestering carbon in soil — a major part of the Coalition’s plan — is still essentially theoretical. Another policy component involves paying polluters to stop polluting, but according to various institutions including Treasury, this is hideously expensive, inefficient and ultimately unrealistic. In short, Greg Hunt’s policy suffers from much worse versions of the same problems he ascribes to the carbon tax. He even brazenly argues that other countries have said “no” to a carbon tax, but major parts of his own alternative approach are not even on the table internationally.

And there are reasons to doubt the Coalition’s commitment to even its own policy, even if it were feasible. Tony Abbott’s rise to leadership is the product of underlying climate scepticism within the Coalition, manifested for instance in Nick Minchin and Barnaby Joyce, and Abbott’s occasional “gaffes” make it hard to believe he understands the magnitude of the problem. Greg Hunt does not enhance the Coalition’s credibility through his lack of enthusiasm for his own policy. Malcolm Turnbull observes that the Coalition’s policy — presumably since it’s just a list of government expenditures (unlike a tax or trading scheme) — is designed to be easy to scrap even after implementation.

Whatever level of deceit you attribute to Gillard for making and breaking a promise not to introduce a carbon tax, and however ineffective you think that carbon tax might be, her opponents do not present us with any choice. From Greg Hunt, we need someone who can at least pretend to be interested in the subject matter — a matter of grave global importance — beyond merely promising to trash someone else’s attempt to solve the problem.

  1. In such extremes, air conditioning would be a matter of life and death for even the healthiest people. Power cuts would create major humanitarian disasters. []

Straw alarmism

So much is said in the political catastrophe surrounding climate change that I can’t quite imagine anyone keeping up with it. However, rbutr has informed me that one particular pseudo-anonymous article at something called the “Independent Journal Review” (or “IJReview”) could do with a closer look, and so I shall oblige.

The IJReview discusses James Lovelock’s recent about-face in which he describes his previous position on climate change as “alarmist” (a word that tends to be thrown around rather loosely — I’ll come back that later). The IJReview doesn’t cite the original source — an MSNBC phone interview with Lovelock — but rather several secondary authors. This indirection doesn’t alleviate the irony of the IJReview’s own political cartoon poking fun at MSNBC for selective editing and taking things out of context (which appeared alongside the article at the time of writing). Presumably, unreliable sources become reliable when you don’t cite them directly.

The level of snark in this article is on the silly side of normal, with “hardcore environmentalists” described as “money-grubbing” and “power-grabbing”, a connection based on some undiscovered logic by which, I suspect, I could also prove that 1 = 2. There’s also the condescending use of “confesses” and “admits” to describe anything said by a stereotyped individual that doesn’t conform to the stereotype.

First, a word about Lovelock’s Gaia Theory/Hypothesis, which (as I understand it) supposes that the Earth/biosphere behaves as a single composite organism. There is no supernatural or spiritual element to this. Gaia, though named after a Goddess, is not supposed to actually be one; it is merely a statement about large-scale self-organising phenomena. Nonetheless, a religious movement called Gaianism seems to have grown up around a silly misunderstanding1 of Gaia, and Lovelock himself seems to suffer casual ridicule for it. The title of this article describes him as the “Guru” of Gaia Theory, while James Delingpole has him pinned as the “High Priest” and “founder” of Gaianism itself.

Continuing in this vein, the IJReview article states:

James Lovelock, the veritable Pope of Gaia Theory, has taken global warmists to task for treating manmade climate change like a religion rather than valid science. Poignantly, [Lovelock] claims that for many the green religion is replacing the Christian religion.

The second sentence is accurate — Lovelock did say that — but he makes a similar claim about the religiosity of climate change deniers. It seems obvious, therefore, that Lovelock draws a distinction between people who broadly accept that climate change is real and people who approach it with religious fervour (those he terms “greens”, though obviously some will disagree with that).

That there is a “green religion” (or equally a denier religion) is not necessarily an unreasonable claim to make; all large political movements seem to have a quasi-religious element to them, and this probably tends to really annoy any independently-minded thinkers who come into contact with them. However, one cannot confuse the “green religion” with actual science or economic modelling conducted in actual research institutions, which convincingly (for the non-religious) points to the need to do something about carbon dioxide. It does not take an environmental activist to realise this, but like all religions2, the “green religion” incorporates some ideas that are actually sensible.

Now let’s look at Lovelock’s actual message, as quoted by MSNBC:

“The problem is we don’t know what the climate is doing. We thought we knew 20 years ago. That led to some alarmist books – mine included – because it looked clear-cut, but it hasn’t happened,” Lovelock said.

“The climate is doing its usual tricks. There’s nothing much really happening yet. We were supposed to be halfway toward a frying world now,” he said.

“The world has not warmed up very much since the millennium. Twelve years is a reasonable time… it (the temperature) has stayed almost constant, whereas it should have been rising — carbon dioxide is rising, no question about that,” he added.

I find this curiously dismissive3. The millennium has no particular significance for science, and what makes 12 years a “reasonable” time? We know for a fact that the temperature trend has been steeply upwards for decades. If you ignore enough data — say, by picking an arbitrarily-recent starting point — you can always prove that, well, you don’t have enough data. If there are inexplicable fluctuations, the take-home message for laypeople is not “everything we know is wrong”, but “fluctuations are noise, and we’ve already seen the signal”.

Moreover, Tamino reports on a paper by Grant Foster and Stefan Rahmstorf, published in December 2011 (months before Lovelock’s above remarks), which concludes that all five major global temperature datasets do show statistically significant warming since 2000, with no evidence that the rate of warming has slowed. The authors achieved this analysis by removing known sources of natural variation, which seems to put paid to the substance of Lovelock’s assertion that “we don’t know what the climate is doing”. I suspect the climate science community knows a lot more than Lovelock gives it credit for.

We also ought to ask this: what precisely is “half-way to a frying world” supposed to look like? What was it exactly that Lovelock expected to happen by 2012 that didn’t happen? Perhaps it was elucidated in his 2009 book The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning — the volume he has now essentially disowned. It received a positive review by Tim Flannery at the time, who begins:

James Lovelock’s latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning… has an important message. In a few years, or a few decades at most, abrupt changes in Earth’s climate will begin, which will end up killing almost all of us and cause the extinction of almost all life on Earth. The tropics and subtropics will be rendered uninhabitable by this shift, and the few survivors will cling to favoured regions such as Britain and New Zealand. Lovelock believes there is little we can do to avert our fate, for the causes of the climatic shift are now so entrenched that they are in all likelihood irreversible. In his view the best we can hope for is personal survival in a world of warring nations or, if we are particularly unfortunate, a world ruled by warlords.

It must be said that this is alarmist, and well out-of-step with the IPCC’s projections, as Flannery acknowledges. I certainly haven’t heard the IPCC make any such dramatic short-term predictions. The main concern was always for the long-term when a litany of positive feedbacks are predicted to accelerate the rate of temperature increase. Nothing spectacular was supposed to happen as early as 2012 (though there are certainly worrying signs in the form of, for instance, Arctic ice depletion, glacial melt, ice shelf collapse and extreme weather events that, put together, are highly improbable in a world without climate change).

I’ll put Lovelock himself aside for the moment, while the IJReview article does some value-adding to his remarks:

The major issue with climate change acolytes is that they rarely if ever quantify the effect of man’s activities on climate change. Well, let me help them: It is a little more than 0.28%, based on Department of Energy statistics and verifiable scientific data.

“Veritable scientific data” is rather too strong a turn of phrase. The linked webpage was written by one Monte Hieb, who performs a calculation based on a suspiciously low number for the human contribution to CO2 levels — 11.880 parts per million.

(A quick aside: the 11.880ppm figure is then used to calculate that the human CO2-only contribution is 3.207% of all greenhouse gases minus water vapour by volume. The actual purpose of that very specific percentage — quite aside from its utter fictitiousness — is unclear, but it seems to have formed a core factoid in the climate denialist arsenal.)

Hieb cites another webpage by one Tom V. Segalstad as his source for the 11.880 ppm figure. Segalstad doesn’t seem to give us that figure explicitly4, but does produce his own calculations. He argues that the observed ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12 in the atmosphere puts an upper limit of about 4% on the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere that resulted from burning fossil fuels.

But this is highly misleading, as explained here. CO2 molecules in the air are continually recycled. Those that originated from fossil fuels are mostly re-absorbed by the biosphere, but in doing so they displace naturally-produced CO2 molecules that are then left in the atmosphere (rather than being absorbed themselves), resulting in an overall increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration. Perhaps only 4% of atmospheric carbon dioxide originated from fossil fuels, but a much larger proportion is there indirectly as a result of fossil fuel burning. The ratio of carbon isotopes has no direct bearing on the human-caused change in overall CO2 concentration.

What we do know, according to the US EPA, is this:

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations have increased by almost 40% since pre-industrial times, from approximately 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv) in the 18th century to 390 ppmv in 2010. The current CO2 level is higher than it has been in at least 800,000 years.

If this improbable spike were due to natural processes, it’s a hell of a coincidence that it happened so quickly after the industrial revolution.

Now, in backing cautiously out of this particular rabbit hole, we also discover that Hieb is actually talking about the greenhouse effect, which isn’t the same thing as climate change at all.

The IJReview article follows this up with another link that tries to imply that CO2 cannot be a problem because it’s only a trace gas. That’s a straightforward non-sequitur; it simply doesn’t follow. (To assuage intuitive doubts, consider that cyanide is lethal at the concentrations we’re talking about for CO2.) The linked article also trumpets the logarithmic effect of CO2 on temperature, which is a great insight to throw at the climate modelling community who know that perfectly well and who must routinely deal with things a lot more complex than log functions (with apologies to the less mathematically-inclined).

We’ll return to CO2 concentration shortly. For now, we’ll instead confront this concoction of denialist memes:

Fellow enviroscientist Phil Jones, he of Climategate fame, admitted that there had been no global warming since 1995 in February 2010. Lovelock seems to refer to Phil Jones of the infamous “hockey stick” graph  when he declares that it is a “sin against science” to fudge data.

Climategate” has become a mythological scandal, along with the “infamous hockey stick”, that must be mentioned at all opportunities. Lovelock and others have rushed to judgement on the basis of selected stolen private emails — inherently flaky evidence. More than two years later, no allegation of “fudging data” has been sustained that I’m aware of. One wonders what Lovelock or the denialists actually want to happen over the matter, after the various investigations found no actual wrongdoing5. Do they simply want more investigations? Or should we just ignore the real findings and pretend that everyone was guilty of all the things we feverishly imagined about them?

That aside, Phil Jones emphatically did not “admit” there had been no warming since 1995, and he would have been lying if he had. Jones actually said:

I also calculated the trend for the period 1995 to 2009. This trend (0.12C per decade) is positive, but not significant at the 95% significance level.

This was poorly summarised as “no statistically significant warming”, which of course morphed into “no warming”. Statistical significance is nothing but a arbitrarily-chosen threshold level of probability; its absence does not alter the fact that Jones did observe a 0.12 degree/decade temperature increase. The issue is rendered irrelevant by the findings of Foster and Rahmstorf (and probably others), as mentioned above.

The IJReview article also has a swing at the “hyperbole” of James Hansen’s warning over the mining of Canada’s tar sands, where Hansen says:

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.

It’s worth contrasting this against Lovelock’s retracted predictions of global doom. The trouble is that Hansen actually knows his climate science, so you can’t dismiss him quite as easily as Lovelock. His idea here seems relatively straightforward: there’s enough carbon in those tar sands to wreak havoc. The world has been operating for some time on the basis that 450ppm was the “safe limit” for CO2 concentration. Hansen generously allows 500ppm in his article, but others have suggested that 350ppm is closer to the mark (which is a problem, because we’re already at 396ppm and rising). Hansen is simply comparing the projected future CO2 concentration to the reconstructed past. In effect, he’s citing precedent. This isn’t alarmism — it’s a reality check.

The IJReview article then makes a final digression into fracking, at which point my interest in the matter is finally exhausted. Lovelock seems to like the idea of fracking as well, but at the moment I don’t know enough to comment.

Although it’s an interesting exercise to write these articles, it’s unfortunate that there’s so much material. The IJReview article is a good example of a game of Chinese whispers played between people who already know what they want to hear.

  1. I suspect there is some overlap with the people who also try to coerce Quantum Theory into some sort of new-age religion. []
  2. Scientology is probably excepted here. []
  3. Indeed, a lot of what Lovelock has been quoted on recently appears to boil down purely to flippant cynicism: collectively we’re idiots, everyone is also an idiot individually, and nothing will help. Cynicism of that magnitude irritates me because it’s intellectually lazy, fundamentally useless and diverts attention from attempts to solve (or even understand) the problems we face. []
  4. I can only speculate that 11.880ppm was a product of some unseen conversation or calculation. []
  5. The investigations did find that Freedom of Information requests had been mishandled, but this has nothing to do with science per se. []

Curing viral misinformation

A great deal of mischief is caused, regularly, by viral misinformation. Factoids that support one side of any controversial issue are rapidly copied and pasted many times over (the “echo chamber”). By the time anyone manages to marshal the truth into a coherent response, it’s too late — the lie has convinced enough people for it to become self-reinforcing. Everyone can probably name some examples of this, particularly in day-to-day national politics.

I can’t help but quote Churchill:

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.

(Given the Internet, this actually seems rather conservative.)

For me, the frenzied reaction in 2009 to the hacked CRU emails springs to mind. All manner of nefarious interpretations were placed on isolated snippets of private correspondence of climate scientists, before anyone in a position to understand the emails’ context (or at least the lack thereof) could conduct an honest evaluation. And in cases like this, the lies are often more complete than the truth, and certainly more interesting.

I don’t have an exact model of how this process unfolds. However, I suspect that, if we sat down and analysed a sample of propagated misinformation, we’d find that important parts of the original wording have largely been preserved, with very little paraphrasing. Misinformation only manages to propagate so fast because higher cognitive levels1 are (probably) never reached in the initial hours of propagation. This means that the propagation of misinformation is largely a mechanical process (not a creative one), which places it within the reach of automated or semi-automated analysis.

To come to the point, we can and should devise a tool to automatically detect this misinformation, and build it into the web browser — a browser extension. It should highlight and annotate misinformation in any web page the user views, based on a regularly-updated database. There are a few sites already dedicated to correcting misinformation (Snopes, Skeptical Science, etc.), and they are certainly invaluable, but a greater prize is to have misinformation annotated without any immediate human effort at all.

I’ve been toying with this idea for over a year, considering how to engineer communication between the browser extension and the database, how to provide flexibility in searching for different types of misinformation, while avoiding software security vulnerabilities, etc. (I should probably have written a prototype by now, but paid work took priority.)

It turns out — unsurprisingly — that others have considered some of these issues as well. The existing research tool Dispute Finder is very similar to what I’d envisaged. (It was well reported back in 2009, but clearly escaped my attention at the time). However, that project has apparently ended, and its principal investigator Rob Ennals has moved on. The Firefox browser extension has been removed, so I haven’t seen it in action, and presumably the database is no longer available either. The project did get as far as conducting user evaluations of the software. Perhaps Dispute Finder was only intended to have a fixed lifetime, or perhaps the authors decided that the project was not sufficiently successful.

Skeptical Science has its own Firefox browser extension, but this is climate-change-specific, and so is most likely to be used by those who consciously and actively accept the reality of climate change. That’s not to say it isn’t useful, but its effects on public discourse are probably indirect.

A generic “lie detector” tool might have a disproportionately greater impact on public discourse compared to a domain-specific tool. The generic tool would cover a much greater array of misinformation, and as a result would probably also gain wider acceptance. For instance, at least some of those who don’t particularly care about or believe climate science may nonetheless choose to use the generic tool for its treatment of other issues. (Hard core denialists of any stripe may complain about the “anomalous” treatment of their pet topics. Such complaints might be a blessing in disguise, actually boosting awareness.)

In fact, there are really two pieces of software here: the browser extension itself and the database. Given an appropriate means of communication, they could be developed quite independently.

The source code for Dispute Finder (previously “Think Link”) seems to be available here. I still intend to write my own independently, because I have different views on the technical architecture, which I may elucidate in future. The research findings of the Dispute Finder / “Confrontational Computing” project are certainly worth pondering, though. It would be a waste to ignore the experience gained, and it seems too good an idea to give up on.

  1. Bloom’s taxonomy breaks cognition into distinct levels: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. The “knowledge” level is pure rote learning, while “evaluation” represents critical thinking. []

Hopes for 2012

Here’s a bit of everything for the new year — some hopes for what we could and should be doing as a nation, in no particular order.

We must address the asylum seeker debate with decency, maturity and humility. We should accept many more refugees, and at the same time encourage other countries to do so too. There’s really very little downside to this, save for the political ramifications of xenophobia. The world collectively might not be interested in finding a safe home for all its refugees, and so if we let refugees come to us, they will certainly continue to do so. We might prefer that their lives were not further jeopardised by the journey, but, having arrived, it’s an utter perversion of human decency for us to turn them away, no matter how much we’d like to discourage further risky voyages. We must not create disincentives that rely on penalising innocent people; we have no right to play chess with human beings.

We must get some perspective on the economy; it is not a blanket reason for putting aside all other problems. Yes, it’s important. No, we are not teetering on the edge of starvation. Panic is precisely the thing that causes economic problems in the first place. Basically, let the disinterested economic experts make rational, progressive decisions based on careful, objective modelling, and ensure there is a safety net for the poor. Everyone else, suck it up.

We must continue to insist that our politicians get off their conservative arses and legalise same-sex marriage. This is truly a no-brainer. The arguments against it are utterly, unequivocally spurious, and will dissipate like so much hot air once the requisite legislation is passed. Nobody opposes same-sex marrige for any substantive reason, but basically just “because”. Once legalised, the whole “debate” will be relegated to the inane murmurings of ineffectual dinosaurs. (Do politicians fear a backlash from voters angry that their marriages are suddenly devoid of meaning following the gender requirements being dropped?)

For the love of humanity can we please redouble efforts to improve the health and living standards of those living in remote Aboriginal communities? Of course it won’t be done in a year. It’s not just about grand rhetorical gestures — though these have their place — and it’s certainly not about sending in the army. We have a lot of smart, dedicated people who have been on the case for some time, and surely by now we’ve learnt a thing or two about what can usefully be done, given sufficient government funding.

The climate change debate is not over, and won’t be for decades. We must not lose sight of the fact that the goal, in the end, is zero (or even negative) carbon emissions. The purpose of a carbon price is not simply to reduce emissions, but ultimately to price them out of existence. To make this work, alternatives must exist. Australia should, by all rights, be a world-leader in solar energy. We could be a world-leader in all kinds of renewable energy. Surely there is much more scope for public and private funding of renewable energy research. We might only contribute 1.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but renewable energy research could help reduce everyone’s emissions, not just our own.

Recycled drinking water — get used to the idea, people. Water efficiency is vastly more important than your squeamishness; there’s really no rational objection. Even now, the water you drink has already passed through the digestive tracts of a trillion different organisms, without any technological assistance. Water recycling is the lowest-hanging fruit for securing our water supplies (especially in places like Perth that are drying out). Why would we ignore it in favour of energy-intensive desalination  or enormous engineering works to transport water from thousands of kilometres away? Yes, we can build wind farms, tidal generators, etc. to power desalination plants, but we could be using that power to replace coal, not just to replace water.

The location of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) — the world’s largest telescope, and one of the world’s largest scientific projects — will be decided in 2012: either Australia or South Africa. Let’s step back from the parochial contest. Australia might not get it, but would this be such a terrible outcome, all things considered? Maybe Africa would benefit more from this project than Australia. Besides the raw economics, the presence of such visible, cutting edge science must have some inspirational effect. Scientists can travel, but for young Africans trying to discern their opportunities in life, a local SKA would surely leave an impression.1

Finally, in an Olympic year, let’s not lose sight of our non-sporting heroes. A nation defined by sport is a nation not defined by its doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers and other professionals. Sport is exciting, and important in its own way, but not really on the same scale as curing illness, defending human rights, exploring the universe and creating things that have never existed before.

Now, you lot, get started on that while I take a holiday.

  1. The same would be true of young Australians, but we are relatively spoiled for choice. []

The Galileo gambit movement

I’ve had another sudden fit of pseudo-artistic buffoonery.

I stumbled across the Galileo Movement largely by way of Wendy Carlisle’s Background Briefing report:

In February this year a new group emerged: the Galileo movement. Its scientific advisers are the who’s who of the international climate sceptics movement. Its patron is the powerful Sydney radio personality Alan Jones. The Galileo movement is aiming to kill the carbon tax, and it’s aiming to do this through attacking the science of climate change.

This is a fabulously un-self-aware group of climate change denialists who liken their cause to that of Galileo, and who purport to offer the Real Truth of the Earth’s climate. They are the living epitome of the Galileo gambit, which itself is much older and is described by RationalWiki as follows:

They made fun of Galileo, and he was right.
They make fun of me, therefore I am right.

I feel the following diagram adequately summarises the situation:

Creative Commons License
Galileo Gambit Venn Diagram by David Cooper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

This is all very Australia-centric, of course, and wholly political, though they claim otherwise. The stated purpose of the Galileo Movement is merely to stop Australia’s carbon tax – an entirely political goal – not to actually redress the horrific corruption of science they claim to be occurring. The “corruption of science” seems more like an excuse for their own political predicament than an actual problem that must be solved. If such systemic corruption of the scientific process was real, after all, it would be far worse a problem than any mere tax1. However, the movement’s scientific literacy is clearly razor-thin, with adorable statements like this:

We care about freedom, security, the environment, humanity and our future.

The Galileo Movement’s co-founders are retirees Case Smit and John Smeed. Their business backgrounds are in science and engineering – science’s real-world application. Their experience is in environmental protection and ensuring air quality.

At first they simply accepted politicians’ claims of global warming blamed on human production of carbon dioxide (CO2). When things didn’t add up, they each separately investigated. Stunned, they discovered what many people are now discovering: climate claims by some scientists and politicians contradict observed facts.

Here’s another theory: Case Smit and John Smeed have never been involved in actual climate-related research at all, but through some intrepid Googling discovered that People On The Internet were having arguments. A stunning revelation indeed. Not having any particular notion of what real science is actually supposed to look like, they simply believed those people who appeared to be more outraged. Just as in Galileo’s time.

  1. Denialists rarely realise the scale of the allegations they so casually make; if they did, they would have to confront their implausibility. []