July 2010

More climate change basics part 2

Since various people thought some of my recent comments trying to explain certain basic properties of the greenhouse effect were educational, I thought I'd repost them here organized in more narrative fashion, as a follow-on to the previous "climate change basics" post. The questions this time regarded the definitions of radiative forcing and feedbacks, the magnitude of various feedbacks, and the relation of surface energy fluxes (the subject of the previous post) to different forcings. Once again the Trenberth-Fasullo-Kiehl diagram of Earth's energy flows is a useful reference:

A proposal for fixing the US Senate

The recently announced death of the climate bill in the US Senate has been cause for much anguish in the last few days among those of us who understand the implications of inaction for our future. Nevertheless, it is hardly the first instance in recent times where the structure of the US Senate has proved an obstacle to necessary legislative action. The drama associated with the recent much-delayed passage of a standard unemployment benefits extension is only the latest example in a very long list.

Having an upper house that runs at a somewhat slower pace to act as a deliberative body on proposals for changes in laws seems to have proved a good idea over time among many different nations, and the US is fortunate to have an upper house that acts as much more than a rubber stamp. Nevertheless, the structure of the US Senate as it works now is fundamentally flawed to the extent that what is necessary regarding actual reality often simply cannot be addressed at all these days, "for political reasons".

One common complaint at the moment regards the filibuster, which in the present Senate has resulted in "parliamentary maneuvers" from the Republican side to delay essentially every action unless a 60-vote super-majority can be found. There is some promise that that will change, at least at the time the next congress begins in 2011.

But the real problem is that the US Senate is a fundamentally un-democratic body.

How about a truly representative Senate?

I've had a number of responses to my last post on changing the way the US Senate is built, in particular pointing out that yes, it would be very difficult to make such a change given the constraint in Article V of the constitution:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

In other words, the 3/4 of states agreeing to the change would need to include at least every state that would be "deprived", i.e. have reduced representation. Since it's rather rare for any entity to give up power willingly, even for a good cause like equal representation, there would most likely need to be additional simultaneous changes adopted. Obviously this issue of upper house representation was a stumbling block in the original constitutional convention in Philadelphia all those years ago - but it should be noted that the states did give up power to the federal government in forming the union in the first place, so the process is not unprecedented.

Polanyi's ineffables: inherent, or just awaiting better means of articulation?

I've been slowly working my way through Michael Polanyi's 1958 book "Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy: A chemist and philosopher attempts to bridge the gap between fact and value, science and humanity". I find the book fascinating, and interestingly apropos to many current issues surrounding the interaction between science and policy, debates about certainty and instances where differing modern "tribes" seem to have vastly different views of reality.

Epistemology (studying how we come to know things) is closely related to the issue of semantics (meaning) which I've written about before (and see that post for further links on related topics here). In Polanyi's chapter 2, section 5, "The Nature of Assertions", his discussion nicely emphasizes essentially what I wrote on the centrality of "trust, provenance, and context" to meaning:

A sincere allegation is an act that takes place in speaking or in writing down certain symbols. Its agent is the speaking or writing person. Like all intelligent actions, such assertions have a passionate quality attached to them. They express conviction to those to whom they are addressed. [...] no sincere assertion of fact is essentially unaccompanied by feelings of intellectual satisfaction or of a persuasive desire and a sense of personal responsibility. [...] It is clear that I can make use of the sign |- to put on paper an allegation of my own; but it has not been explained how this sign is to function between different persons and between successive periods in the same person's life. [...] the symbol |- . p must be supplemented, so that it may tell us whose allegation it represents and at what time the person in question had alleged p.

Once again, this is something I expect to return to... but what I wanted to comment on today was a bit later in the book, on the issue of tacit knowledge and the "ineffable".