On Global “Weirding” [UPDATED]

February 20, 2010 at 6:16 pm (By Amba)

Tom Friedman thinks he’s so clever, but in fact his coinage, “global weirding” — the weather isn’t getting uniformly warmer, it’s getting weirder — was anticipated and, to my mind, bested by an Inuit at Baker Lake, Nunavut, Canada named N. Attungala:

Inuit have a traditional juggling game. The weather is sort of like that now. The weather is being juggled; it is changing so quickly and drastically.

“The weather is being juggled.”  That’s usually what I quote to people when they remark on the apparent altering and intensification of weather patterns and extremes.

Friedman lets the climate-science establishment off the hook way, way too easily, implying that the end — fighting the oil-soaked Forces of Rogue Capitalist Evil — didn’t quite justify the means, but made the zeal touchingly forgivable.  Sort of like Al Pacino’s cop character in Insomnia, who falsified evidence to convict the really bad guy he knew was guilty.

The climate-science community is not blameless. It knew it was up against formidable forces — from the oil and coal companies that finance the studies skeptical of climate change to conservatives who hate anything that will lead to more government regulations to the Chamber of Commerce that will resist any energy taxes. Therefore, climate experts can’t leave themselves vulnerable by citing non-peer-reviewed research or failing to respond to legitimate questions, some of which happened with both the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

It was better put by Icepick, with whom I occasionally correspond about such matters, and who’s been appalled by the revelations of politicized, if not religionized, scientific misconduct:

We’d better hope global warming isn’t real, because they’re never going to get anything done about it now.

I’ll leave you with a couple more provocative thoughts.

First, here’s proof that self-described “skeptics” are anything but skeptical about the poorly understood extent and nature of anthropogenic global whatever (AGW).  They’re skeptical only about the “supernatural,” but ironically they’ve invested in reverence for inviolate Nature the same credulity and sense of sin and exile that they ridicule in religious people.

Sometime I’ll try to write more about this, but this movement really does have the dimensions, functions, and emotional intensity of a replacement religion.  In the van, where I listen to NPR, I heard the music at the opening ceremony for the Copenhagen climate summit, and it was unabashedly religious music.  Avatar, from what I’ve heard (haven’t seen it yet), sounds like a pantheist passion play, a work of religious (popular) art.  What really makes the climate movement religious, to my mind, is the belief that WE are Bad.  We have fallen away, violated our Mother, and we must do penance.  There’s even a sacred number that people solemnly invoke — 350 — sort of like JN8:12 on those rifle sights.

What makes it doubly ironic is that we are actually a part of nature, and our wild success as a species and resultant disruption of preexisting balances is entirely in keeping with what nature does at random intervals:  change things suddenly and extremely, and the devil take the hindmost.  Our real concern is that we ourselves may suffer, are already suffering, from the blowback of our heedless success; our real desire to preserve and restore nature (which I share) comes from our own need for it, which is what we have violated.  More irony:  whether or not it is explainably derived from nature, our sense of wonder, protectiveness, and loss towards other species and intricate systems, which drives us to protect nature, is what makes us odd “Man” out in nature.  I suppose it can be viewed as nothing more ethereal than an extension of the survival instinct.  Conservationism is to ecology what conservatism is to society:  an awareness that rapid change is going to make us suffer.

Which brings me to a doubly contrarian take from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, one of my favorite living thinkers:

I  have been asked frequently on how to deal with climate change in connection with the Black Swan idea and my work on decision-making under opacity. The position I suggest should be based on both ignorance and the delegation to the wisdom of Mother Nature since it is older than us, hence wiser than us, and proven much smarter than scientists. We do not understand enough about Mother Nature to mess with her  –and I do not trust the models used to forecast climate change. Simply, we are facing nonlinearities and magnifications of errors coming from the so-called “butterfly effects” we saw in Chapter 11, actually discovered by Lorenz using weather forecasting models. Small changes in input, coming from measurement error, can lead to massively divergent projections –and that, very generously, assumes that we have the right equations.

We have polluted for years, causing much damage to the environment, while the scientists currently making these complicated forecasting models were not sticking their necks out and trying to stop us from building these risks (they resemble those “risk experts” in the economic domain who fight the previous war) –these are the ones now trying to impose the solutions on us. But the skepticism about models that I propose does not lead to the same conclusions as the ones endorsed by anti-environmentalists, pro-market fundamentalists, quite the contrary: we need to be hyper-conservationists ecologically, super-Green, since we do not know what we are harming with now. That’s the sound policy under ignorance and epistemic opacity. To those who say “we have no proof that we are harming nature”, a sound response is “we have no proof that we are not harming nature either” –the burden of the proof is not on the ecological conservationist, but on someone disrupting an old system. Furthermore we should not “try to correct” the harm done as we may be creating another problem we do not know much about currently.

UPDATE: Afterthoughts:

One way to look at it is that we’re just nature’s latest way of changing the climate.

The best representation in religion of the way nature works is the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva.  Creation, maintenance, destruction.  Without maintenance, resistance to destruction — the astonishing homeostasis achieved by a healthy body or a mature ecosystem, with its remarkable ability to absorb shocks and restore itself — there would be no point in creation, no cumulation, no elaboration.  But homeostasis isn’t sacred (or no more so than the other two).  A big enough shock, or a series of small degradations, will ultimately overwhelm it.  Without destruction, also, there could be no creation.

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12 Comments

  1. rodjean said,

    The more I try to understand whether we are experiencing potentially catastrophic anthropogenic global warming the more the data upon which the models are based seem to have great potential uncertainty. To use the problems with the recently disclosed emails that reflected replacement of inconvenient data in an IPCC report as an example, if tree rings are such great proxies, why is one researcher’s data not showing rings consistent with warmer temperatures since 1960? If some other factor is making the trees he selected react differently, how do we know that factor wasn’t present in earlier times for other tree species? It is reported that the number of weather stations used in the overall surface temperature database has been reduced drastically over the last few decades. Is the use of models to interpolate what those lost stations would be reporting conveying some bias, inadvertent or intentional. The politics of climate change science makes it hard to buck the “party line.”

    The skeptic in me takes most scientific pronouncements reportedly breathlessly by the news media with a dose of salt – so much that I was taught as scientific fact in the 50’s and 60’s turned out to be wrong.

    Still, I agree with the contrarian view expressed at the end of the above post. The skeptics have not so much disproved anthropogenic global warming as they have demonstrated the climatologists’ case rests on shaky evidence. I do not believe the majority of climatologists are intentionally propogating a theory they know to be a lie. If a majority of those who study climate change are convinced that anthropogenic global warming is occurring, that should at least give us pause.

    After all, vulcanologists are not perfect at predicting new eruptions, but if I lived on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius and they said it was about to blow, I would strongly consider moving away. If the FAA is ready to ground a plane because there is a 10% chance that it will crash, will you get on it.

    If there is a 10% chance of a major disruption of food supplies due to climate change, we ought to consider taking steps to avoid it, if we can. The problem is allocation of resources: $100 Billion tax dollars devoted to promoting “green” industries either comes from funds which are now unavailable for maintaining pure water or fighting malaria, or we make it an unfunded mandate forced on industry and dampen the economy, or we spend money we don’t have without cutting back elsewhere, and we undermine the stability of the dollar.

  2. Icepick said,

    The position I suggest should be based on both ignorance and the delegation to the wisdom of Mother Nature since it is older than us, hence wiser than us, and proven much smarter than scientists. We do not understand enough about Mother Nature to mess with her –and I do not trust the models used to forecast climate change.

    So, he proposes that we stop vaccinating and stop using antibiotics? Should we also stop using other medicines? Perhaps we should stop setting broken bones, too. After all, Mother Nature Knows Best, and if it was best for one to have unbroken bones, then those bones would have never been broken in the first place!

    Taleb’s reasoning makes two mistakes. First, he anthropomorphizes the natural world. “Mother Nature” is “wiser than us” and “much smarter than scientists”. If Nature is our mother, then who’s our father? Perhaps she doesn’t know because she was drunk and sleeping around at the time, in which case I question her wisdom. And before I attribute intelligence to her (much less grant that she’s much smarter than, say, Einstein) I want to see results from an IQ test, or at least see her academic transcripts.

    Second, Taleb’s proposal that no action should be taken until we understand all the consequences is nothing but a prescription for suicide at worst. If we took his hyper-conservative approach, we should stop all industry and all agriculture RIGHT NOW since we can’t possibly understand all consequences of our actions until the end of the Universe. Nor will we ever have that kind of understanding, so we should stop breathing immediately. That would seem to meet his criteria for acting “under ignorance and epistemic opacity.”

    Taleb tries to have it both ways by following his comments about “ignorance and epistemic opacity” with the following:

    Furthermore we should not “try to correct” the harm done as we may be creating another problem we do not know much about currently.

    So either we should take the most extremely conservative approach of taking no action until we understand its consequences, or we not change one single thing we’re doing until we understand all those consequences. I’m glad he’s cleared that up!

    (It does remind me why I decided on mathematics instead of philosophy, though.)

  3. Icepick said,

    If there is a 10% chance of a major disruption of food supplies due to climate change, we ought to consider taking steps to avoid it, if we can.

    What if there’s a 10% chance that steps taken to avoid that disruption of of food supplies caused by climate change ALSO has a 10% chance of disrupting food supplies? What if there’s a 100% chance that both the 10% numbers are wrong? What then?

    We live in the space between the enormous and the infinitesimal. We have to act with imperfect knowledge and with our own faulty perceptions and weak powers of reasoning. (See those pesky 10%s!) That may mean extreme environmental conservationism or extreme industrial/economic exploitation, or (SHOCK! CONSTERNATION! UPROAR!) a more moderate path that sails between Scylla and Charybdis, but we must act. And don’t forget that failure to act is an action itself.

    So you see, we must make choices – we’ve got no choice in the matter.

  4. Icepick said,

    Ugh, and here’s another one.

  5. amba12 said,

    Taleb certainly did express that carelessly! LOL.

    He’s always trying to break down human presumption about how much we know and how smart we are. His work is about trying to act in such a way as to reduce risk in the face of huge unknowns. His field is finance, though, not ecology. He has enormous contempt for the fancy financiers and enabling academic theorists who brought us to the brink of financial disaster by inventing “derivatives” that juggled risk around as if what went up would never come down.

    He was saying, I think, in his sloppy way that in going full speed ahead into loading the environment with emissions and effluents, we were acting recklessly like those financiers, and because we don’t understand the effects of what we’ve done, we may now act just as recklessly in trying to compensate for it.

    You can see why it’s easy to contradict oneself in talking about this stuff.

    You’re right — we do have to act and make choices. Taleb is one of the few people thinking and writing about how to make choices when you don’t know shit. It ain’t easy.

  6. wj said,

    What Taleb seems to miss (or ignore) is that every decision of any kind is made in the face of uncertainty. And yet we manage to, for example, put up bridges which last for decades. (Or, in the case of some Roman aquaducts, for a couple of thousand years. And still working, too!) So mere uncertainty about possible consequences is a limitation on us, but not a bar to action.

    It is not unreasonable to keep firmly in mind that we do not operate with perfect knowledge. Which means that sometimes we will get blindsided by unanticipated consequences. But those occasions are, or certainly should be, learning opportunities — we look at what surprised us, and work on understanding why things happened that way. Then we take account of that the next time.

    And, in fairness, sometimes the risks and the possible harm are substantially greater than the expected benefits. So we don’t do those things. But our inaction is limited to somewhere on the scale between “this will do far more damage than we will gain from it” and “the damage will be far less than the benefit.” We can argue over where along that continuum the break point ought to be. But to maintain, as Taleb apparently does, than it should be all the way at one end is…[I want to say something like “nonsensical” or “silly,” but those don’t quite convey how wrong I think it is. Help?]

  7. amba12 said,

    Well, actually I think it’s a cross between sloppy and deliberately provocative. I doubt that he really means it should be all the way at one end. I think he thinks it has been way over to one end, but he fears that our attempts to compensate could be equally extreme.

    Could they be as harmful? Think of hydrogen-powered cars that emit nothing but water vapor. How ecologically benign is that? Well, they’ve just admitted that water vapor is a big component of the greenhouse effect. It’s a major greenhouse gas.

    Think of nuclear plants, wonderful, clean sources of power that we are newly enthusiastic about, although we still haven’t solved the problems of a) how/where to dispose of the waste, b) how to shield them from terrorist attacks — if a fully fueled jumbo jet makes a nifty weapon, what to say about a fully fueled nuke plant? c) how to make them as accident-proof as possible.

    Environmental science isn’t Taleb’s field, so he really is wading in where angels fear to tread. And if you go look at what he says right after the above quote, it makes even less sense. What his approach would probably recommend is hunkering down in old-fashioned moderation and frugality. Of course, that’s not the American way.

  8. Donna B. said,

    Taking into consideration all of Taleb that I’ve read (two books and his notebook on his website) I think the fairest interpretation of that passage is exactly what Icepick is saying in comment 3.

    Since I also get a sense of him being an arrogant and angry man, I can see how irritating and prone to misinterpretation he is. His basic ideas — and the admonition that we not take statistics, computer models, and academics too seriously — are well worth consideration, even if I have to put aside some of my own cherished ideas to do so.

    I have a feeling I would find him insufferable in a social setting. And it would probably be mutual!

  9. amba12 said,

    He is something of a crank and a snob, but I seem to like that; maybe it provides spice for my own mild, moderate, and conciliating tendencies, which otherwise would be insufferably bland.

  10. callimachus said,

    Amusing! That exact column prompted me to sit down and write something bloggish for the first time in months. [See the next post.]

  11. William O. B'Livion said,

    ”’
    Think of nuclear plants, wonderful, clean sources of power that we are newly enthusiastic about, although we still haven’t solved the problems of a) how/where to dispose of the waste, b) how to shield them from terrorist attacks — if a fully fueled jumbo jet makes a nifty weapon, what to say about a fully fueled nuke plant? c) how to make them as accident-proof as possible.
    ”’

    Referencing a) above:

    Yes, we have. The problem we’re having at Yucca Mountain (YM) is that YM was intended to be a temporary storage facility for nuclear material while a reprocessing facility was built. Once that reprocessing facility was built and operational the nuclear material would be reprocessed into (1) more nuclear fuel, and (2) a MUCH smaller amount of less radioactive waste. Wanna guess why the reprocessing facility wasn’t built? So we’d still have some waste, but it would be a significantly smaller amount, and it would be less radioactive. Which means it’s safer to handle etc. We could easily drop it in subduction zones and be done with it (encased in solid bedrock) for some really large amount of time that is really really large. Or we could keep it in places like YM in case we find more uses for various radioactive isotopes (like we keep doing in medicine).

    b) There are modern designs that make nuclear plants MUCH less interesting targets for Terrorists–from pebble bed reactors that do not require weapons grade fuel and can be made more-or-less safe just by dumping the fuel to small, distributed reactor designs that make taking one or two out less a problem than the mega-reactors we seem to prefer here in the states.

    c) Modern designs have progressed *well* beyond the current water cooled designs. Many of the newer designs use the properties of the materials (aka “physics” ) to control reactions and to make it much more unlikely that we would suffer a release of significant radioactive material.

    On the flip side, we *know* that when we burn coal we release several different radioactive elements, including uranium, into the environment, some up the stack, some in the slag heaps. We get heavy metal releases including mercury, etc.

    Taleb is wrong though–doing nothing is stupid and counter productive. At almost every technological step in the last 400 years the pollution footprint of the *individual* person has decreased. It’s just that these technologies have allowed for a lot more of us. Each future step will be the same.

  12. amba12 said,

    Thank you, William, for the update. It sounds as if the technology has advanced considerably.

    I’ll bite: why was the reprocessing facility not built?

    Do you think that “Think Big America” can be convinced to move toward the smaller, distributed designs, or are they not considered cost effective to meet large demands for power?

    I’m (re)thinking that our future inevitably involves learning to handle the atom as well as learning to handle the gene, just as we once learned to handle fire.

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