February Open Thread

Anything goes.

Suggested topics:

How should a person not versed in a controversial subject identify which sources are reliable?

How should the press and the public view peer review as input into their decision making? Would a reinvention of the academic publication infrastructure help?


  1. I wrote a whole schpiel here earlier and then my computer crashed. Some kind of intervention, perhaps. Here's the short version:

    How should a person not versed in a controversial subject identify which sources are reliable?

    The straight answer is 'by the application of reasoning'. But the problem is that we use different mechanisms for decision making depending on circumstances. When my doctor tells me to lay off golf for a week or to so my bad back can heal a bit, I listen, trust, and act. The behemoth of presumption beneath this involves centuries of medical practise and research, years of specialist training and a touch of personal interaction. I don't presume to distrust my doctor's opinion simply because I want to carry on playing golf.

    On the other hand, when I want to decide which camera to buy next, I do a lot of the checking out online. I can normally find some reasonable-looking 'unbiased' sources, and I'd probably pay attention if they said 'Don't buy this camera, it's a crock and a rip-off'. But nine times out of ten, I'll look at the impartial opinions, weigh them against my pre-existing prejudices, and go buy the Nikon anyway, even if it doesn't 'score' as highly as others.

    The point is, what matters as much as the evidence is the predisposition of the reader. We know this. Go in on a basis of personal ignorance, and trust in the greater system (ie, science) underlying the issue, and apply the brain to the material as best we can. Go in with an opinion already half-formed, and we'll tend to reach conclusions not justified by reason, but personal preference.

    How should the press and the public view peer review as input into their decision making? Would a reinvention of the academic publication infrastructure help?

    This is easier. Too many journals, too many specialisations, too much material, too many Universities. Academia has become a big business in its own right. Peer review is not enough on its own, but it's the only filter we currently have to winnow out the true dross from the merely mundane. The system can always be improved, but it doesn't need replscing. Arguably, more peer review would be useful in picking up the rubbish which bypasses the system and goes straight into WUWT and the like; that's a service many of our colleagues provide right now, in the real world.

  2. Pingback: Planet3.0

  3. The English flooding is a case study in short-term and insular versus long-term and outward looking policy, and indeed confirmation bias, as FB has mentioned. Faced with unprecedented rainfall, and the flooding that the UK chief scientist had warned against a decade ago, the main response among those with a certain set of preconceptions is to blame the technical agency for not dredging rivers (it would have had a minimal effect, and is no substitute for comprehensive watershed management, and was largely precluded by funding cuts), and to divert money from the international aid budget to fund emergency relief in the UK ( to its credit, the Government has so far held the line on this one).

    I see that you ask for reports from the ground - these are not hard to find, although ground itself is an increasingly scarce resource. I see you are already featuring photos from Thames-on-Walton, until recently Walton-on-Thames.

  4. Bit of a shock seeing a Tory ex-environment minister making a point MT has been trying to get through for a long while: "The debate over tackling climate change had become “muddied”, the former minister added, and criticised politicians for using the term `global warming' because it confuses people into thinking that climate change will result in warmer weather, rather than an increase in extreme weather such as higher rainfall."

  5. Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker has a new book out: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, so I guess it's time for me to raid the piggy bank again.

    There's an interview over at wonkblog.

    The chemistry of the oceans tends to be very stable, and to overwhelm those forces is really hard. And we are managing to do it. When people try to reconstruct the history of the ocean, the best estimate is that what we're doing to the oceans or have the potential to do is a magnitude of change that hasn't been seen in 300 million years. And changes of ocean chemistry are associated with some of the worst crises in history.

  6. Why the focus on one extreme (series of) event(s)? Obviously for those of us experiencing it the UK floods are a big deal, but I'm getting a bit fed up of people talking to me about the weather and climate change as though somehow this confirmed what I had been saying to them for so long. The evidence for climate change and the impacts it's likely to have has been overwhelmingly apparent for years now. Anyone who is being swayed by the UK weather should be thinking very carefully about why they are.

  7. I've not yet seen anyone suggest the Trident (>£20bn cost and very large annual running costs) be scrapped to pay for improved flood resilience. Seems a better target for the funds, to me.

    Looking at the size and expense of some of the houses that look out over the Thames, it does seem to be taking money from the poor to compensate the rich. Obviously, not everyone flooded is rich, and some are far back, but there's plenty of people who paid good money for river front properties. Worth remembering when anyone compares the cost of these floods to 2007.

    However, it's only really starting to get comparable to 2007 now (probably will be by this time next week). Though this winter is likely to be the wettest on record, it is not yet looking like being the wettest season (there's a few autumns at the top) and not the wettest three consecutive months. Autumn tends to cope better with more rain as there's normally more capacity in the system immediately after summer. With the system (despite the recent nice summer) being at reasonable levels going into winter, the extra rainfall has overwhelmed it a bit.

  8. Thanks, that is very much worth knowing. Can one conclude that this event is being overblown in terms of impact, even though it is climatologically weird?

    By "nice" you mean "dry" I take it.

    This is contextual. In Texas a dry summer is not considered a nice one.

  9. I don't think it's been overblown as such, well, no more than any event like this is ever overblown by the media. But it isn't yet obviously beyond previous experience. What is perhaps interesting is that the cumulative impacts of weather events seem to be more at the forefront of people's thoughts. That might just be my impression.

  10. Yes, sorry I was being lazy and used "nice" as a shorthand. Reasonably warm and dry (as opposed to hot and arid, or cool and wet).

    It was overblown originally I think, but as the cumulative effect has piled up, it seems that the event is catching up with the media. Climatologically it's definitely been an outlier.

    Some context can be found at the Met Office site:


    See especially the linked pdf at that page.

  11. Using the metric of number of houses flooded, this event hardly registers in comparison. Here's some numbers for 2007, including: "55,000 homes and properties flooded." The majortity of those were in the North (there's a table in the link) but not all. Here's the BBC also comparing to today's numbers.

    I was in Australia in 2007; I don't recall following the weather patterns with the same obsession I am now. I'd like to know whether this conveyor sequence of atlantic low pressure systems has happened before; I can't remember anything like this number of storms following one after the other but some data would be nice. I do know the Environment Agency's done a heap of work after 2007 that's saved a lot of properties since. It would be good to look at raw rainfall / surge numbers to compare the two.

  12. The point for me: actually, a lot of what we're seeing now that's connected to jetstream weirdness is not what was predicted. Not because the predictions were bad but because we're kicking a complex system in the nadgers repeatedly and, pretty much by definition, you don't get to predict what happens next at anything but the top level.

    It's frightening: we're so early into when we'd expect to see impacts and are already having some of these unknown unknowns thrown at us (while having pretty much zero way to statistically tie to climate change itself, so are left only with loading dice metaphors and looking for immediate causes).

    Seems to me it's completely understandable to use these events as a `teachable moment' every time they arrive. Look: this is how much cost and grief can be caused. This is how ready we were. These are our current, insane policy priorities and our insane press dialogue. Here's the ridiculous kerfuffle of political responses - including predictable kneejerk ones like `stop giving fooornnners our money when we need it here'.

    Which is of course exactly the opposite of what many of us think needs to happen if we're to persuade other countries of the need to decarbonise. They're going to need more aid, not less - but it's hardly surprising if people in crisis demand money is directed to them, not at some nebulous development idea that appears to have exactly zero impact on them.

    Another reason why it's scary: in a global situation that may require unpredecented solidarity to solve, each crisis seems to push people in exactly the opposite direction. Or maybe that's just here, I don't recall seeing anything so small-minded occur after Sandy...?

  13. Some figures from a Grauniad story just now:

    Around 50 homes flooded overnight in the Thames valley, bringing the total number of homes flooded across the country since late January to 1,135. Some 5,800 properties have flooded since early December when the series of winter storms began.

    Also includes: "The Met Office has forecast 70mm (2.75 inches) of rain by Friday in the already-sodden West Country – more than the region would normally get in the whole of February."

  14. "I don’t recall following the weather patterns with the same obsession I am now. I’d like to know whether this conveyor sequence of atlantic low pressure systems has happened before; I can’t remember anything like this number of storms following one after the other but some data would be nice."

    Aye, this is the problem. It is easy to convince ourselves that things have changed when only the extent of our attention has changed.

    And it's just hard pulling together an a priori statsic of weirdness that would hold water, so it may be difficult to objectively test the hypothesis. For a while at least.

    Remarkably, despite Roger Jr.'s endless protestations to the contrary, actuarial damage provides some of the most compelling evidence. But the pattern shift is too brief to show up in the statistics. We'll have to have an awful lot of economic significance before statistical significance is achieved.

    Basically, when you don't know the fringe statistics of something, it's hard to objectively identify when they've changed.

  15. 2007 floods are described at wikipedia:

    2007 was more down to a few larger systems, quite well separated, that tended to stall over the UK, dumping a large amount in a short period. There was two weeks between the two systems that combined to create the Northern floods, for example. These systems were generally considered unseasonal.

    2013/2014 is a succession of many - normally standard, though one or two more extreme - low pressure systems, coming through quite quickly, but with little gap between them. As I say, most of them are no worse than seasonal, with only the odd exceptional wind, but there's been a continuous stream.

    The UKMO page (and linked pdf) above describes the current situation very well (obviously).

    Just an extra two, the wettest season was Autumn 2000 at over 500mm and the central Southern and South Eastern regions have already exceeded their wettest winters. The Thames flows from the former to the latter.

  16. Here's a EUMetSat article on the storms affecting Europe (don't forget that the UK is not the only country affected - for example parts of Brittany have had bad floods, too).


  17. Really enjoyed this at climate crocks looking at some of the ongoing arguments about current jetstream goings-on, the arctic, etc. (And incidentally shows what actual scientific disagreement can look like, cf. what the denialiti try and pass off as argument). So, yes - perhaps not a great idea to be jumping up and down shouting CLIMATE every time we flood or get buried in snow, but it's also impossible NOT to talk about it.

  18. The Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, has spoken out strongly on climate change (at last):

    But the events of the last few weeks have shown this is a national security issue in our own country too with people's homes, businesses and livelihoods coming under attack from extreme weather. And we know this will happen more in the future.

    "The science is clear. The public know there is a problem. But, because of political division in Westminster, we are sleepwalking into a national security crisis on climate change. The terrible events of the last few weeks should serve as a wake-up call for us all.

    I have mixed feelings about this. As many people have, I've been saying for some time that realistic action will probably only happen once the impacts of climate change become viscerally obvious to people. So it seems churlish for me to equivocate when this actually happens. But what worries me is what will happen when the weather returns to normal(ish), as it almost certainly will for a time. In fact the sun is already out, so I suspect people's attention will already be wandering if they aren't in one of those places still flooded or at risk of flooding as the water table overflows.

    The UK floods represent at most a tiny, incremental increase in the evidence for anthropogenic climate change so when politicians use this to push the message too strongly there is a risk, I think, of it backfiring. Or rather, their failure to push the message strongly at other times, when the evidence is still so overwhelming, is what is causing the potential backfire. I don't think Ed Miliband is pushing the message too strongly in the wake of the floods, it's just that his failure to push the message previously makes it look like opportunism.

  19. No, I don't think he's pushing it:

    "In 2012 we had the second wettest winter on record and this winter is a one in 250-year event. If you keep throwing the dice and you keep getting sixes then the dice are loaded. Something is going on."

    I understand what you're saying; the Guardian's overall coverage has been a little over-egged, including how they frame what Miliband said:

    "Britain is sleepwalking towards disaster because of a failure to recognise that climate change is causing the extreme weather that has blighted the country for more than a month, Ed Miliband has warned."

    I dunno, maybe it's just us obsessive bloggy types who worry about that kind of distinction, but Miliband is spot on using the loaded dice metaphor while the Guardian is wrong.

    I also think it's completely understandable that this kind of event is used to think about how prepared we are for the future. Hopefully after the blame game dies down, it'll become clear what great prep work the Environment Agency has already done - sadly a little invisible when homes *aren't* flooded. But it clearly also highlights the massive challenges ahead.

    To compare: do you think any of the increased climate awareness after Sandy has been negative? Or was it, in retrospect, a good thing that while it was in the public mind it got an airing? Did it help or hinder Mike Bloomberg's planYC2030 or Obama's ability to talk about / act on climate change? Deniers retrenched for sure, but so what?

  20. Just saw a tweet from the IEA linking to a new report (PDF of exec summary) entitled "resources to reserves 2013". The web story has the top-level figures - anyone fancy figuring out what CO2 is in those numbers?

    The bit the tweet picked up is important too: "Even a 1% increase in the average recovery factor could add more than 80 bb, or 6%, to global proven oil reserve." I've wiffled on interminably about CCS before: my current view is that it's only being so aggressively pushed because it fits neatly with existing oil firms' goal of pursuing enhanced oil recovery.

    So that IEA number: a 1% increase in average recovery factor would add 80 billion barrels of oil. The exec summary goes on to say that:

    "Over the last 20 years, the average recovery factor from the Norwegian Continental Shelf has seen a significant shift – from 34% to around 46% today. // If the shift seen in Norway were to be achieved in all the basins of the world, it would double current proven reserves. A similar additional shift could be achieved by adopting EOR techniques on a much wider scale. Currently, there is a significant increase in the number of EOR pilot tests, especially those using chemical methods and CO2 injection. Examples may be found around the world, from China, Russia, the Middle East and North America to Argentina."

    Double reserves? If a 6% increase is 80bb, that's a lot of CO2, eh? Again, IEA CCS roadmap: “As long as fossil fuels and carbon-intensive industries play dominant roles in our economies, carbon capture and storage (CCS) will remain a critical greenhouse gas reduction solution.” The same arguments are made in the UK.

    The only way I see it becoming a `critical greenhouse gas reduction solution' is where it's not being used to increase the recovery factor. CO2 EOR does nothing for the CO2 from the fuel that it's enabling to be burned.

    Can someone make a counter-argument? It must come down to numbers: you'd need to be able to show that any stored CO2 (e.g. from power plant coal) used for EOR at least cancelled the CO2 output it enables. Is anyone doing that? Given they're talking about hypothetical doublings of output, I'd be surprised if this kind of venture can even hope to approach even carbon neutral, but that's just a hunch.

    One might want to also argue that, by pursuing the technology, we'll open up new possibilities later - I don't find that very comforting, personally. There's also the counter-argument that you've locked us into a fossil-fuel based transport system. Which, of course, can't happen if we're serious about carbon reduction: I think the transport sector is due to double in size by 2050, given its rapid expansion in developing countries. Global transport CO2 is currently ~14% of the total.

  21. I did just write a long reply to this, then accidentally clicked away and lost it all.

    To summarise what I (haven't) said:

    - I'm not sure about the media response to Sandy, my impression is it wasn't so dramatic a shift in rhetoric as we are seeing in response to UK flooding, but I may well be wrong about that

    - any increase in focus on climate change is likely to be good, so the question is not so much is it a positive or negative as how to get the most positive result, which is a long-term shift in attitudes

    - I'd like to see people like Ed Miliband using the floods explicitly as not much more than a hook to discuss the overwhelming evidence we already have (to be fair, breaking down what he's said it could be argued he is doing this, lots of good messages like the loaded dice metaphor - but my impression again remains that there is too much emphasis on the evidence these floods provide)

    - past failure to talk about climate change when it isn't viscerally apparent to his audience makes it harder to do this and I worry that exploiting this opportunity too emphatically will make that cycle harder to get out of

  22. Sorry you lost it all! Regular "select-all/CTRL+C" to keep the latest on my clipboard is how I avoid that generally.

    This is interesting, from Carbon Brief: "Hendry said the storms and flooding still battering parts of the UK have fundamentally changed the political debate around addressing the impacts of climate change."

    Not saying that doesn't mean you might be right about the rebound, but an insightful insider perspective all the same.

  23. Dan, thanks for the link - interesting indeed. In one way it highlights where my concern lies, in that Hendry criticises the Labour position on household energy bills and the politicisation of the energy debate, which makes their position now on climate change in the wake of the floods look more opportunistic.

    I'm also not fully clear if when he says ' the recent extreme weather should finally "put to bed" political arguments around the need to reduce energy sector emissions' he is arguing that this case has now been made or if politicians should be taking this opportunity to make it unequivocally. I think the former - he doesn't seem to be advocating that policymakers should be making the case for action, rather that they should be going ahead with those actions, perhaps trusting that the impression given by these floods is sufficient for people to accept what was previously too unpalatable.

  24. CCS+EOR: My understanding is that you have to be displacing a barrel of oil from somewhere else to make "a profit."

    If you work backwards from the outputs (a certain quantity of oil and electricity) you have reduced emissions.

    If you work forward sequentially, burning the oil you recovered pushes you back into positive emissions.

    Relative emissions seem to be pretty sensitive to the efficiency of your CCS equipment, the properties of the oil reservoir, and exactly how you operate the system (currently, there's no incentive to shove extra CO2 underground since C02 is a cost to the oil companies; if C02 had a negative price, they might start using a lot more of it).

    It's hard to imagine politicians making sense of all this. I can mostly picture how you'd work with this stuff in a carbon tax economy, but once you start doing emissions targets or cap and trade it gets really complicated.

  25. Jennifer Francis and Kevin Trenberth speak on Chris Mooney's Point of Inquiry here about their disagreement on polar amplification. Up to now I've had tremendous respect for Dr. Trenberth, particularly his effort to clarify the disastrous distortability of "no single event" attribution by saying "all events" include a contribution from climate change. However, he sounds to me a bit like a guy wedded to a closed mind here.


    Speaking metaphorically as an unbeliever, there must be a special circle in purgatory for those providing memes for malicious distortion.

  26. Have I been not paying attention to have not heard of catastrophe bonds before? I came across them in this article on the resilience of the capitalist system to climate chang.

    Am I naive in thinking that they sound like an excellent way to expose the fallacy of the 'sceptic' positions - surely if a significant number of wealthy people genuinely believe that the risks of climate change have been exaggerated there should be a huge market for these bonds. Or maybe there would be a huge market, in which case they would be an excellent way to fund adaption and mitigation efforts.

  27. I can't help thinking the money people will simply game the system. In fact, there is no real way to collect on catastrophe, real catastrophe, that is. The idea that one can gamble on it only reinforces the Roman circus nature of our check out from reality.

  28. But those who would be looking to gamble would be the ones who believe the risks have been exaggerated and there wouldn't be any collecting on catastrophe, only on the absence of catastrophe. That seems reasonable to me. From our perspective this would be akin to an insurance policy.

    I don't believe anyone would, in reality, buy in to it - no-one with money to invest would ever look at the evidence (with the clarity that the threat of financial loss seems to bring) and conclude this was a good bet.

  29. I'm niggling away at the Pielke-Holdren kerfuffle and will open the budget by extracting a comment I worked out for DotEarth when Revkin did his all too predictable waffle in support of his friend and favorite hedgers, in this case Martin Hoerling. Sadly, if one can get outside one's circle of literate (both science and English) colleagues, one can see that the potential for misinterpretation is considerable. I have a history with Andy Revkin's DotEarth, which is prone to provide fuel for sloppy thinking about weather and climate, as well as a hangout for the worst kind of clever-looking phony skeptic arguments.

    What I'm looking for most is any suggestions about straightforward ways to describe the single weather event attribution problem without getting into the thickets of explanation which will always favor those who do not wish to embrace the complexity of the problem. Trenberth provided us with the useful response that there is an element of climate disruption due to global warming (to be precise, the accumulation of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, which I believe needs to be stated more often, though it runs counter to my request for simplicity) in all weather now.

    There is an appalling lack of understanding and an lack of curiosity in most critiques of scientific analysis of climate. To begin with, it is important to remember that climate is weather over space and time, space being the whole planet and its atmosphere, and time being several decades at the least. Basic physics, more simply stated the actual physical properties of how things work, indicates that an accumulation of heat-trapping greenhouse gases is warming the planet, resulting in an increase in energy and water vapor and particularly in an increase of extremes.

    Obvious? Yes, so it is curious that there is a cadre interested in distracting from the point whenever it comes up.

    But what is even more odd is that Andy Revkin, who has followed climate for decades, is all too willing to create a false balance by seeking out experts who emphasize the disconnection between single weather events and causation, while ignoring the bigger picture. Martin Hoerling is one of those "experts" and services this misleading conclusion for a dedicated audience.

    Andy, like Pielke, prefers to separate the two parts of the whole. Pielke (Jr.) wants the second half of the paragraph in a footnote so it won't be noticed. Andy doesn't want to see that there is an element of greenhouse warming in all weather now, while handpicking ... "single events" to support his ... ideas.

    Both are errors of omission, not of commission, and they are equally deceptive and wrong.

    So few of us seem able to embrace the idea that most people will hear "no event" when they are told "no single event" but I think we must understand that this is not necessarily a sign of either stupidity or politics, but a reflection of what might be a lack of interest in the midst of a life filled with things that appear to be more urgent. I believe there is nothing more urgent than climate, but I cannot enforce my belief on others.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.