NYC, Storms, and Risk

June 20, 2013

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…

Yet another effort, Citizens, if you would truly become [climate change] apocalyptic!

June 19, 2013

Thanks are due to President Obama for articulating the current End of Days scenario so clearly:

“The grim alternative… more severe storms, more famine and floods, new waves of refugees, coastlines that vanish, oceans that rise,” 

He said it is our “job,” our “task” to avert it.  Duty, I guess.  For the children…of our children.  Sounds suspiciously like another prediction of which I am very fond:

We must arm ourselves with all the material and spiritual forces at our disposal … or else our culture is doomed to destruction. Extrapolation from our present condition … yields a vision of busting sewer mains and all waters of the world made as wormwood, unfit to drink. Mankind will be reduced to a primitive state of disunity, neighbor isolated from neighbor by vast surging cataracts of fluid, while the monument of our era’s accomplishments will gradually be submerged beneath festering pools of stagnant runoff. . . Men in their frenzy of despair and disbelief will turn the evil upon themselves, building houses at the bottom of hills, in marshes, and along oozing gulleys, while the Few Who Know will be the object of arrogant derision. And it is the folly of human inaction which will bring down on us this recapitulation of the Flood.*

*Hilton S. Korngold, “Toward an Interpretation of the Drainage,” Journal of Historicist Philosophy, 98 (October, 1972): 302 – 398.
Let’s see:

More severe storms… Not much evidence of that.  Climate scientists are very hesitant to say that a storm or set of storms can be attributed to climate changes, such as they are.  We might have more severe storms – that’s what many predict – but that remains to be seen.  Of course, it assumes that all their predictions are correct.

More famine…  We seem to have our hands full with famine today, and have for some years now.  Any scholar of famine will tell you that their causes have much more to do with politics and infrastructure than with weather.  Our record dealing with those two issues is rather poor.

More floods…   Another speculation.  It’s not as though we haven’t had a hard time with floods for a long time, and done precious little about it.  Are we supposed to think it’s a “real” problem because climate change supposedly is involved?  We report more floods now – everything is reported more – and there is more property loss because humans continue to build heavily in areas that have been and will continue to be flooded.  It could get worse, yes, but it’s bad now!

New waves of refugees…  You guessed it, the same response as above.  If we are not moved by the plight of refugees now, why is the notion of “climate refugees” more compelling?  Shouldn’t we address the problems we have now?  We might foreclose the possibility of worse ones later on.  For instance, if people had enough land to grow their own food on, they might actually plan for the inevitable bad years…  Just a thought.

Coastlines that vanish, oceans that rise…  Coastlines vanish, then reappear.  They just follow you inland if the sea rises.  It will be a different coastline, but that happens now, much to the dismay of the Army Corps of Engineers which spends billions of dollars trying to hold back the seas so that municipalities can make money on beach tourism and property taxes.  And just how much are those seas going to rise?  And how fast?  Must we take as gospel the most extreme projection, that assumes a “rapid ice-melt” of the Greenland ice sheet?  How likely is that?  Not very, given the recent data, but then, that’s just a bump on the road on the way to Armageddon.


Look, maybe the predictions are true, but if we are going to examine them rationally, they become less likely with each year.  Would you invest your life savings on the basis of a projection for 2050 that had been shown wrong for the period 2002 – 2013?

Alas, certainty…!

April 24, 2013

From the SINTEF report on the debate over the human impact on climate change:


To illustrate the way that scientific, political and ethical concerns are mixed in the debate on Anthropogenic Global Warming, this report used the by now famous quote from Gro Harlem Brundtland, that “doubt has been eliminated“,and that “it is irresponsible, reckless and deeply immoral to question the seriousness of the situation” as a point of departure. The goal of the report was to enter this debate and battlefield of arguments and take stock of the debate about anthropogenic (man-made) global warming. Based on the present review of this debate there are several conclusions to be drawn. The first and simplest one is that considered as an empirical statement, the assertion that doubt has been eliminated on AGW is plainly false. Although as documented the level of agreement in the scientific literature that AGW is occurring is quite extensive,the magnitude of dissent,questioning and contrarian perspectives and positions in both scientific discourse and public opinion on the question of AGW evidently contradicts such a proclamation.

Hard to be a prophet.

April 7, 2013

 Prophet Wannabee

I was looking into just who this Justin Gillis character is, the one on the left, who is sometimes referred to as “the most apocalyptic reporter” writing on climate change, and I was struck by the resemblance to this famous portrait of Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Not that I would compare the two…just pointing it out.  Maybe Justin is modeling himself on Ludwig, the tormented intellectual…

He had an article in the NYTimes the other day about a glacier in the Andes, and it was a perfect example of the junk-journalism that passes for substantive reporting in the Science Times on this topic.

The title, In Sign of Warming, 1,600 Years of Ice in Andes Melted in 25 Years, was misleading and alarmist.  It continues with the statement that the find is

…the latest indication that the recent spike in global temperatures has thrown the natural world out of balance.

No mention of what evidence there is for a ‘recent spike’ in temperature.  Perhaps he’s thinking of the recent article by Marcott et al that has made a splash and been pretty much discredited.  There was no evidence to support the idea that warming, let alone global warming brought on by burning of fossil fuels, brought on this condition.  Is it remarkable for ice that took nearly two thousand years to form to melt quickly from a glacier?  Also, the notion that the world is “in balance,” is an idea fraught with difficulties:  does that mean the world never changes? changes only a little?  changes slowly, but a lot?  Must not change? for every good change there is a bad change?

Meredith A. Kelly, a glacial geomorphologist at Dartmouth College who trained under Dr. Thompson but was not involved in the new paper, said his interpretation of the plant remains was reasonable.

Her own research on Quelccaya suggests that the margins of the glacier have melted quite rapidly at times in the past. But the melting now under way appears to be at least as fast, if not faster, than anything in the geological record since the end of the last ice age, she said.

That’s from the article.  So, fast melting has happened, and this one is pretty fast, but the cause?  No mention.  And why did it get so warm after the last ice age?

Most of the article is about the study of frozen plant remains that have been uncovered, and what they tell us about past climate and the growth and shrinkage of the ice mass – little to do with anthropogenic global warming.

There is a tid-bit about evidence that bad weather  may have contributed to poor harvests before the French Revolution, and been a contributing factor to the upheaval.  No mention of what sort of bad weather, but it was probably bad winters:  what does that have to do with warming?  He concludes with a mention that the melting of glaciers spells bad times ahead for Andean cities that depend on glacial melt for drinking water.

In the short run, the melting is producing an increase of water supplies and feeding population growth in major cities of the Andes, the experts said. But as the glaciers continue shrinking, trouble almost certainly looms.

Trouble looms!  Always…and how soon?  No mention.  How big are the glaciers?  And of course, there’s that headline.  Doom is around the corner and inevitable.

Nice Chart of Climate Change

December 7, 2012


This is a plot of the global mean temperature anomaly over the last 14 years.  That is the metric that is usually bandied about in reports and the news when people say the Earth is warming.  As you can see, over the last 14 years or so, the trend has been pretty much flat. 

Nobody disputes the trend:  the people who believe that the planet is heating up say it is a temporary halt in the inevitable rise of temperature;  people who are unconvinced by the IPCC and all the models say it is not what is predicted by the first group, so why should their claims about the ‘mechanisms’ of climate change be deemed credible?  I mean, if you  make a prediction, and you’re wrong… that’s not a good thing for your hypothesis.

Nothing here is definitive, but it does make one wonder about the confidence some people have in their computer models.  It is also worth considering why this chart, and again, it is not disputed by anyone, isn’t talked about more widely.  Unless you are convinced that you already know what’s going on, this would be a significant piece of evidence.

A note on climate change from Bouvard and Pecuchet

November 30, 2012
by Guy Davenport

by Guy Davenport

From Flaubert’s story of the two clerks:

 …[they] bought M. Depping’s work on The Marvels and Beauties of Nature in France…But soon there will be no more to discover.  …burning mountains are becoming extinct, natural glaciers are getting warmer

Written over a period of twenty years, but published only after his death in 1880.  He claimed to have read over 1500 books in preparation for writing it.

Rising Tides – Festival of Doom

November 25, 2012

There is a festival of doom in the Sunday New York Times today, with multiple articles on the threat to coastal cities in the USA posed by rising sea levels.  It includes a mournful, fatalistic essay by James Atlas, and a suite of interactive graphics that allow users to see just “what could disappear.”

This quote from one article pretty much sums up the message:

According to Dr. Schaeffer’s study, immediate and extreme pollution cuts — measures well beyond any discussion now under way — could limit sea level rise to five feet over 300 years. If we stay on our current path, the oceans could rise five feet by the first half of next century, then continue rising even faster. If instead we make moderate shifts in energy and industry — using the kinds of targets that nations have contemplated in international talks but have failed to pursue — sea level could still climb past 12 feet just after 2300. It is hard to imagine what measures might allow many of our great coastal cities to survive a 12-foot increase.

A few things to note here:

  • This paragraph assumes that the predictions based on models are all correct, and that the AGW (anthropogenic global warming) hypothesis is proven, “settled science.”  It’s not really that certain.  Or rather, the models themselves display tremendous uncertainty.
  • Also taken pretty much for granted is the fact that humans are not going to give their economy a thoroughgoing overhaul into the world of Green, so we might as well get ready!
  • Unmentioned is the fact that in many places, e.g. NYC, sea level has been rising steadily for centuries.  In NYC, it has been at a rate of about 1-foot per 100 years.
  • The word ‘could’  is used many times:  this paragraph is a worst-case scenario.

I had a professor of Ancient Art once who liked to say, “Civilizations come: Civilizations go…”  In archaeology, ‘civilization’ is synonymous with ‘city’.  Many cities have seen their harbors silt up, their water supplies disappear, their precincts inundated with lava or sea water.  It’s part of history.  Many other cities have survived for millenia by adjusting and changing.  When the writer says “It is hard to imagine what measures might allow many of our great coastal cities to survive a 12-foot increase,”  he is displaying a lack of insight and imagination.  Yes, it would be hard to imagine how our cities could survive direct hits by meteorites either, but that’s not likely to happen.

I would suggest the following scenario as likely:  The climate will change, but most likely not in the drastic way some scientists predict.  Seas will continue to rise where they are rising now, and perhaps in other places as well, perhaps a bit faster, but slowly, over centuries.  Unlike Holland, where inundation brings national catastrophe approaching eradication, most places can adapt slowly, and they will adapt.  People will make decisions, slowly, haltingly, stupidly or with foresight, about when and where it is worth rebuilding.  Change happens even in NYC – most skyscrapers are not built for the ages. Lower floors can be abandoned or ‘repurposed.’  It all takes time, and we have time, plenty of it.  Things will change.  The only impossibility is keeping them just as they are now.

There is a bright side to all of this.  Think of the economic stimulus potential of a huge program to raise local airports and critical infrastructure above the flood level – the greatest ‘shovel-ready‘ public works program in history!


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