Category Archives: Climate
Reblogged from The Logic of Science, but with this comment: No one would disagree with these claims on behalf of science, and and that’s the problem.
The climate change denialists, like the smoking science denialists before them, pretend that the science is unsettled. The creationists prattle of “creation science” and “flood geology”. The extremely able and intelligent US Vice President, pandering to his creationist base, did not claim to be anti-science. On the contrary, he used the very fact of a major scientific discovery (Sahelanthropus, evolution, and the word “theory”; what Mike Pence really said) to blur the distinction between the established core and the fast-changing frontiers. And if we are to effectively defend science, we need to understand the emotional appeal of the ideology that leads to the rejection of vaccination, medicines, and GMOs, and to the prejudging of complex arguments in such cases as fracking and nuclear power.*
We need to think very carefully about tactics. If we seem to be saying anything like “Science is a good thing, therefore you should trust the scientists”, we are playing into the hands of our enemies. We are right to demonstrate and protest when science is denied, or ignored, or muzzled. And yet people (that’s all of us) believe what they want to believe. The task then is, how to persuade people to want to believe in the evidence?
*This last comment cuts both ways, of course
Why should you support science? Because it works! It’s crazy to me that I even have to say that, but this is where we are as a society. Various forms and degrees of science denial are running rampant throughout our culture, and attacks on science are being disseminated from the highest levels. Indeed, it has gotten to the point that hundreds of thousands of scientists and science enthusiasts like myself feel compelled to take to the streets to march for science and remind everyone of the fundamental fact that science works and is unparalleled in its ability to inform us about reality and improve our world.
Image via the CDC
Just look around you. Everything that you see was brought to you by science. The batteries that power your electronic devices are a result of scientific advances in chemistry, as are the plastics that make up seemingly everything in our…
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Wishing, as I recall, to evade the scientific consensus on smoking and lung cancer, Yes Minister‘s Jim Hacker turned for advice to his Civil Servant Sir Humphrey Appleby. The conversaton went something like this (I would be glad of a link to the exact transcript):
Sir Humphrey: Say the scientists disagree. Say that more research is needed.
Jim: But I thought the science was settled …
Sir Humphrey: Those scientists are always disagreeing about something, and there is always a need for more research.
Not all the news is bad; but strange times, when we have to welcome leadership from China.
Wandering Gaia is Gaia Vince, author of the award-winning Adventures in the Anthropocene, part of the emerging literature that welcomes the challenge of positively managing the planet.
If, like me, you wake everyday with a stone of foreboding in your belly, check the news to discover the world is a little worse, and stumble through your day under the heaviest pall of despair, then you’re not having the best 2017 either – I’m sorry.
Is this a new Dark Ages, this deliberate political, cultural, societal regression?
I’m sure there have been a thousand analyses of how we got into this darkly farcical horror show – and I mean the Trump presidency and Brexit disasters specifically, rather than the continuing awfulness happening to people Yemen, Syria, Nigeria, etc etc – but to be honest, one of my few comforts at the moment is my social bubble made up of kind, intelligent people who are also appalled by this new “post-fact”, mean era.
So what hope, can I give? And, yes, there is always hope!
Even though these recent…
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One US political party, from its Presidential candiate on down, is dedicated to the denial of global warming and the headlong exploitation of fossil fuels. For me, this issue eclipses all others.
I therefore urge you: if you think that global warming is not a problem, and that fossil fuels should be exploited as fully and as quickly as possible, vote Republican.
If you think otherwse, vote Democrat.
But vote. Here’s the link. The form will take no longer to fill out than it took you to read this: https://secure.avaaz.org/en/globalvote_ph/?aAcyEab
Why does North Carolina want to force transgender persons to use the wrong public toilet? Why the steady stream of foredoomed bills demanding evenhanded treatment of evolution and creationism? And why endless attempts to mount official displays of the Ten Commandments, when such displays have repeatedly been ruled to breach the wall between Church and State?
Toilet etiquette is where prudery meets absurdity. Your chance of being embarrassed, let alone molested, by a transgender person in a US public toilet is probably zero, and certainly less than your chance of being shot dead at home by a toddler playing with a gun; after all, the only public display of genitalia is at the men’s urinal, and you can always use a booth if you prefer.
(It is said that an undergrad once asked Sir John Pentland Mahaffy, Provost of Trinity College Dublin, where he might find a lavatory. “At the end of the corridor,” Mahaffy grandly gestured, “you will find a door marked GENTLEMEN; but don’t let that stop you.” In the UK, of which Dublin was still part at the time, class trumps gender. Incidentally, Trinity had been admitting female undergraduates since 1903, 74 years before Harvard; I assume that sanitary arrangements were instituted to cope with this.)
It is established law in the US that the teaching of creationism serves a religious, rather than scientific or educational, purpose. It follows (Edwards v. Aguillard) that such teaching is unconstitutional in US public schools, since it violates the First Amendment separation of Church and State. There is no prospect of this ruling being overturned, unless we ever get a US Supreme Court packed by a creationist President.
It has also been repeatedly established that display of the Ten Commandments on State government property violates the US Constitution, for much the same reasons.
So why do we have States bringing in transgender bathroom laws, scientifically baseless (as discussed here by my friend Faye Flam), whose only effect would be to inconvenience and offend one particular small minority? Why did this monumental non-issue even spill over into the moronic drivelfest of the Republican Party’s nomination debate? Or attract so much attention that Pres. Obama’s statement of the obvious on the subject has been hailed as “historic”?
Why do we have a whole evolving family of “sound science teaching” bills, which would single out evolution, together with climate change, as subjects concerning which students should be taught “both sides”, or the “strengths and weaknesses” of what is in fact well established science?
And why should the current Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court keep on asserting his right to display the Ten Commandments in his courthouse? Does he really think it necessary to inform litigants that God brought them out of Egypt, wants them to be nice to their parents, and disapproves of graven images?
Stupidity? No, strategy. And a strategy that is highly evolved, if not indeed intelligently designed.
Consider how much these issues have in common. For a start, there is nostalgia for an imagined era of moral clarity and biblical belief. This feeds in to what is, I suspect, the most powerful of all political motivators, namely the sense of identity. We think as we do and vote as we do because of the kind of person we think we are, or at any rate would like to be. And these three issues translate as assertions of a very American kind of Christian identity. As a corollary, they define an enemy; the smug Liberal sneering at those who disagree with him (would that this image lacked validity). They are timeless, unlike the real issues of foreign policy and budgets; they will still be with us ten budget cycles and three foreign entanglements down the road.
And they work as attention grabbers, and as group identifiers. The major US retail chain Target thought it worthwhile to issue a statement inviting people to use the toilets fitting their self-description rather than their birth certificates; in retaliation, a group calling itself the American Family Association has launched a boycott petition that has gathered, so far, over 850,000 signatures. I do not know what evils the AFA plan to blame on Target, but they are among those who blame Darwin for Hitler, so they’ll think of something. AFA regards calls to action on climate change as impious, since the planet is in God’s hands. It also defends public display of the Ten Commandments, on the grounds that “the Ten Commandments are the basis of all of our laws.” These views form an identity cluster, and the inclusion of climate change denial is no accident.
And finally, by the same token, they are perfect distractions from reality. American readers, at least, could hardly have failed to notice the transgender toilet controversy. But how many of us are even aware of evidence published earlier this month that warming is already reducing the availability of oxygen in the oceans, and that this effect will probably be widespread by the 2030s?
We could be talking about the erosion of democracy, looming water shortages in the US and Asia, the unstable world banking system, climate change, and the facts of economic inequality. Or we could be talking about who is allowed to use which bathroom. If you were a North Carolina legislator, which would you prefer?
I too would like to simply replace fossil fuels with renewables, but nature doesn’t care about what you or I would like, and renewables don’t have enough power per unit area. If you think you can phase out fossil fuels in densely populated countries without phasing in nuclear, please show me your arithmetic. David Mackay’s full book and 10 page synopsis are available (in English and several other languages) here (free download)
[See however https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/511939/Renewables.pdf (h/t Michael Reiss); renewables according to this source already generate 24% of the UK’s electricity requirements; not of course the same as total energy requirements, but not negligible either]
h/t Michael Roberts
“I’m not pro-nuclear- just pro-arithmetic”.
The cause for a rational evidence-based approach to energy policy has suffered a huge loss with the death of Professor David Mackay three weeks ago, on April 14th.
Mackay, Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, was the author of Sustainable Energy Without Hot Air, a key text that has been my number one stop to point folks to as a starting point for understanding energy supply and demand. In particular, I have frequently cited this table which explains very well the limitations of wind and solar energy due to their relatively low energy density:
Based on these figures, population and current energy demand, MacKay calculates that Britain cannot live on its own renewables- they simply need too much land.
By contrast to the 2-20W/m2 that can be achieved through wind or solar pv power, fossil fuels or…
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Floods are inevitable. But the degree of damage that we are seeing today is the result of reckless cuts, perverse subsidies, and mindless deregulation.
First, a review of “savings” (that’s NewSpeak for “cuts”) on flood defences:Well, Labour would say that, wouldn’t they? But @LabourEoin gives fuller links; for instance, the last set of numbers comes from House of Commons Library Note “Flood spending in England”, SN/SC/5755, 19 November 2014.
Well, maybe the Government have learned better? Then why are they cutting 6700 firefighters, who are among first responders and prevention workers in floods?
Well, maybe it is necessary to save money? It would be difficult to think of a more expensive way of saving, where every £ saved costs somewhere between £6 and £24, depending on which estimate you accept. Even if you accept government forecasts of future flood damage as accurate estimates, it makes no sense that
Under the new rules brought in three years ago, the Department for Environment Food And Rural Affairs (Defra) wanted to see an average of £8 of damage avoided for every £1 they would spend on schemes.
Previously, projects were simply expected to deliver more than £1 of damage avoided for every £1 spent, with an average across all schemes of £5 of damage avoided for every £1 spent.
(Source: Rowena Mason in Guardian, commenting on the Somerset Levels floods, in 2014; h/t Jonathan Minton)
But aren’t things like this terribly rare? In that case, why do they happen so often? As Nassim Nichoas Taleb has pointed out (and become extremely rich by acting on his own insight) extremely rare events are more common than you think. That’s because we form our expectations from the commonplace, constructing something like a bell curve of expectations based on the fluctuations that happen all the time, but rare events can also arise from rare combinations of circumstances. Five year floods can be expected to happen every five years or so, butwe have little experience of the statistics of hundred year floods, and they may well happen much more often than once every hundred years.
[Update: for more on the frequency of “100 year floods”, and of ministerial obliviousness to explicit warnings, see here]
But can the Government be blamed for natural disaster? Yes, when its policies have directly and foreseeably contributed to it. See this from George Monbiot, in January 2014:
“Drowning in money: the untold story of the crazy public spending that makes flooding inevitable”
And this in February 2014:
“How we ended up paying farmers to flood our homes”
Or very recently (29 December 2015) this:
“This flood was not only foretold – it was publicly subsidised” (which – Scottish friends note – mentions grouse moors)
(And more in the same vein; Google Monbiot Flooding Guardian and you will see the case argued, consistently and coherently, again and again.)
Not only is this Government cutting back disastrously on flood protection at the very time when climate change is increasing risk; it is spending lavishly on policies that help make sure that those floods will be as damaging as possible. The challenge of flooding is unavoidable, but the degree of disaster is man-made.
December 20th is the tenth anniversary of the delivery of judgement in Kitzmiller v. Dover, an important anniversary for proponents of evolution science, and Nick Matzke, who coordinated the National Center for Science Education’s efforts at that trial, has celebrated it in the most appropriate possible manner. He has applied the methods of evolutionary tree building to the development of creationism itself in the intervening decade. The results are alarming.
The case arose when Tammy Kitzmiller and the other parents challenged the decision of Dover Area School District Board to introduce the Intelligent Design pseudotext Of Pandas and People to their High School, along with a statement urging students to retain an open mind about Intelligent design as an alternative to Darwin’s theory”. Since the matter has been extensively discussed by me and numerous others, I will simply say that Pandas was an incoherent attack on evolution science, full of factual and logical errors, and that the statement to be read misdescribed evolution as a theory about the origin of life, and claimed that since it was a theory it was uncertain, and, moreover, that there were gaps missing from it. Drafts subpoenaed for the trial also showed that the text had originally referred to “creation science”, being hastily modified when an earlier case established that “creation science” was simply another name for religious creationism.
The case is significant as a test of the creationist claim that Intelligent Design is not a form of religious creationism, but, on the contrary, legitimate science. Judge Jones’s magnificent rejection of this claim runs to 139 legal pages; in brief, he found that this claim was baseless, the textbook error laden, the Designer no other than Christian God (in whom, incidentally, Judge Jones believes), and the arguments offered as evidence for Design scientifically worthless. For this and other reasons, he declared ID to be “a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.” It followed, under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, that it should not be taught in any publicly funded school. Strictly, Judge Jones’s ruling is only binding in the Middle Circuit of the State of Pennsylvania, but such is the force of its arguments that I do not imagine any challenge elsewhere, unless the US Supreme Court at some future time falls into the hands of creationists.
The creationist response has been to seek yet another, less easily penetrated, form of disguise for their activities. Instead of promoting clearly defined positions, which could be subjected to legal scrutiny, they now speak of teaching the controversy, and put forward so-called Academic Freedom Bills, which invite critical examination of evolution. Who, after all, is opposed to freedom? Shouldn’t students be aware of controversy? And why should evolution be shielded from critical examination? Scientifically speaking, of course, there is no controversy, and neither teachers nor students require special legislative permission before critically examining any concept. So the purpose is, clearly, to provide a figleaf for those who want to claim that the basic concepts of evolution are uncertain, or that creationism provides a worthy alternative.
We have had, in the past decade, 71 of these Academic Freedom Bills introduced, in 16 separate states, and passed into law in 3, while the strategy has evolved as the creationist community has learned from its successes and failures. Matzke’s achievement has been to map this evolution. I imagine no one better qualified. He was the lead member of the National Center for Science Education teisam at the trial. Since then, he has attained a Ph.D. at University of California Berkeley, and spent two years as a post-doc at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS), housed at the University of Tennessee. He is now recognised as a rising star in his field; a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award Fellow at the Australian National University and the author of some 30 scientific papers on topics related to evolution, with attention also to science education, and to the human impact on the environment.
Matzke has special expertise in molecular phylogeny, the technique by which differences in DNA are used to construct family trees. The basic principle is simple; that a mutation that became established in one species will, unless eliminated by chance, be found in its descendants. We can use such shared mutations to pick out groups of more closely related species, and the family relationships established in this way generally show excellent agreement with the relationships established long since on the basis of anatomical homologies and the fossil record.
Not surprisingly, we can apply the same principle to manuscripts, and Dennis Venema, one of my favourite writers on evolution, has compared the two kinds of application in his series of articles, Genomes as Ancient Texts. But what did surprise me was to learn that the method was applied to mediaeval legal documents as early as 1827, although now texts are examined using programs and criteria of the same kind as those in use to establish DNA phylogenies (see Phylomemetics – Evolutionary Analysis beyond the Gene, free download here). Similar reasoning has been applied to languages since 1850, and both Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin drew attention to the similarities between biological and linguistic evolutionary trees.
What Matzke has now done is to apply the principle to the content of the antievolution bills discussed above. Unfortunately, the paper in which he presents his findings, in the prestigious journal Science, is behind a pay wall, although the National Center for Science Education has published a summary, and NIMBioS has put out a very informative press release, with further accounts in Scientific American podcasts, the Washington Post, and the media company Vocativ.
Anyway, here is what he says, and why it matters.
We can construct a family tree for these antiscience bills. Until around 2006, they were described as Academic Freedom Acts and discuss the teaching of evolution and the origin of life. (Logically, this is a total muddle, since biological evolution does not address the origins of life, any more than chemistry addresses the origin of atoms. Rhetorically, though, it’s a smart move. Creationists often accuse biology teachers of presenting as fact highly speculative theories regarding the origins of life, and although it is decades since biology textbooks did this, mud sticks.) In 2006, an extremely alarming development took place. Ouachita Parish, Louisiana (a Louisiana Parish is much the same thing as a County in other States) developed a policy, in what they renamed a Science Education Act, that lumped together evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning. The mention of human cloning is purely for effect; we are, and I hope we will choose to remain, a long way from being able to do any such thing, and if we do it will not be in the school science lab. However, it rightly raises alarm.
One truly insidious development is the addition of global warming to the mix. In the US, although not in the UK, the doctrinally conservatism that leaves to creationism is associated with extreme political conservatism, a deep devotion to free markets and suspicion of government, and rejection of the science of global warming, because it implies the need for government (and, worse, inter-government) action. Thus there is an excellent correlation, in the US, between evolution rejection by various faith groups and climate change rejection. Since the fall from power of Tony Abbott in Australia, the United States is I believe the only nation in which one major political party denies that global temperatures are rising, and that fossil fuel burning is responsible. Thus we have the embarrassing spectacle of scientifically illiterate congressmen holding hearings to which they invite cranks and outliers, and doing all they can to sabotage the outline climate agreement recently reached in Paris. As I have said here before, evolution denial is ridiculous but climate change denial is dangerous.
Even more worrying to me is the spread of voucher systems, under which the local government does not run the education system itself, but issues vouchers to all eligible schoolchildren, to pay for their education by non-government schools. MSNBC reports that there are hundreds of such schools teaching creationism as a taxpayer’s expense in nine States and the District of Columbia.
And worst of all is the fact that creationism happens because people want it to. Which means in turn that often there is no effective opposition, either in the community or in the classroom. According to an article in Science, Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom (2011, 331:404, paywall), timed to roughly match the 5th anniversary of Kitzmiller, around 11% of US biology teachers actually teach creationism, 28% teach evolution according to guidelines, and the remaining 60% avoid the topic because they do not feel prepared to deal with the hostile questioning that it will evoke. Top down imposition of evolution may, alas, be necessary, but it is certainly not sufficient.
Comic relief time: This work has not received universal approbation. At the mendaciously mistitled Evolution News and Views, no less a person than John G. West, political scientist, acolyte of C. S. Lewis, and Vice President of the Discovery Institute, goes to the heart of the matter:
Did Nick Matzke Misuse National Science Foundation Money Intended to Fund Science Research?
Professor West has done us all the great service of looking up the grants that funded Matzke during this work. One of them, he reveals, was earmarked for studying the phylogeny of shellfish. But creationists are not shellfish, so Nick has been very, very naughty. This is not the first time that Discovery Institute fellows have found it necessary to rebuke him. Casey Luskin has pointed out that he is known to have actually received money from the National Center for Science Education (he was employed by them at the time), so no wonder he supports evolution. And two days later David Berlinski criticised him for criticising Stephen Meyer for not using cladistics, because Berlinski thinks you shouldn’t use cladistics, because if you imagine that a cladogram is a geometrical, rather than merely a topological, representation, you can get the wrong answer. (As it happens, the only time I have met this mistake is in the pages of Of Pandas and People, which is roughly where we came in). You can find the whole shocking story here, and I hope that Nick takes these lessons to heart.
1] In the case of biological species, things can get a little more complicated, if only because we are dealing with interbreeding groups, within which genetic material is duplicated and shuffled, rather than unique copies. So species can split while still carrying more than one version of a gene. For example, the genes coding for Type A and Type B blood groups arose by mutation from a common ancestor, at some time more remote than the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, and both types were present on both sides of the chimp-human split. Thus a human with blood type A will, with respect to just that single gene, be more closely related to a chimp with the homologous blood type than to a human of blood type B. For this reason, all evolutionary trees are fuzzy. There is also the matter of horizontal transfer, in both biological and meme evoultion.
Update: just in from NASA: “In Greenland, Another major glacier comes undone”
Firstly, who do you think said this:
CO2 emissions must be reduced to avoid serious climate change. To manage CO2, governments and industry must work together. Government action is needed and we support an international framework that puts a price on CO2, encouraging the use of all CO2-reducing technologies.
Answer at end.
Evolution denial, as AiG’s declaration of faith (recently posted, with brief commentary, here) shows, is merely absurd. Climate change denial is deadly serious. Although there is an overlap; AiG says the climate is safe because God’s looking after it, and many creationists, including Jay Richards of the Discovery Institute, are fervent climate change denialists. Although in the last case, the reason seems to be a touching faith in the Free Market, rather than in God.
The video below has already had over 34 million views, but deserves a few more before the Paris conference on climate. A good use of 4 minutes of your time. But don’t be unduly alarmed; it really took 75 minutes, not just 4.
The commentary is also interesting: e.g. “The glacier has retreated further in the last ten years than it had in the previous 100”.
I would say “Be afraid, be very afraid”, but someone might call me an alarmist. Enjoy the show!
In case you haven’t noticed what’s happening (Indonesia’s burning; Ethiopia is running out of water; the Maldives are disappearing), see here:
And if someone tries to tell you that it isn’t happening, or that it’s natural, or that it’s happened before, or that it doesn’t matter, or that nothing can be done about it, or (as I recently came across) all of these at once, see here. As to how we know what the causes are,
if you try to work out what’s happening without anthropogenic CO2 you get it wrong; if you include it, you get it right.
Has it happened before? Check the record:
And remember that all but one year in the last decade has been warmer than 2004, already up and away ahead of the curve, with 2015 set to be the warmest yet for something like 100,000 years.
h/t my friend Kim Johnson. Global Temperature Anomaly by NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies; licensed under Public Domain. Other images created by Robert A. Rohde / Global Warming Art. Literature references for Climate change attribution here; for reconstructed temperature here. Links to easily accessible sources for brevity and convenience; primary literature links embedded therein, and at Skeptical Science. Quotation at beginning from Shell official policy statement.
I can add little to this excellent piece. however variable growth rate may be, total height divided by maximum growth rate gives a *lower limit* the age, which is enough to refute the Young Earth creationist. There was at one time hope that fine structure of coral growth bands would give information about the lengths of the day and the month in the Proterozoic, but because laboratory studies showed these structures to be sensitive to accidents of time and tide, their place has now been taken by rhythmites, variations in the fine structure of the annual banding of sediments (Proterozoic and Precambrian day and month lengths are now studied using rhythmites, fine structure in the annual banding of sediments; Williams, Reviews of Geophysics 38, 1, 2000). 234U-230Th dating is one of the best methods available for carbonate rocks in the 10,000 year range, and the creationist claim that decay rates could have been different in the past ignores the fact, known since 1928, that these rates are the inevitable consequence of time-dependent quantum mechanics and the fundamental constants of nature.
Corals are among the most valuable indicators of past climate conditions, due to their sensitivity to water depth, temperature, and acidity. We can infer from the age and depth of ancient reefs, for example, how global sea level has varied in response to past intervals of warming and cooling. Since reefs are formed by organisms secreting calcite, moreover, their isotopic and elemental chemistry is directly related to the temperature and salinity of the water in which they lived. But best of all, reefs form in the tropics (30°S – 30°N), which means that the researchers studying them do so while scuba diving in warm seas along pristine beaches. Perhaps it’s time for a career change?
Despite that corals can provide a wealth of information to geologists and climatologists studying the past, these data are useful only if we know the precise age of the sample! How then do we date…
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