How Two Wrongs Make a Half-Right : UPDATES

Economists are always weighing in on whether it makes economic sense to cook the planet. They generally find it to be a close call. This seems peculiar. Some like to put their thumbs on the scale. This is not as helpful as they imagine. The recent “methane bomb” comment in Nature provides an example.

Economists are always weighing in on whether it makes economic sense to cook the planet. (*) They generally find it to be a close call. The press likes this, of course, because it builds suspense. Politicians and businessmen like it as well, being very much in favor of business as usual, and opposed to disrupting any particular constituency, particularly thriving and economically active ones.

We need to keep this context in mind in contemplating the fiasco of the comment by Gail Whiteman et al in Nature entitled “Vast Costs of Arctic Change“.

For the purposes of this essay, please take as a given that the trivial amount of physical science claiming “a 50 Gigatonne reservoir of methane … is likely to be emitted … either steadily over 50 years or suddenly” is wrong.

Even Andy Revkin, usually an exemplar the split-the difference make-no-calls school of thought, calls it an “Arctic Methane Credibility Bomb“. I believe Skeptical Science is working on a detailed analysis which I expect will amount to a rebuttal, and I’ve had contact with a well-known professional journalist also working on a feature. Meanwhile, if you have any confidence in my own abilities to know when I know what I’m talking about, take my word for it. I have some knowledge in this field. Wadhams’ and Shakhova’s claims are incoherent and implausible; for practical purposes there remains no evidence of the purported massive emission.

These claims exist, essentially, as a weapon in the war between the conventional economists. Of course, most people with any appreciation of nature (the phenomenon, not the publication) are aware of the many insults and disruptions the environment was already subject to before the climate started to go all wonky. Given that the disruption is only just getting started, any reasonably ethical person will want to minimize it, so as not to leave a horribly depleted planet to our successors.double_facepalm

This puts the person who is ethical and unalienated in a very difficult position if they happen to be a mainstream economist.

Economics is a drastically weaker discipline than climate science, because it is not based in observed, immutable, mathematically precise laws of nature, but instead on generalizations from which conceptual models are constructed. Among the observations that go into the generalizations is that economies “grow” and that the more they “grow” the more likely it is that people will be connected to “jobs” which they can use to allocate resources to be comfortable. They then weigh policies based on which ones are most likely to promote “growth”.

To evaluate climate policies, the models must be quite complex. They contain agriculture, manufacturing, energy, healthcare, etc.

In order to determine climate effects, baseline rates of how well each sector performs in ‘warm’ or ‘cool’ years are extrapolated to a crude economic sensitivity. Costs incurred in the future are discounted in the same way that a banker discounts any obligation in the distant future – both growth and uncertainty reduce the evaluation of the future costs and benefits.

The trouble is that climate change is only beginning, and it’s quite noisy. Effects are largely nonlocal and economic impacts can be far from the location of a particular disruption. Consider how crop failures in South America and Russia influenced unrest in Egypt and Tunisia recently for an obvious example. Then there’s the nonlinearity problem, where particularly odd climate events don’t appear in trends and are misattributed by averaging processes. And there’s just the sad, ubiquitous, and probably somehow debilitating nonfinancial cost of living in a deteriorating natural environment, which is captured, if at all, as a perturbation on the tourist industry. All in all, the whole approach could hardly be better designed to be blind to the enormity of quite plausible enormous future climate impacts.

Let me put it this way. Is the cost of a 5 meter sea level rise really just 1000 times the cost of a 5 millimeter sea level rise?

(UPDATE – I don’t claim this is literally in the model; actually I don’t know whether it is or not. My point is that this is the flavor of error that economics makes conventional economic models make, because it is essentially a game of optimizing small signals in a small section of the problem domain. They Such models, insofar as I understand them really have no serious concept of nonlinear system dynamics at all.)

Mainstream economics assures us that these are just the tools for the job, though; that we should just tell them about climate impacts and let their models tell us whether we need to do something about it. And when this happens, it often comes up “no big deal”. Because even though the climate has the potential to kill many or even most of us, the small signal linear trends fed into the models are tiny.

In real sciences, when the number comes out wrong (the mass of precipitate in the beaker was 11 billion tons…) the scientist goes back to look at the model, which probably was wrong in some way. Some economists do this, but most seem instead to either believe the implausible result, or try to tweak it somehow.

The most famous case of this was the Stern Review, commissioned by the UK government, which reached rather daunting conclusions but was widely criticized for (whatever the opposite of cherry-picking is) selecting parameters to make the situation look as bad as possible. Predictably, he was mocked by Richard Tol for his economics, and perhaps less predictably, by James Annan for his climatology.


“If a student of mine were to hand in this report [the Stern Review] as a Masters thesis, perhaps if I were in a good mood I would give him a ‘D’ for diligence; but more likely I would give him an ‘F’ for fail (Cox and Vadon, 2007).[33] There is a whole range of very basic economics mistakes that somebody who claims to be a Professor of Economics simply should not make. […] Stern consistently picks the most pessimistic for every choice that one can make. He overestimates through cherry-picking, he double counts particularly the risks and he underestimates what development and adaptation will do to impacts.” Tol has referred to the Stern Review as “populist science.”[57] In a paper published in 2008, Tol showed that the Stern Review’s estimate of the social cost of carbon (SCC) along a “business-as-usual” emissions pathway was an outlier in the economics literature.[58]


On top of the high climate sensitivity range, Stern uses the rather extreme A2 scenario (and essentially describes it as “business as usual”) for his projections, even though it is already clear even 5 years on that we are falling behind this emissions pathway. I really think it’s time the economists got their act together on this. And then he adds some feedbacks on top, based on results like those of the Hadley Centre model which has an extreme Amazon dieback due to having way too little rainfall in this region even before any global warming is considered. If the Japanese model had this behaviour everyone would just say it’s a crap model but because it is HADCM3 it is supposed to be alarming 🙂 … nyway, my main beef is with the probabilistic estimation, because that’s what I understand best. It seems crystal clear that the methods are intrinsically faulty – indeed the errors seem rather elementary once they are stated clearly – and it is long past the time that people should have been prepared to accept this and talk about it openly. Nature’s comment that our criticisms “apply more generally to a widespread methodological approach” is hardly a valid defence of the science! Stern’s results appear to be heavily dependent on the small probability of extremely bad consequences, so these problems may substantially weaken the value of his report. OTOH, it might be the case that even with a climate sensitivity of 2.5C and assuming a more moderate “business as usual” emissions growth, mitigation is still amply justified (personally I think action is justifiable on a number of grounds irrespective of the supposed “climate catastrophe”).

The point here is that it is likely that the reasons for us to act on climate change are real, but are not captured by economics models. This seems to be incomprehensible to mainstream economists.

After all, the “tourism” section, wherein all of our love for Nature (and our implicit dependence on it) is filed (the only place natural beauty is exchanged for dollars) is rather small. However, to make it come out “right” there are enough degrees of freedom in those models that a study which supports climate policy can be constructed.

It’s in this context that we need to view the aforementioned Whiteman, Hope and Wadhams comment in Nature. The work is very much based on Stern’s methodology, and adds in the Shakhova methane bomb. The advantage of treating an unlikely or impossible disaster as “likely” is that you can make the numbers come out scary.

So let’s for a moment, consider what we are talking about. An abrupt release of 50 GT CH4 would rival the entire CO2 trillion ton limit that we need to observe to avoid increases in global temperature greater than 2 C, moving us into a wholly unprecedented climate. While the pulse would be short-lived, it would also be unaccompanied by aerosols. Suddenly if only for a few decades we’re in a drastically disrupted climate, far worse than what is imagined for the end of the century otherwise. In short, what many of us fear would be chaos, starvation, anarchy, warfare, disease, and totalitarianism.

The economic models value this at $60 trillion, with suitable discounts, over all time. This sounds like a very big number, but it isn’t. Divided among ten billion people it is $6000 per capita. WIth a century to pay it off, your payment on principal is $5 per month. (Actually the “interest”, the back-calculated impact of future loss of wealth is much higher – say $20 per month per capita)

I don’t see any way that this, the worst catastrophic climate result anybody has imagined, which most experts give absolutely zero credence to, can amount to five dollars a month. I’m sorry, but if I believed this I’d lose interest in the climate question altogether.

So what we have here is two drastic errors. An economic model which has to be pushed very hard to take any note of climate whatsoever, and a climate scenario that has essentially no scientific support, coming together to threaten us with an expense comparable to a Netflix subscription.

In normal science, when somebody says something worthless, it just gets ignored, and vanishes. But in postnormal science, the more spectacular the error, the more it gains zombie status, the more influential it is in the debate. The bad guys are having a lot of fun with this, of course, mocking the earth science. Even Lubos is readable and passably amusing when he has the facts more or less on his side. (UPDATE –  I apologize for the self-indulgence of linking to Lubos Motl, from whom I have received similar treatment on many occasions. See more extensive update below.) But nobody is taking on the economics!

It’s clear enough to me that $60T amortized over a century is not a reasonable number for this spectacular scenario. By arguing over the imaginary methane crisis we are giving yet another pass to bad economics. The fact that it – barely – comes up with the right answer is little consolation. We cannot cede thinking about the future to a field as badly in disarray as economics. The fact that they need to draw on bad geophysics to get anything reasonably “right” is a symptom not of the state of geophysics but of economics.

They have used two wrongs to make a half-right. The half-right is that we need to “do something” about the climate. The trouble, the reason it’s only half-right is that once we convince everybody to do something, we will have to figure out what. If our conviction is based on false beliefs it seems unlikely that we’ll pick good directions.

It’s not enough to get people worked up. We have to get people concerned about what is actually real.

(*) Use of the word “cook” is my own rhetorical device, not attributable to any economist in this context to my knowledge. This is in response to a request for clarification here.

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I have been in touch with Chris Hope, one of the authors of the study. We had been corresponding via Twitter, which is fun but very low bandwidth. Now I have a letter from him.

Unsurprisingly he is unhappy with this article, and he has some points of rebuttal that it would be unfair of me to ignore.

I will separate them into ones I consider important and ones I consider secondary.



“In order to determine climate effects, baseline rates of how well each sector performs in ‘warm’ or ‘cool’ years are extrapolated to a crude economic sensitivity.”

This is only one way in which the effects are estimated. There are also cross-sectional studies and detailed scenario analyses of altered climate states.

Not sure I fully understand that, but it seems secondary. The point is that we only have small-signal data to calibrate a large signal model.

“Costs incurred in the future are discounted in the same way that a banker discounts any obligation in the distant future”.

The range of discount rates in the default PAGE09 model is much lower than those a banker would use. The range for the pure time preference rate is 0.001 to 0.02 per year.

Sloppy on my part. It was clear to me that using low discount rates in the tradition of Stern is what they are doing in order to get a big number. I am not objecting on this score: I fully agree that low discount rates are needed if we’re denominating in dollars at all.

“both growth and uncertainty reduce the evaluation of the future costs and benefits.”

Uncertainty is explicitly accounted for in the PAGE09 model. It has been shown to increase the evaluation of impacts compared to models that do not include uncertainty.

I should have separated these concerns.

Regarding uncertainty, this is the key to my whole complaint. I see many systematic underestimates of uncertainty. This is not particular to economics – climate modelers are prone to it as well. The key is to separate “aleatory” vs “epistemic” uncertainty, i.e., uncertainty in the optimal parameters of the model vs errors in the structure of the model. What I’m hoping to get from Hope is some idea of the epistemic uncertainty, which is actually rather small in climate physics on century time scales despite what some would have you think.

Regarding “growth” it is generally the goal in economic studies. Those of us who are unconvinced that it is a reasonable or even realistic goal are left out in the cold from the beginning. But this means that some of us think that even epistemic uncertainty is a minor issue. The first thing I need to be convinced of is that we are solving the right problem!

“there’s the nonlinearity problem, where particularly odd climate events don’t appear in trends and are misattributed by averaging processes.”

Nearly all the impact functions in the default PAGE09 model are highly non-linear.

Maybe so; it still remains (from my point of view) to be seen how they are obtained, and how they couple and cascade. It is my suspicion that, given the difficulty of attribution of severe events, much of the damage we have already seen will be very hard to capture and extrapolate.

In your blog post you linked to a blog post that called us ‘retarded’ and the ‘three imbeciles’, and called it ‘readable and passably amusing’. Well, I won’t make any further comment on that.

Lubos is a bit of a clown; we go back a long way, and I get this treatment from him all the time. On the whole, academic decorum is a bit relaxed on the internet. Developing a thick skin is in order. However I suppose I ought to apologize for indulging myself for sharing this nugget of amusement publicly.


Primary concerns:

“there’s just the sad, ubiquitous, and probably somehow debilitating nonfinancial cost of living in a deteriorating natural environment, which is captured, if at all, as a perturbation on the tourist industry.”

The PAGE09 model has a separate impact category called ‘non-economic impacts’ devoted to capturing this type of impact. It is in no way just included as a perturbation on the tourist industry.

It’s peculiar to dollar-denominate it, but that said I am pleased that this is included in some form. I withdraw this point.

“Such models, insofar as I understand them really have no serious concept of nonlinear system dynamics at all.”

Nearly all the impact functions in the default PAGE09 model are highly non-linear. Positive feedback mechanisms from temperature change to the carbon cycle are included.

I don’t really know how you’d capture cascading system failures in an Excel spreadsheet, but pending looking at it in detail, I have to reduce this to a suspicion.

Much discussion of how big the methane pulse is:

In composing the article I used the century-scale GWP to get a ballpark; arguably I should triple it and use the decadal-scale GWP.

On twitter, Chris Hope asked me to estimate the forcing in watts. I made a stupid error and slipped a decimal point. I was off by exactly tenfold. Chris Colose’s number made me revisit my calculations and I found my mistake. This doesn’t affect the initial estimate that the impact of an abrupt release of 60 GT C would be enormous to the point of being destabilizing.

My whole point, though, is that models of this sort do not really indicate when they are being pushed out of range. I tried to explain this in detail in my email to Dr. Hope, but I still see no signs of grappling with the issue of whether the model is applicable at all.

No discussion as yet on the plausibility of the Wadhams scenario.

I accepted it for the purpose of argument and let’s leave it that way. I am thoroughly convinced that it is not in the realm of the plausible, never mind the “likely”. But if it happens, IAMs notwithstanding, I believe we are toast. At some level of disaster, economics does not apply, at least not dollar-denominated economics. In asking economists to bound the regime of their models, I get blank looks. So far this is a case in point.


On Twitter, Dr. Hope offers the following resources for further investigation:

Q: Q’s for people publishing on “integrated assessment models”: 1) What are the data 2) what are the constituent equations;

A: See papers 4, 5, 8, 9 here  All since published but easier to find here.

Q: On IAM’s 2/3 @cwhope 3) How do you bound the estimate? Are orders of magnitude error excludable, on either side of your estimate?

A: @mtobis All papers show error bounds. In Nature paper 90%CI is $10 – 225 tn, mean is $60 tn

Q: @cwhope on IAMs 3/3; 4) any IAMs in open source? On what platform and/or in what language are they typically coded?

A: @mtobis PAGE09 is an Excel workbook with @RISK add-in. Available free from me, with some conditions eg on commercial use.


  1. An interesting piece Michael.

    But you are not doing yourself any favours by calling Lubos Motl's piece "readable and passably amusing" and linking to it.

    It is vile and disgusting.

    The "three imbeciles"? On Peter Wadhams - "I wouldn't accept a kid that is this retarded to an elementary school for healthy children"? Journalists who printed the story "should be treated on par with those who sell child pornography"?

  2. As an example of unrealistic economic modeling I would offer the treatment of species extinction in Tol's FUND 3.6 model. It is unchanged from version 3.5.
    It does not really matter in that model, whether global temperature goes up by 1°C or 8°C. Over this entire range the exinction rate by 2100 is assumed to vary in a tiny band between 25% an 30% and by 3000 95% of all species will be extinct, irrespective(!) of the change in temperature. As this was discussed with him over at Eli's, Tol should be aware of this. The model gives no special treatment to loss of key species like bees.

  3. I'm not sure if you're saying that the science of the paper has been warped *because* economists are involved...? I'm pretty much lost on working out why the climate part of the paper is wrong, which was the bit I was interested in, not the projected costs. That is, methane could bring forward crossing the two degree barrier by ~17 years (2033 cf 2050, eyeballing the BAU scenario).

    Guess I'll go work through the SKS article...

    A consequence of your own argument I think you should consider. You say:

    "economics is a drastically weaker discipline than climate science, because it is not based in observed, immutable, mathematically precise laws of nature, but instead on generalizations from which conceptual models are constructed."

    Agreed. Or as Gaz put it a long while back at Tamino's: "What’s all this anti-economist rage about? Given the number of economists out there in academia and business, it’s telling that so very, very few of them have made idiots of themselves by claiming expertise in climate science and joining in with the flat-Earthers. By and large it seems clear enough that most economists are acutely aware of the limitations of their field.How would you physicists like it if you had to survey a bunch of molecules to find out what they planned to do, only to have most of them change their minds anyway, and the government restructure the laws of physics because of some opinion poll?"

    Economics lacks the ultimate arbiter of physical reality (despite claims about "sociophysics" and all that; see Philip Ball's overview that was originally called "the physics of society"). Marshall: "economic laws and reasonings in fact are merely a part of the material of which conscience and common-sense have to make use in solving practical problems, and in laying down rules which may be a guide to life." They're not meant to be like physical laws, and you can't talk about economists in the same way you would physicists - there's just no way economics as a discipline can approach the same global level of foundational knowledge.

    Yes, there's an argument to be made that economics as practiced by governments fails to be as cautious as it should be in the face of this, but that's a different argument. Economics is not physics and it certainly isn't social engineering.

    And I think we need some way of talking about costs - which is what economics does. I mean, if you were charged with persuading any number of developing countries that they need to stop thinking about development for a bit and take climate change seriously, how would you go about it? We might think, "if we carry on like this, we're going to kick the struts out from under ALL development" might work, but it won't.

    As usual, I don't have any coherent answer to offer, but I'm not sure you have a coherent alternative to the economic ideas you're attacking either, except "WE'RE GONNA BURN!" Which, I agree, should be fairly persuasive! But - going back to the point about economics being fundamentally heterodox - if you read something like the Origin of Wealth you'll see *plenty* of economists making exactly the same arguments about economics that you make here.

    Philip Ball, again, summed it up nicely: the kind of economist you don't like make "citadels of crystalline mathematical perfection that would shatter if touched by the harsh rays of reality". Agreed, we don't want that! But you've got people like Friedman as far back as the 50s arguing for economic ideas as "engines of analysis" not "photographic reproductions".

    Hmm, and now I write that down, I kind of see one of the fundamental problems trying to plug climate science into economics - it's attempting to combine two fundamentally different modelling paradigms and weakening both in the process. It appears to make the economics "physicsy" (which it really bloody isn't) and turns the physics into precisely the sort of cost-limited analysis you're attacking.

    "Let me put it this way. Is the cost of a 5 meter sea level rise really just 1000 times the cost of a 5 millimeter sea level rise?"

    I presume you don't really think any economist would argue that...? Just a handy metaphor?

  4. I am not sure whether they would make the mistake in exactly that way in exactly that case. I haven't seen these codes. But that seems to me to capture the flavor of why they produce such unscary numbers given that we really are working on destroying the world altogether.

    I think the present case proves it. An abrupt 50 GT release really would obviously be catastrophic. And the Stren-style models produce numbers that while notable are not catastrophic. This proves nothing about the risk and a lot about the models. A good model either captures things that are obvious or lets you know when it is out of its depth.

    My understanding is indeed that everything in these models applies small-signal thinking to large disruptions. Maybe they aren't hopelessly linear as in the sea level example I dreamed up. Perhaps where they fail is in an incapacity to identify cascading effects. Model drought may affect model agriculture, but that doesn't affect model military and security concerns or energy supplies...

    But something is wrong.

    If you say "*plenty* of economists making exactly the same arguments about economics that you make here" I am not surprised. I am interested to know who they are and what they propose instead of these particular models, and in what way they agree with me and in what way they don't. I have always tried to leave room in my generalizations for economists outside the norm. But Stern and Whiteman and Tol for that matter give me no confidence that they have any influence.

    Essentially, Whiteman has tried to be alarmist and has produced work that, based on shoddy alarmist geophysics, nevertheless fails to alarm those of us who are comfortable with large numbers. If this is really the worst case, ho hum. It's essentially Lomborgism and I don't like it and I don't believe it.

    I think the Wadhams/Shakhova hypothesis has been adequately put to rest (presuming that no better evidence for it arises, of course). Of course it will be a zombie theory persisting in the public imagination for years, but I think we've made enough noise that it won't be taken too seriously by people paying close attention.

    But we are left with a hypothesis that an abrupt 50 GT CH4 release would barely rise above the level of inconvenience. I think many of those of us who do think about these matters find this grossly implausible. I am left deeply suspicious of their methods, and it's there that I'd like to focus some attention.

  5. Random question: how did the Nature comment get published if it's got such transparently dodgy assumptions? (They're not transparent to me but reading here and SKS, they seem to be elementary to others.) Are comments not peer-reviewed?

  6. One anecdote I like to relate.

    At the Climate Change Congress in Copenhagen, March 2009, Nicholas Stern was discussing William Nordhaus' widely-used integrated assessment model, DICE, and asked the audience of mostly scientists what DICE indicated the economic "cost" of a 19°C global temperature rise this century would be.

    He repeated the temperature rise just so its enormity sunk in. "Nineteen degrees celsius. One nine."

    And he wasn't saying that this was a forecast or even physically plausible. He was just saying that if you specified this parameter for the economic damage functions in DICE, it would dutifully give you a result.

    Well, the "answer" is that it would cost 50% of GDP. Which is interpreted as "GDP would only be 50% as large as it otherwise would have been". So, assuming (as they always do) growth of, say, 2% per year for the (then) 91 remaining years of the century, global GDP would be triple today's value... instead of six times as large... In a world that was 19°C warmer. Sigh.

    And Stern was making the point that this has to be wrong, and so there must be something seriously wrong in the modelling. And yet we keep using these models.

    I think Weitzman is correct that the real way to "cost" these things is by looking at the price you would pay to avoid catastrophic outcomes. But the problem is, if I recall correctly, is that at the tails the potential catastrophic costs keep rising far faster than the probability of those outcomes declines, and so the standard models essentially produce a result that says you would pay any amount to avoid it. But this is in some ways a meaningless result, because how do you make use of it?

  7. "Maybe they aren’t hopelessly linear as in the sea level example I dreamed up. "

    Well, they do make this statement

    These costs remain the same irrespective of
    whether the methane emission is delayed
    by up to 20 years, kicking in at 2035 rather
    than 2015, or stretched out over two or three
    decades, rather than one. A pulse of 25 Gt of
    methane has half the impact of a 50 Gt pulse

    I don't know much about this stuff, but the fact that this methane would be released in the Arctic would seem to be in itself a sufficient reason for being skeptical about the "linear cost" result.

  8. I am so not convinced that Shakhova's work is irrelevant. I agree that Wadhams and his group are overstating the case but think they deserve a hearing amidst the massive chorus of understatement.

    When this issue first boiled to the surface, I read RealClimate with care and came up with the conclusion that we don't really know, lacking adequate baseline information. Equating not knowing with nothing to see is doesn't work for me. Gavin was also quite clear about this. If the public is more impressed with drama, championing no drama make attention vanishingly small. Also, Richard Tol's credibility has not stood the test of my searches about his work.

    As occasional methane spikes appear, I think the work being done to measure and put them in context is more than useful. People seem to forget that although the Arctic is melting fast in summer (not quite as much this summer, it appears, but still in a timeframe much more rapid than scientists anticipated) it is a challenging environment that is difficult to measure, and very large as well.

    Here's a picture for people who like visuals:

  9. To all economists, repeat daily, "The economy is a subset of the environment."

    BTW, Australia had almost 30% GDP growth from 2003 to 2011 , the UK and the USA 10-15%.

    How come I don't feel any better off? What about you?

  10. Susan, I like Krulwich, have respected his work since I was a teenager in college in fact.

    But he got caught on one thing I see so widely wrong that I have to wonder why.

    Page down in that Krulwich blog you linked -- there's another picture in there worth noting because it's widely used:

    Back in June, I put that into an Image Search and found repeatedly attributed -- explicitly or by implication -- to the Shakhova work. It's also been used as an illustration in news stories about quite a few other sites.

    I pointed one misuse of it out at RC on in the June open thread, 19 Jun 2013 at 8:15 PM:

    "... the earliest I found is from 2009, cited to the National Oceanography Center, Southampton, published here: by a different group of researchers, in a different location."

    Follow that New Scientist story and compare what they said to the language of the original paper:;jsessionid=907DF1B00779BB6905671BDA900385F7.d03t01 DOI: 10.1029/2009GL039191

    Why is that the only picture being used of methane bubbling out of the seabed in large plumes? Plumes that don't reach the surface, mind, the gas is dissolving into the ocean in those images.

    Why _that_ image attached to all these other more recent stories, blogs and press releases about methane in other locations?

    Because it's the only picture available of this actually happening.

    The other stories are what-if, could-be, would-be-awful-if papers and stories.

    Why borrow a picture to go with those, that makes it look like it's happening in other places now?

    Yes, eventually, if we keep warming things up, the evidence for methane from clathrates disassociating will undoubtedly bubble up. But if we get that far down the wrong road, people won't likely care because the world will be in such terrible shape and getting worse fast for so many reasons. Other feedback effects will be huge -- if we get to that condition.

    The answer to this or any other horrible scenario is: stop burning fossil fuel, as quickly as possible.
    Don't drill for gas over the methane clathrates, don't build the pipes, don't build the infrastructure, don't make the quick money that promises.

    Wish us luck getting smart soon enough that it matters.

    But -- be wary of the bandwagon for "doing something" about the "methane emergency" -- they desperately want to drill for and sell that gas, it's started in Japan, it's funded and the infrastructure is a-building now elsewhere. How can anyone complain about trying to do that, right, it's an emergency. A profit emergency.

    Look at the article with the actual observation of methane bubbles -- where that picture came from.

    That picture is -not- what it's claimed to be. Yes, you can find scary speculation in the discussion. Yes, this will eventually be a problem if we keep heading in that direction.

    But this is what that picture actually shows happening:

    "Plumes also occur ... some of them in water shallower
    than 200 m. Even with a seabed temperature of 0C, the hydrate stability
    zone does not exist in water depths shallower than 300 m.
    So it is probable that many of the plumes are directly fed
    by the primary geological methane source in this area
    and that gas seeps have existed since the margin was
    flooded as glacial ice retreated about 13 ka ..."


    "it is unlikely that more than a very small fraction of the
    methane in the observed plumes reaches the
    atmosphere directly. The acoustic images of the bubble
    plumes show very few that reach the sea surface, and even
    for these it is probable that nitrogen and other gases would
    have largely replaced methane in the bubbles during their
    ascent ...."

    That's from the draft, which you can find with Google Scholar searching on the paper's title.
    The final text is still paywalled.

    I found the draft I quoted from here:

    [ Whoa. -mt ]

  11. If I recall correctly, the Stern review had a non-zero time preference rate term, in the discount rate calculation, of 0.1%, which was justified by recognizing that the chance of extinction was greater than zero and, if so, there was a case for valuing the present more than the future. Crudely put, if we knew we had, as David Bowie once sang, five years, then it would make sense to sell our ten-year bonds now and party like there's no tomorrow.

    The counter-intuitive element here is that the more we think that the end is possible, the more we should discount the future and the less we should therefore invest, other things being equal, in averting that eventuality. Economic analysis over long time periods often leads to absurd results that only economists fail to see as damning.

    The problem, I think, is that we are using a tool, cost-benefit analysis, which works well for decision making over a single generation or less, for a purpose it was never designed for--determining the the right things to do that will have consequences over many, perhaps all, generations to come.

    A further problem is that we are weighing the costs that accrue to us, against the benefits that accrue to people who have no say, the unborn. I am surprised that the staggering conflict of interest inherent in this is not more widely recognized.

    Not that I have any better answers for how to determine what sacrifices we should make today for the sake of tomorrow.

  12. Just an aside -- any model goes cattywampus when pushed beyond reasonable inputs, and 'reasonable' is awfully unclear unless you know something about the natural world. 19 degrees C warmer? We know a lot about biology that's relevant. The economists don't -- officially -- know much about life in such conditions.

    And it's not just economists who get to decide how to value things; there are a whole lot of "advocacy economists" out there (in fact, are there any public economists, as there are "public accountants"? None that I know of).

    Just for example, here's an example of an economic model being struck down by a judge:

  13. OK, I found your links and took a good look. I've seen some other stuff, most particularly at Neven's, where the methanetracker and A4Real's google site the daily methane output was referenced - haven't been keeping up with that recently. It just seems to me like one more instance of greenhouse gas emissions and feedbacks gradually going where we don't want them to go in the service of having a decent future.

    Sorry about the Krulwich image. I had it lying around because I like visual things, and didn't realize it would push those buttons. Indeed it is old, though why we think 2009 is not recent is another question. My first encounter with Arctic alterations was a PBS show with Alan Alda walking around in marshes and drunken forests in Alaska and around there and is older still.

    I am getting a little annoyed about being accused of hyperventilating about this. I'm just trying to remind people that "we don't know" works both ways. Tamping down hard on discussion doesn't seem like the right way to go about it, and attacking Shakhova and Semiletov seems just wrong to me. As I see it, she's very worried but presents science in scientific locations and the bigger worries in less constrained situations, though she is still keeping a good part of those worries to herself. She should know, I would think.

    When I first became aware of the new cause for concern, I read what I could on RealClimate and came away with the conclusion that we don't have a baseline and that it is hard to get data from the Arctic. I think Gavin puts it quite well, and taking it further than that is wrong.

    If the general population would get "the economy is a subset of the environment" the trillions figures might register in the right place. I can see where this gets people hot and bothered about accuracy, and I read what Stoat (I think it was) said about the simplistic maths and procedure that went into getting that figure. Given that I am a more reliable reader and thinker on the subject, with a lot more background information than the general public, it is not surprising that all this gets mixed up and misconstrued, both by intentional distortion and by ill-informed readers. AMEG gets some credit for putting the overall issues front and center, while the rest of us wring our hands and argue over trivia, but I didn't need you to tell me they are exaggerating, I already knew that. I worry about getting the wrong kind of geoengineering, but its the politicians who are going to demand action, any action, that gets them off the hook when things get really bad, and ignore the science.

    One thing I do know, and that is that purveyors of disinformation are very happy to sit on the sidelines and encourage us to fight amongst ourselves, with an occasional jab thrown in here and there. I see the "own goal" argument as part of that tactic.

  14. Pingback: Another Week of Climate Disruption News, August 4, 2013 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  15. "I am getting a little annoyed about being accused of hyperventilating about this. I’m just trying to remind people that “we don’t know” works both ways. Tamping down hard on discussion doesn’t seem like the right way to go about it, and attacking Shakhova and Semiletov seems just wrong to me."

    Err, Susan... (facepalm) I hate to say this but...

    This is an argument used on denier sites all the time, as well as by anti-evolutionists, and crackpots of all stripes.

    Some things are just not science. (Most things, actually.)

    When Gavin Schmidt says Shakhova's stuff is "not worth discussing" that is very strong language indeed. If nobody of comparable status calls him out on that, I think it's just not worth discussing.

  16. There was a comment reply by Gavin on sea level rise some years ago on realclimate. Alas I can't find it. I was speculating on ca. 2-4m SLR from Greenland by 2100, by exponential extrapolation of measured melt acceleration. Gavin replied in a Palmströmesque manner something like: "That can't be because 1m would already be catastrophic".

    So, while I highly respect Gavin as a top researcher, methinks he sometimes shrinks away from considering extreme scenarios. (That's of course understandable. His job is depressing enough.)

  17. Does Schmidt say that about Shakhova? Where? Evidence please.

    I had made my peace with everybody else. Facepalm indeed. I know I am not a scientist: I thought that was the point of your invitation, that I be honest and tell it like I see it. If you can't or won't communicate with me, forget the rest of the population. I'm not thrilled with the whole instant methane thing, but measurements are measurements. If you just need somebody to argue with and put down, I am not "it". (It's not just this: Your reaction to my praise of my quote from the government cooperation in Knoxville as anti-government was a classic in failed communication, to cite the most obvious of recent examples.)

    Meanwhile, I'm sticking with the following and RealClimate, and will continue to absorb what I can. I'm well aware that the methane burp and AMEG stuff and $60 trillion are extreme and lack proper evidence.

  18. Martin Gisser, thanks, that's another point and I've noticed that. The whole thing reminds me of the ructions over Peter Gleick and Heartland. (Glad to see he's back and recovering his status.) Dr. Schmidt does tend to tamp down on extremes, and on the scientific side sticks to the mainstream of scientific research in this difficult and complicated field - more power to him: a giant in the field. He appears to be more open on the communication side: I often think of his round-the-clock work after ClimateGate patiently pushing the facts forward again and again and again ...

    I found Stephen Schneider's book fascinating; he was capable of embracing a wider variety of disciplines and creating collaborations on a wider scale.

    I try to keep up with Neven's main blog (and fora when cited, but it's a lot to take in) where the discussion is much more open-ended. He maintains a democratic inclusive discussion which allows some odd excursions, but manages to keep his eye on reality and good science as well: a remarkable accomplishment.

    Rabett makes some good points related to the revised AGU statement:

    The mood of the attendees had shifted. It was much sourer about the few in the atmospheric science community still running interference for inactivism. People were being called out in private, but also in public and not just in sessions dealing with education and communication and blogging.

    It is now clear to the climate science community that keeping your head down has not been an effective option for climate scientists for quite a while (see Kathryn Hayhoe). The denialists and their funders are coming for you in the Niemoeller sense, sooner or later. This means that many in the community have woken up. Those who do not, or believe they cannot, are feeling guilty about not supporting the science they are part of. Those folks need to be encouraged and supported and come out.

  19. Susan, thanks for your frankness.

    I cannot dig up the quote from Gavin, so please consider that withdrawn pending finding it, or him saying as much. I'll just say it myself. There is nothing here worthy of scientific consideration. Plenty of research has been done that would be relevant. None of it supports the abrupt release scenario, not even Shakhova's very limited reported results.

    "measurements are measurements"

    Certainly. Relevant measurements are always fair game. Which ones are causing you concern?

    As a society we are vulnerable to pseudoscience - the deniers prove that every day, as do some people with greenish tendencies on matters far from climate. How is public concern about climate immune from systematic exaggeration?

    I think it isn't, and I think this incident proves it.

    How are we to inoculate ourselves against these things in general? Specifically, how do we treat things which expert opinion finds to be flatly refuted but which capture the public imagination?

    I don't mean to be rude or unkind, but this is a core question around here! I can't just let it slide.

  20. classic in failed communication

    Have mercy. 🙂 Seems to be the time of year (heat wave?). I've also served some very failed communications recently. Apropos Neven: Let me reveal a little history: I've actually met him and his little daughter in my last Florifulguratorian garden. That was before he started his famous blog. It was the first and only occasion I had in this lame century to seriously discuss the state of the World with a life and thoughtful person - after I got kicked into awareness by Eyal of in a fraction of a second (his face falling down upon a silly denier joke) on a random bus in Greece 1997. Oh small Planet! I talked Neven out of wasting his nerves on the WUWT crazies. (Are you still wasting yours on the Revkin trolls (wmar, kim, etc.)?) Neven seems to have some similarities to you, a great example of a lay person with good science intuition who gets the big picture, plus, does not refuse to look into the abyss. While you seem more a visual genius, Neven is a language and communication genius. Alas, how to express our troubling perspectives in visual art?

  21. Can you just stop with claiming I support the "abrupt" scenario? I have not done so, am not doing so, and will not do so. It's like arguing about religion. Though if you mean, have I noticed that climate has already changed, yes, I have. That's not an argument, it's a fact. Scary enough for everyone IMNHSO. It's not abrupt, we've been gunning for it for four decades.

    I watch a bit of network TV, and this about describes where most of the population seems to be going; it may seem OT but I think it nails it ( a movie review, paywalled so I had to type the relevant bit):

    trends ... reinforcing one another .... the avant-garde of the millions who want to brand themselves on Facebook .... kids' obsessions and their peculiar limitations as human beings .... caught between rapture and despair ... a sense that all moral distinctions have slid away

    Those supporting the idea that we can continue to provide fuel for this kind of consumption are, in my opinion, delusional. Every fireworks show has to be the biggest ever: the purest form of pure emissions possible. Nobody dares mention it ...

  22. I don't watch TV much. When I do, I come to those conclusions as well.

    Climate is already changing, rapidly and disruptively, and we ain't seen nothin' yet.

    All I am saying here is 1) 50 GT CH4 is not gonna happen and 2) If it did the model that Whiteman et al used doesn't tell us how bad it would be. The first point is, I think, a solid consensus among CH4 experts. I'd really like to be arguing the second.

  23. Thanks Martin, that's a lovely story. I am not a visual genius, just a plodder. I'm spending more time writing these days. My point is that science is like language a living thing, which is why so many amateurs are making good (and bad) contributions.

    We have been having the most nostalgically beautiful weather in my part of the world; the heat dome is south and west and the moment, along with other places (Europe, or has that gone; China; etc.). Blocked weather rules. I was fascinated to notice at Arthropolis that the temp at Khatanga (Siberia mouth of Ob), which hasn't changed (26C) adds time to how long ago is was measured every day (currently 16622 minutes = almost 12 days). Oops!

    DotEarth is a special case. Some of us have agreed that it is worth continuing to provide facts for silent readers (there are a lot of them), and it's good practice in not reacting which is counterproductive. It continues to be the only game in town at the NYTimes, so we're stuck with it. Sadly, I'm pretty sure I've helped his traffic. Andy is not all bad and may return to his former good form as things keep going downhill. The worst of it is that I think wmar is Marc Morano or his twin, and he hones his technique on me, which is not a good thing. kim is long gone - in any case, not a threat. It's the plausible stuff that is dangerous, with the lies carefully integrated and personal attacks and distortions that are had for a casual reader to spot. It also keeps me up to speed on the latest memes and newest deniers making the rounds, what's hot and what's not.

    mt, it's difficult, but ploughing through is probably better than shutting down. It may outrage your professionalism, and capture the public imagination, but I still think that's a better result in the long run as the dangers are real if the suggested path is largely bogus. You will continue to promote good science and honesty, along with bad temper, and others will speak up, like Rabett, for consciousness raising. Your rage is more noticeable than what you are saying. I struggle with our sweetheart housekeep/cook help in NJ, who is so afraid of me she automatically does the opposite of what I ask her. Thankfully our aides have got our numbers and help with balance. So we have to "rely on the kindness of strangers." Most people are more like her than like me, and rational doesn't work as well as a hug. sigh ...

  24. I couldn't find Gavin's quote because I had seen it pre-publication.

    Here it is:

    A number of prominent scientists and methane experts interviewed for this article voiced strong skepticism about the Nature paper. "The scenario they used is so unlikely as to be completely pointless talking about," says Gavin Schmidt, a noted climate researcher at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.

  25. @ Michael and Chris,

    Related to this discussion is Richard Tol's comment over at Jame's place:

    "Advocating decarbonization, however, implies that you believe that the negative impacts of climate change are greater than its positive impacts; and that the net impacts of climate change outweigh the net impacts of climate policy.

    There is no agreement on these matters and, by Arrow's Impossibility Theorem, there cannot be agreement. It is a political position."

    This, I think, is an untenable position that is only possible if you systematically include the most optimistic assumptions in your IAM or alternatively by adopting a ridiculous threshold for what constitutes 'agreement'. Is Tol's position considered mainstream within WGIII circles?

    As an aside, I would point out that costs/benefits of climate change are not symmetrical either in time or space, so Tol's assertion might not sit as well with an economist whose children live in Bangladesh ;). Global assessments are not without value, but let's not forget that analyses at this scale can cloud rather than illuminate policy considerations that are informed by local/regional circumstances.

  26. Everybody seems to think one should pay attention to what Richard Tol says. I tried - I really did - but I cannot get interested. How does it comes about that so much hot air (looks contrarian to me and wrong to boot) commands so much respect? The politest thing I can think of to say is that he has interesting hair. No doubt I am now "for it" (Britishism again, sorry, it's a bad habit).

  27. Tol is free to have an opinion on anything climatological as it is a political decision whether or not to have such an opinion, and being a social scientist, he is qualified to make such decisions. However, whether or not to pay any attention to him is also a political position, and thus it is not within our sphere of expertise to decide whether or not we should. Only social scientists can decide that.

  28. I have no quarrel with your critique of the Whiteman et al article. You may recall a 1997 cover story in Nature that added ecosystem services up to $33 trillion, or close to twice the value of global GDP at the time - ludicrous for many reasons - apart from the methodology and conceptual issues, which I won't go into here, it is simply impossible to pay more than one makes. Economic methodologies are only designed to evaluate marginal trade-offs, so they are completely useless on such a scale. We need to think of valuation in an entirely different way, which I also won't go into here, but perhaps I will write another post on it.

    But I do take issue with your use of the term "post-normal science" as if it implies a science in which anything goes. If everyone uses the term to mean different things (including Ravetz, who has not been consistent, and Heartland, which used it in a similar way to you), it is or will become meaningless. But the original meaning of the term (which has also been cited in Nature) implies the opposite. It simply implies that normal science is not by itself adequate because it typically fails to consider various kinds of uncertainties under high stakes conditions and need for urgent decisions, and in the presence of value conflicts. Economics is not the only discipline that externalizes anything that is not tractable.

    I will need to write a more succinct post on this, but in the meantime, I draw your attention to this post, which has a longer paper attached: followed up by .

  29. Sylvia, it's nice to see you here, and I understand your intent to defend the academic framing first porposed for "postnormalcy", but that horse has long since left the ranch.

    It's my contention that postnormal science as used in the climate debates is not science at all; it is an expression used for instances where politics poses as science. It is rarely indulged in by scientists, particularly not by scientists who are renowned among their peers. It certainly appears among those speaking against scientists and to perhaps a lesser degree among those speaking in their defense.

    The deniers, should they happen upon this, will be outraged/amused by my assessment of the balance, but I am making a real point here. WIthin science as normally practiced, bad or crazy assertions are ignored and refinements of a position are generally allowed without gloating or malice. Only in politicized science are the most clumsy or erroneous assertions celebrated by their opponents. A focus on stupid statements by one's opposition is a clear stigma of a non-scientific conversation. I think this is an important point. I guess I'm sorry I hijacked your concept to make it, but I think the way the phrase is generally used doesn't match the climate science story at all, and I have my doubts about other sciences.

    It's true that politicization does something to a mature science, but it has far more effect on the fringes than at the core except in extreme cases where the know-nothings force the government in to actually break the science. (Stalin supporting Lysenko, Cuccinelli attacking Mann). The idea that it affects the practice itself except as added friction is mostly an illusion.

  30. Michael,

    I did not mean to seem aloof - have been in the habit of getting planet3 on the twitter feed and reading on the kindle using pocket, which means I often miss out on discussions.

    I think you are referring to the way the term PNS is "generally used" or has been hijacked by the likes of Cuccinelli, Heartland Institute, Delingpole, and a few others. So by using it that way, perhaps you are agreeing with them? Say it isn't so!

    You may have issues with the concept, which are beyond the scope of this comment thread, but even Ravetz agrees that they way the above mentioned use the term has nothing to do with how it was originally framed, (and there are others in the PNS field who don't think Jerry's recent turn has anything to do with PNS either, but that is a whole other matter). There is a fair amount of published literature on PNS, consistent with the original framing, including an old paper of mine, that actually got cited in an IPCC report! Although the journal Nature is clearly fallible, the term was recently used there too - see:
    Value judgements. (2011). Nature, 473(7346), 123–124. doi:10.1038/473123b

    Here is an excerpt:

    Coincidentally, at a workshop last week in Hamburg, Germany, a gathering of climate scientists, policy experts and philosophers of ‘post-normal science’ articulated a similar perspective. Science becomes ‘post-normal’ when facts are uncertain, stakes high, values in dispute and decisions urgent; in such cases, societal needs must be taken into account to avoid costly mistakes. Climate research certainly fulfills this definition. But, according to the workshop participants, most climate researchers continue to act as if purely scientific values are, and will always be, adequate to set the agenda.

    i.e., it is important to consider the context of science, and how it will be used. It is not a replacement for normal science - it simply broadens the scope. The concepts are valid, and I would rather take it back and stick with a term that is known than have to find a new one.

  31. Pingback: Climatifact: Seven Points in Support of Shakhova? Or not? | Planet3.0

  32. > by Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, there cannot be agreement [...]

    Perhaps Richard might revise the assumptions of that theorem:



    Unrestricted domain


    Independence of irrelevant alternatives (IIA)

    Positive association of social and individual values (or monotonicity)


    Non-imposition (or citizen sovereignty) [or alternatively, Pareto efficiency]'s_impossibility_theorem

    I've heard sociologists appealing to that theorem. I've never seen an economist appealing to this as if it was his Second amendment.

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