A place to discuss climate physics

One problem with comment threads on blogs is that they lose the "time-binding" central to human progress: older posts and their comments gradually fade into the background and are, for the most part, forgotten.

A different approach to online discussion is the venerable "bulletin board". There, threads under a given topic migrate to the top of the heap when they are active, and particularly good discussions can be "pinned" so they are always visible. It's still not perfect; lengthy topics are themselves a barrier to newcomers who just want to get the essentials or to oldtimers trying to locate something only partially remembered. But they can certainly be educational and concentrate discussion around a particular topic in a way that's hard to do on an ordinary blog.

Happy Arbor Day!

Shortly after we bought our house a little over 14 years ago, a note arrived in the mail from the Arbor Day Foundation, offering us "10 trees" for a $10 membership fee. We liked trees, so decided sure, why not, and sent in our money. Our "trees" arrived in the mail I believe in March, and consisted of a plastic bag with 10 straight sticks no more than 6 inches long. They didn't look like much, and since it was still pretty chilly outside we put the bag in the garage and promptly forgot all about it.

Summer came and we discovered the forgotten bag of "trees", the sticks all covered with some sort of white mold from the months of dark neglect. Feeling guilty and expecting little to come from it, we washed them down, prepared a big pot of vermiculite and half-buried the sticks. It wasn't long before buds appeared on 9 of the 10, and by fall they had doubled in size. The next year all 9 were thriving - it turned out we had 2 dogwoods, 2 hawthorns, 2 redbuds, 2 goldenraintrees and 1 crabapple (the second crabapple was the only casualty of our neglect).

On fallacies

This article is mainly intended as a placeholder for some links I've had as tabs in my browser for way too long. I'll add a few thoughts to try to connect them together. Basically the question I've been pondering is a continuation of my meanderings in On the dimensions of the noosphere. In this world awash in information with the deluge increasing seemingly exponentially, what structures will help us to find those pieces of knowledge that are true and useful? What elements of trust are needed, what processes of understanding? As all the new fact-checking websites out there attest, we no longer trust the traditional media as gatekeepers - perhaps we never should have, and the internet just makes their failings more obvious.

The Future can be Bright, not Dark

I have been remiss on my blog here in not yet highlighting Worldchanging and the visionary essays there by Alex Steffen. I've followed Worldchanging for years, bought their first book, and not too long ago won one of their fundraising auction items (a pile of environmental books I still haven't finished reading). I even sent them some material, at least one of which they posted on the blog. But Alex's writing is the real treasure there, and he seems to just get better. He recently posted this powerful look at what we need to do to make the future bright, not dark - go read the whole thing, it's worth it. I'll excerpt and comment on a few bits of it below.

Hansen's Climate Stewardship Act: I don't entirely agree

With US politicians squabbling over current proposals for climate change and clean energy legislation and world leaders getting nowhere fast on a global agreement to limit CO2 emissions, well-informed people may be losing hope for progress on solving the problem. But we should find some hope in that policy choices that could actually substantively address greenhouse warming are at least being openly discussed and debated. A few years ago the only options on the table seemed to be more individual virtuous action ("change your lightbulbs", "buy hybrid cars") or modest government-level efforts; world CO2 emissions continued to rise quickly even after the entry into force of the Kyoto protocol. Now at least there are substantive proposals, still inadequate, but capable of addressing at least a significant fraction of the emissions problem. Any of these would be, if they pass into law, a major step forward.

Aside from the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman (KGL) senate bill that has been so much in the news lately, we have also the Waxman-Markey bill that passed the House last year - both of these are "cap and trade" proposals, though the KGL bill avoids that label - and in fact with its constricted "price collar" and credit reserve it's much closer to a straight tax (but still one that is allowed to vary by a factor of 2 or 3 in price). Both bills act at the point of emission of CO2, rather than the point of extraction. And both bills at first give away many of the emission permits to industry, so that it becomes a real tax with money going to the government only over a period of decades. Both bills allow some form of offsets, and both bills include proposals to spend the money raised, partly but not entirely for clean energy and efficiency investments. Flawed as they are, they will clearly have a significant impact on CO2 emissions, and cost estimates indicate little damage to economic growth, and perhaps a rather large positive effect, not even counting the benefits from starting to address climate change itself.

The other bill that seems to be seriously under consideration is from Senators Cantwell and Collins (CC). As I argued here, the real problem is our extraction and import of fossil fuels which are then added to the surface carbon cycle; it makes much more sense to tax or set a cap at that point of extraction. That is one major difference in the CC proposal - they set a cap and then auction shares in that cap to the extractive industries. The effect of that is essentially to eliminate the use of "offsets" and trading markets (though Jim Hansen attacks it for still allowing some offset-like projects). It has the simple direct effect of limiting fossil carbon use to an amount we set, and allocating the "rent" of those shares (or at least 75% of that revenue) back to the American people. It seems a much cleaner policy approach than the complex mechanisms of KGL and Waxman-Markey, and much less subject to attack for unfairness, but as with any political document there are compromises that many will be unhappy with.

What Hansen has been calling for is an even simpler "tax and dividend" plan, and he along with the Carbon Tax Center has just released a People's Climate Stewardship Act proposal with details. I fail to see how such a proposal could become law without some of the sort of compromises at least in the CC bill, but let's look at what the proposal actually entails as it stands now and see whether it really makes that much more sense.

Is Richard S. Lindzen deliberately lying, or just deluded?

Dr Richard Lindzen is a respected member of the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. He has led a distinguished career since the 1960's, publishing hundreds of peer-reviewed articles studying and modeling Earth's atmosphere, receiving numerous awards and being selected for membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. As a professor of meteorology and particularly with the studies of radiative and dynamical atmospheric processes that he has conducted, he certainly qualifies as an eminent climate scientist. He is also well-known as being skeptical about climate "alarmism", arguing that feedback effects are much smaller than most other scientists have assessed. At #136 on Jim Prall's list of most cited authors on climate change he is the third-highest-rated of the "skeptics" (after Roger Pielke Sr. and Freeman Dyson).

All of that is fine. While 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are responsible for significant climate change, there are still those 3% who disagree. [UPDATE The exact survey wording on the question was "Has human activity been a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures" - which is a slightly different emphasis than my paraphrase (but is it "significant"?), and I apologize for any confusion caused]. Their arguments to the extent they are logical and have any scientific merit should be heard. Lindzen continues to publish in scientific journals, and while some of his recent papers have been greatly flawed, at least he's continuing to actively try to put forth his position in a logical and scientific manner.

But he also has other ambitions. Lindzen's current publication list includes two 2006 Wall Street Journal opinion pieces - "Climate of Fear" from April 2006, and "There is no ‘consensus’ on global warming" from June of that year. This past December Lindzen returned to the Wall Street Journal with The Climate Science Isn't Settled, and now celebrating Earth Day, April 22, 2010 we find Climate Science in Denial (subscription required). Both of these opinion pieces are filled with egregious misrepresentations of the facts, statements I find shocking coming from such a respected scientist. From his latest piece one can only conclude that either Lindzen has descended into the epistemic closure of paranoia and conspiracy theories that has become far too prevalent among some Americans lately or, worse, that he is consciously participating in the malicious disinformation campaign on climate that has recently been extensively documented by Greenpeace and elsewhere.

Either way, given that Penn State was forced to investigate complaints about Michael Mann's scientific work, continued congressional attacks on climate scientists, and the several investigations in England over the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit, I want to know when MIT will initiate an investigation of Richard Lindzen's recent output, and whether he is, inadvertently or deliberately, dragging the good name of that institution through the mud.

And I would also like to know when, for balance, the Wall Street Journal plans to run the over 100 op-ed pieces it owes to the 97% of climate scientists who understand the impact of humans on our planet, given these 4 pieces it has already run by Lindzen. I'm not going to hold my breath for Rupert Murdoch though.

Gadding with Ghouls: adventures with Christopher W. Monckton

Since becoming a Viscount in June 2006, Christopher Monckton seems to have transformed into a climate crusader, with "Lord Monckton" heralded by conservative politicians and demagogues from Canada to Australia, even recently by the Tea Party here in the US. His first official foray seems to have been this November 2006 article in the UK Daily Telegraph, full of his characteristic pseudo-science, quickly shown to be wrong in almost every respect. July 2008 saw his "Physics and Society" article, again full of nonsense, prompting myself among many others to put some effort into showing the many things he had gotten wrong. I also responded with a shorter and more formal article to the newsletter, copying Monckton as a courtesy, a kindness which he and his associates promptly abused.

In general, Monckton's pronouncements on climate have been so ridiculous that no climate scientist or other prominent member of the climate community has wanted to even appear with him to lend him any credibility. However, this past February Tim Lambert of the Deltoid blog finally agreed to a debate - note Lambert is a computer scientist whose interest in climate is personal, not associated with his work. The resulting discussion was quite respectful - the full debate is viewable here on YouTube - and despite the Monckton-friendly audience and moderator showed Monckton exactly for the pompous clown he has become.

Now Peter Sinclair (greenman3610) has put together two brilliant video debunkings of Monckton's fantasies on YouTube, the second featuring Lambert and a great set of quotes from Margaret Thatcher, who Monckton proudly claims to have worked for in the 1980s:

Fossil carbon is the real problem

It looks like the US Senate plans to work on a new energy bill starting Earth Day (April 22). There's been a steady stream of updates from the likes of Climate Progress and Grist. The goal as usual is to produce something bipartisan - which means a lot of compromising on support for things like oil drilling and nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration technology (CCS - aka "clean coal"). And the resulting bill will surely be thousands of pages that will be easy to attack for unfairness of some form or other.

Not taxed enough - a challenge to my friends!

April 15 is coming up, which is the deadline for income tax forms here in the U.S. Shelly's already finished ours and sent them in (thanks to J.K. Lasser's online service!) so we should be getting big refunds any day now... and that made me wonder a bit. With all our exemptions and deductions, our federal income tax rate ends up being roughly 3% of total income. Social security and medicare taxes are more than double that - about 6.5%, and I believe my employer pays another 6.5% on top of that so quadruple federal income tax if you count both. We also paid around 5% (not quite double the federal tax) in NY State income taxes, and over 5% in local property taxes. Not to mention that state and local government gets 8.625% of every dollar we spend on taxable items here, plus whatever other taxes and fees apply.

The problems with combined heat and power (CHP critique part 3)

"Combined Heat and Power" (CHP) or "cogeneration" systems for producing both heat and electric power are generally mature and really can reduce emissions of CO2 compared to other fossil-fuel technologies. But there are two problems with typical discussion of CHP:

(1) Fossil-fuel-based CHP cannot be a long-term solution on climate or energy because they still burn fossil fuels, and therefore still emit a lot of CO2. Reducing that by 20% or even 50% is not enough; we need to take steps that over the next 30-40 years will bring fossil CO2 emissions close to 0.

(2) Efficiency claims for CHP systems are frequently greatly overstated. Heat is lower-quality energy than electricity, and only at high temperatures does it become close to comparable. Efficiency claims for CHP systems that use high-temperature heat are not so far off, but CHP systems that make use of low-temperature waste heat have much lower thermodynamic efficiencies than usually claimed.

The inflated efficiency claims often lead to assertions that CHP is the "largest" or one of the largest potential solutions. But the number of applications that require high-temperature heat where CHP efficiency really is quite high are limited. And the modest efficiency gains with low-temperature waste heat use, which could be much more widely applied, don't lead to very much improvement in overall energy use. The combining of heat and power production in CHP systems can reduce our fossil CO2 emissions by a few percent, but much more than that is needed in coming decades.

My response to APS "commentary" on climate change statement

Those of you reading this who are APS members should have received an email in the last few days pointing to a new "commentary" that is proposed, by the society's public affairs committee (POPA), to be attached to the 2007 climate change statement. While overall I found the commentary reasonably fair and somewhat useful as a clarifying measure, it had several embarrassing errors that I hope will be corrected before it becomes official. Below I've included my response to this commentary - it will probably be meaningful only to those who have been granted access, sorry about that...

The Bloom box - doing fuel cells right

Todd Woody at the NY Times has had a couple of stories in the last few days on The Bloom Box, or Bloom Energy Server, a solid-oxide fuel cell designed as an on-site distributed generator. Present costs are still rather pricey - $7 to $8 capital cost per watt (or $7000-$8000/kW - I had this mixed up earlier - see this analysis from Jesse Jenkins for details) plus the cost of natural gas as fuel and any operational and maintenance costs (and they're only claiming a 10-year lifetime). Efficiency is quoted at 50 to 55%. Higher efficiency and lower capital costs would be essential to making it truly useful. Still, I find this a good step forward in the technology. Why?

The death of science journalism - and what could replace it

Science journalism is dying - but John Cook's new iPhone app on climate questions points the way to something much better: an at-your-fingertips database of accurate, up-to-date information at multiple levels of explanatory power, addressing common questions on potentially any subject. John's app has been covered in major media, on Real Climate, and on various blogs - I probably should have included his website in the basic climate references list I compiled some months back as well. Read on for why I think this new iPhone app, and the approach it embodies, is so important...

The problem with heating "efficiency" (CHP critique part 2)

My criticism of various claims about "Combined Heat and Power" (CHP) or cogeneration systems was something I had thought I could keep brief, since the issue was intuitively clear to me. But explaining my understanding of the subject in straightforward non-scientific language has proven trickier than I'd expected. This post constitutes part 2, and will cover problems with many claims of "efficiency" in heating systems; part 3 will be more specifically focused on the several different types of CHP, what is good about them, and what is frequently over-hyped.

Buzz, Neil, and I (and many others) called it! New directions for NASA...

President Obama's new plan for NASA has been much reported on in the last few days, for example in this commentary at the Washington Post. The decision to cancel the "Constellation" program seems to have come as a surprise to many people, but it's exactly the sort of bold move that many of us have been calling for for some time now. In an era where China and Russia have national programs with successful human spaceflight behind them, while India, Japan, Europe, Brazil, some smaller nations and many private companies already have their own orbital or suborbital capabilities some of which could be extended to human spaceflight, some already announced, developing yet another rocket for travel from Earth's surface seemed stupendously pointless for a NASA that could do so much more good elsewhere.

Peer review failures - another example?

I've discussed scientific peer review here before (one more - I really should get those category tags working!) but RealClimate's discussion of Lindzen and Choi (2009) highlights a particular example of recent peer review standards in sufficient

We have no cookies!

My youngest son (4) loves to browse the videos on the Sesame Street website. It's fun to listen in and watch once in a while, to see what amuses him. One of his favorites recently has been Cookie Monster in the Library (I hope that URL is a stable one - click through to see the video).

What scientific journals do

Michael Clarke over at Scholarly Kitchen has an interesting post today Why Hasn't Scientific Publishing Been Disrupted Already?. As he points out, the World Wide Web was invented to help scientists communicate. Shelly and I recognized this the instant we heard about WWW in late 1993 - pretty early in web history - and submitted a proposal to Physical Review Letters at the time to use web technology to put the journals online. So, all that has in fact happened, but without, for the most part, much disruption of the organizations and companies that do scientific publishing. Is it because those organizations are very smart and nimble and have been able to keep up with the times?

It's only the thought that counts

Discovering truths about the world is not a simple thing. Much of our understanding depends on context - what we already know. One of the central facets of human existence is our relationships with other people, and to the degree we accord others respect and trust, we also assign a higher likelihood of truth to the knowledge of the world that they share. This trust in people is not wrong or irrational - it's a perfectly valid way to economize on the time we need to spend trying to understand. Collectively we are far more intelligent then we would be if we tried to find everything out completely for ourselves. But too much trust in others is also what most frequently leads us astray. In the end, for scientific truths, the only thing that matters is the idea in itself, not the people who came up with it.

Useful energy can only be used once

It's understandable that with all the concern about climate change and talk of "peak oil" that the central issue in both cases, our use of energy, has received a lot of attention. It is also understandable that with that attention have come many instances of what may charitably be called "optimistic business plans", acclaimed for some time, even quite lengthy periods of time, as "the" solution, or a "core" solution to our energy problems. There are some real solutions out there; there is also a lot of hype and hucksterism. With this and one or two follow-on articles I hope to help people not so familiar with the underlying science get a better grasp of the distinction.

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