NYC, Storms, and Risk

Last week, Mayor Bloomberg released his report on the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  There’s a lot in there:  so much, that it’s hard to get a handle on just what the plan actually is.  Some of it seems quite sensible (new regulations for building in areas that are vulnerable to flooding) and some of it seems like the same old same old (continuous beach nourishment).

The mayor took an aggressive stance on the issue:  in case you didn’t know, the report informs us that tough is a synonym for resilient, and NYC is a synonym for “tough”.  During the press conference, a chorus of “We shall not be moved,” would not have been out of keeping with the tone.

Bloomberg also threw down the gauntlet to all those skeptics, deniers, quibblers, and doubters who ask whether or not climate change had anything to do with Sandy (doesn’t matter – climate change will make future storms worse), and if our fears of climate change and sea level rise are perhaps a bit overwrought.  On that last point, he delivered one of the most remarkable policy statements I’ve heard recently

 “Whether you believe climate change is real or not is beside the point.  The bottom line is: We can’t run the risk.”

Umm… if we don’t think it is ‘real’, then there is zero risk.  Perhaps he means that we cannot run the risk that it is real (by acting as if it is not), but then, we have to discuss that.  He wants to foreclose discussion.

I’m not a fan of Bloomberg, but I am a fan of Paul Krugman, but on climate change, Krugman is the same way, despite his hammering of his opponents (justifiably) for their lax standards of evidence and logic.  Here’s his latest comment in a recent column:

Now, uncertainty by itself isn’t always a reason for inaction. In the case of climate change, for example, uncertainty about the impact of greenhouse gases on global temperatures actually strengthens the case for action, to head off the risk of catastrophe…Delaying action on climate means releasing billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while we debate the issue…

Same sort of logic:

- We are  uncertain about the impact of carbon dioxide on climate, but…
- we must not delay serious action to reduce the discharge of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, because…
- it will have a severe impact

The last point contradicts the first.  For an alternative view, I offer excerpts from a lengthy post by Dr. Robert Brown, a professor of physics at Duke University on the use of the label “denier” to tar those who are skeptical about climate change claims:

 …most of the skeptics do not “deny” AGW [anthropogenic global warming], certainly not the scientists or professional weather people (I myself am a physicist) and honestly, most of the non-scientist skeptics have learned better than that. What they challenge is the catastrophic label and the alleged magnitude of the projected warming on a doubling of CO_2. They challenge this on rather solid empirical grounds and with physical arguments and data analysis that is every bit as scientifically valid as that used to support larger estimates, often obtaining numbers that are in better agreement with observation….

…The issue of difficulty is key. Let me tell you in a few short words why I am a skeptic. First of all, if one examines the complete geological record of global temperature variation on planet Earth (as best as we can reconstruct it) not just over the last 200 years but over the last 25 million years, over the last billion years — one learns that there is absolutely nothing remarkable about today’s temperatures! Seriously. Not one human being on the planet would look at that complete record — or even the complete record of temperatures during the Holocene, or the Pliestocene — and stab down their finger at the present and go “Oh no!”. Quite the contrary. It isn’t the warmest. It isn’t close to the warmest. It isn’t the warmest in the last 2 or 3 thousand years. It isn’t warming the fastest. It isn’t doing anything that can be resolved from the natural statistical variation of the data. Indeed, now that Mann’s utterly fallacious hockey stick reconstruction has been re-reconstructed with the LIA and MWP restored, it isn’t even remarkable in the last thousand years!

…Now let us try to analyze the modern era bearing in mind the evidence of an utterly unremarkable present. To begin with, we need a model that predicts the swings of glaciation and interglacials. Lacking this, we cannot predict the temperature that we should have outside for any given baseline concentration of CO_2, nor can we resolve variations in this baseline due to things other than CO_2 from that due to CO_2. We don’t have any such thing. We don’t have anything close to this. We cannot predict, or explain after the fact, the huge (by comparison with the present) secular variations in temperature observed over the last 20,000 years, let alone the last 5 million or 25 million or billion. We do not understand the forces that set the baseline “thermostat” for the Earth before any modulation due to anthropogenic CO_2, and hence we have no idea if those forces are naturally warming or cooling the Earth as a trend that has to be accounted for before assigning the “anthropogenic” component of any warming.

…This is a hard problem. Not settled science, not well understood, not understood. There are theories and models (and as a theorist, I just love to tell stories) but there aren’t any particularly successful theories or models and there is a lot of competition between the stories (none of which agree with or predict the empirical data particularly well, at best agreeing with some gross features but not others). One part of the difficulty is that the Earth is a highly multivariate and chaotic driven/open system with complex nonlinear coupling between all of its many drivers, and with anything but a regular surface. If one tried to actually write “the” partial differential equation for the global climate system, it would be a set of coupled Navier-Stokes equations with unbelievably nasty nonlinear coupling terms — if one can actually include the physics of the water and carbon cycles in the N-S equations at all. It is, quite literally, the most difficult problem in mathematical physics we have ever attempted to solve or understand! Global Climate Models are children’s toys in comparison to the actual underlying complexity, especially when (as noted) the major drivers setting the baseline behavior are not well understood or quantitatively available.

The truth of this is revealed in the lack of skill in the GCMs. They utterly failed to predict the last 13 or 14 years of flat to descending global temperatures, for example, although naturally one can go back and tweak parameters and make them fit it now, after the fact. And every year that passes without significant warming should be rigorously lowering the climate sensitivity…

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