Thursday, February 4, 2010

Climategate code-cracking

I have been very sang-froid about the "climategate" controversy, I must admit. Cool as a cucumber. A long cold drink of not getting upset about this.

I think that this is mostly because I've learned to take the long view in most things: "this too shall pass," "twas ever thus," and "sufficient to the day is the evil thereof" being some of my favorite aphorisms. I need to read more, I know, get some new quotes. But these are at least retro.

I also deeply prefer not to contend with people over obviously moot issues, especially when evidence is being ignored. If someone wants to work with me using evidence to try to solve a real problem, then I'm all over that like white on rice. I never saw an analytical problem I didn't like, as long as I can take a deep breath and go back to first principles. I don't even mind employing the political science education I got as a side dish with my policy PhD in service of analysis -- trying to figure out why some people cleave to wrong information, for instance. As long as I can do it analytically.

But I don't enjoy actually arguing with people who cleave tightly to wrong information. That's a whole other ball of waxed-up-ears. The minute I realize I'm dealing with a closed mind, I back off.

Why waste my time? That's not very Zen. Smile sweetly, or at least grin awkwardly, and withdraw. The universe will deliver the proper lessons in it's own sweet time.

And I do expect climategate will blow over soon. Perhaps literally, in another major hurricane. The posse of denialists who are behind the scandal can't, like Canute, hold back the biophysical tide of ecosystem modification that is the really important evidence for climate change. Since a lot of their focus has been on calling attention to the relatively moderate global AAT increase of the last decade, trying to tell us all that "global warming has reversed" and that climatologists are concealing this "fact" from the general public (when the data series is widely available for any amateur statistician to explore), most likely this particular resolution will begin to bite this summer and into the hurricane season as a new El Nino/ENSO kicks in.

I wonder what their new bugbear will turn out to be. You know they're going to have to find one! It will be fun to see what it turns out to be.

As long as we're talking about aphorisms however, climategate is a fairly bitter cup that the worldwide community of climate scientists and mitigation policy people must now at least temporarily drink. And I do feel somewhat sorry for the several dedicated and hard-working researchers whose careers are now threatened because they took perhaps hasty action to deflect denialist bullets.

Read this Guardian page for an interesting sub-plot in the whole sorry affair that explains how these perhaps well-intended but ultimately self-destructive efforts took place.

This manufactured scandal also has made it yet more difficult to teach the basics of climate knowledge to non-majors. As an advocate, on record in multiple journals and proceedings, for the position that the academy must now reorganize to teach basic climate knowledge to non-majors, as well as basic energy security knowledge, the question becomes, how do you successfully teach basic climate knowledge in an environment where skepticism and denialism has the upper hand, for now?

This isn't just a purely academic notion. It's my daily bread-and-butter. Unity College differs from every other specialized environmental college in the country in that we possess a fairly large proportion of male students from ex-urban, low- to middle-income, blue-collar backgrounds. This demographic has been changing recently, but we still bring in around 30-50 such young men a year, primarily in our Conservation Law Enforcement program, but also in Aquaculture and Fisheries, Wildlife, and Parks, Recreation and Ecotourism.

This influx has its benefits. We have a rather decent search and rescue team, for instance. I enjoy my basic training work with these sturdy fellows each year -- an idiosyncratic legacy of a past life as a mountain rescue leader for the Royal Air Force, and the exercise keeps the pounds at bay, if not quite off altogether. When I want to put them back on, there's also an excellent annual game dinner, replete with the gory bounty of the hook-and-bullet fraternity. And our woodsman team generally cleans the table in local and regional competitions.

It defies understanding, but there are probably thousands of American students at hundreds of über-liberal environmental programs at regular colleges, or yet more über-liberal regular programs at environmental colleges, who have never eaten even the tiniest part of a north American game animal, or never split a single piece of their own wood, or for that matter heard of such a thing as a woodsman's team.

How environmentalist is that?

Indeed, I've often thought that if we could just all get our six-footer, 240-pound lumberjacks organized and teach them a few new moves, we'd have a truly superb Rugby Union forward pack, and could then take on and oh-so-sweetly destroy all our much richer, classier neighbors at what's known in Maine as the CBB.

(CBB = Colby, Bates, and Bowdoin -- the other, traditional and upscale, Maine private colleges.)

But that would just be a modified form of class warfare, and I really should lose this working class Yorkshireman's chip on my shoulder.

The problem is, these young men we bring in each year also bring in a fairly unexamined attitude about climate change and climate politics. That's putting it very mildly. And they are not particularly academic in their ways and so tend to lack critical thinking skills with which to examine their unexamined attitudes. And so now with climategate they have a bit more fuel with which to stoke their private metaphoric piles of burning books.

Fahranheit 451, redux, on a small scale, up close and personal. Anti-intellectualism. So there are some closed minds I have to argue with.

No great matter. I'm just going to have to be a bit more assiduous about getting them to examine the data themselves. The only problem is, how much time this takes. It used to take at least six weeks of a three-credit class to work through the climate evidence systematically and try to answer all the important questions that students could come up with.

Now it will take about ten.

One more hidden consequence of the scandal has been that new data coming in to the mix has been ignored in the media race-to-the-bottom to credit or condemn the various protagonists. Even my favorite climate policy bloggers, Revkin of the NYT and Monbiot of the Guardian, are pushing this silly bandwagon.

But if they would stop and look for a minute, they'd notice that it turns out that we're honing in on the question of climate sensitivity to forcing factors. This is the knotty problem of how much weight to give each of the many factors in a climate model, in order to make the best predictions. I was very interested in Solomon's new paper on water vapor, recently published in Science. And I read with great interest James McCarthy's recent decadal retrospective in the same journal, particularly the summary of information on improved model sensitivity.

This graphic here, Figure 8, which apparently comes credited to the AGU, particularly caught my eye as an effective way to highlight recent improvements in sensitivity knowledge. Look at the way the three factorial time series work together to make the fourth, the actual AAT series.

Now, that's sexy. The crude r-squared statistic for this empirical model is now 76%. To understand how little unexplained variation this really is for such a complex system, in a recent anemometry test we performed here at the college, side by side anemometers of different brands, separated by only two meters, recording the same wind speeds at the same time, delivered a crude r-squared of only 79%.

So, it's ironic, isn't it. While the denialists are currently rampant, behind the scenes the real climate scientists are actually starting to figure out how this thing works. I'm not sure readers will know how unexpected this is. There are climatologists and especially meteorologist who will go to their graves saying that the earth's climate is too complex to be modeled, but I have to say, we really seem to be figuring it out, and the models are getting to be very good indeed.

And don't you just dig the stark difference between the overall public perception of climate science and the real state of play?

'Twas ever thus, I guess. And that's a problem for all of us.

We don't expect the general public to completely understand string theory or know what a Higgs Bosun is.

But we're going to need them to understand this.

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