Thursday, May 27, 2010

Eyjafjallajokull and climate change--Response to "The futility of man"

Knowing that I’m passionately concerned about climate change, a friend forwarded the following piece to me, something that apparently has been circulating on the internet. He added, “I don’t know if this is true, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was.”

To respond to my friend, and because the piece contains many of the themes and distortions that seem to energize the anti-climate-change community, I wrote a detailed reply. You can read the commentary and my reply below:

The futility of man

Didn't we ALL know this but were just afraid to say something.....

All of you out there across the globe who have fought so hard to tackle the hideous enemy of our planet, namely carbon emissions, you know ....that bogus god you worship of "Climate Change" or "global warming" ....well, I feel it is necessary to inform you of some bad news. It really does pain me to have to bring you this disappointing information.

Are you sitting down?

Okay, here's the bombshell. The current volcanic eruption going on in Iceland, since its first spewing of volcanic ash this past week, has, to this point, NEGATED EVERY SINGLE EFFORT you have made in the past ten years to control CO2 emissions on our planet.

I know, I know.... (group hug)'s very disheartening to realize that all of the carbon emission savings you have accomplished while suffering the inconvenience and expense of: driving Prius hybrids, buying fabric grocery bags, sitting up till midnight to finish your kid's "The Green Revolution" science project, throwing out all of your non-green cleaning supplies, using only two squares of toilet paper, putting a brick in your toilet tank reservoir, selling your SUV and speedboat, going on vacation to a city park instead of Yosemite, nearly getting hit every day on your bicycle, replacing all of your $1 light bulbs with $10 light bulbs, participating in "earth day" ...well, all of those things you have done have all gone down the tubes in just the past four days.

The volcanic ash emitted into the Earth's atmosphere in the past four days has totally erased every single effort you have made to reduce the evil beast, carbon. And, those hundreds of thousands of jobs you helped move to Asia with expensive emissions demands on businesses... you know, the ones that are creating even more emissions than when they were creating jobs here, well I just know that seems worthwhile now.

I'm so sorry. And I do wish I had a silver lining to this volcanic ash cloud but the fact of the matter is that the brush fire season will start in about two months and those fires will negate your efforts to reduce carbon in our world for the next two years.

But hey, grab a Coke, give the world a hug and have a nice day!

So true, and this has been going on thousands of years. Long, long, long before, combustion engines, or cattle herds were around to expel carbon dioxide. There is nothing new about climate change on Earth. It's been going on since the flood and it will be going on for years to come.

Man is not in control.
Only in arrogance... does he think he is.


Response to "The futility of man"

Dear _____,

I don't know who initiated this email, but please send my reply back down the line of email recipients.

Whoever is the author has a point--a lot of CO2 was emitted by this volcano, according to the best scientific estimates about 150,000 metric tons per day. The author does not include this quantitative figure, although knowing the actual amount is important.

The volcano to compare Eyjafjallajokull with is Pinatubo which in 1991 pushed somewhere around 42 million metric tons of CO2 into the air. So scientists refer to Eyjafjallajokull as only a "cough" in comparison.

Averaged over time, volcanoes pump some 200,000 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year while human activities contribute almost 30 billion metric tons--according to the US Energy Information Agency--almost 700 times as much.

It’s important to note that the author of this post doesn't claim that Eyjafjallajokull dwarfed human emissions, only that it surpassed the very small amount we have been able to cut back those emissions.

The meager success so far of the climate community to cut worldwide greenhouse gas emissions is due in large part to lack of public support which is due in large part to unsubstantiated information such as is presented in this email. One almost has to laugh at such logic. It’s a tragic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A couple of other points need to be made.

The eruption of Eyjafjallajokul will have some warming and some cooling effects, both of which scientists are able to estimate. The estimated amount of CO2 reductions that came from flights being grounded due to the ash is 2.8 million metric tons, and it will take Eyjafjallajokull quite some time to make up for that.

Mt. Pinatubo actually lowered global temperatures by about one degree Celsius for most of two years because of the sulfur it placed up to 20 miles in the atmosphere (sulfer dioxide reflects sunlight and has been proposed as a geoengineering "solution" to global warming--not my choice for a number of reasons). But Eyjafjallajokull did not release as much sulfur as high as Pinatubo, so it will probably not contribute significantly to global cooling, just as it probably will not contribute much to global warming.

Charles Keating started very accurate measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere in 1959 and those measurements have continued to this day. They show a zig-zag pattern that reflects spring and summer decreases in CO2 while plants in the northern hemisphere are breathing it in, and increases in fall and winter when they are producing CO2, mostly through decay.

But Keating's chart shows an inexorable rise in emissions over the past half century. Comparing natural and human emissions, measured atmospheric CO2 did not increase due to Pinatubo in 1991 as much as decreased during times of economic recession--sort of like the aircraft being grounded, but more globally.

So compared with Pinatubo (they call the geoengineering idea of shooting sulfur into the upper atmosphere the "Pinatubo Option") Eyjafjallajokull was very small, and smaller still compared to human emissions.

So if you can get past phrases like “hideous enemy,” "bogus god" and "evil beast" which are designed to play to your emotions, and the “group hug” comment which is meant to categorize everyone concerned about climate change as, I suppose, soft-headed, overly emotional ex-hippies, stop for a while and investigate whether this hyperbole is based in fact, or whether its purpose is to make us all feel better while we—and more importantly the corporations that really profit from it--continue to engage in activities that emit significant amounts of CO2 into our atmosphere.

Because if science (by that I mean all the science academies in countries that have them, and all the meterological associations in the world) are right and we do have a serious problem on our hands, it may just be time to pay attention. It’s worth noting that Insurance companies, investors, and militaries on both sides of the Atlantic are taking climate change very seriously because their business is managing risk and they will take some of the biggest initial hits.

The future scientists forecast, if we do not lower emissions very quickly, will not be a pleasant one for our kids or their kids, or even for us--so let's check the facts.

One argument that this piece uses, and that appears over and over in similar pieces, is that climate change is nothing new. “It’s been going on since the flood and it will be going on for years to come.”

The implication, which is hardly ever spelled out, is that since there has been natural climate change—something that we know about in great detail because of the work of thousands of scientists—there can’t be human-caused climate change. Or, even if there is human-caused climate change, it can’t be important compared to natural changes.

That’s like saying that since lightning causes fires, people don’t. Try convincing youl fire department, police department, or insurance company of that one.

I’ve also noticed that a lot of the anti-climate-change pieces, like this one, say that it is arrogant to think that mere humans can have a significant impact on nature or Mother Earth. “Man is not in control. Only in arrogance . . . does he think he is,” this piece says.

The themes of humility before God and the ultimate futility of human understanding and action run very deep in most religions. The awesome power of God or nature is something that most people—even probably most scientists--would agree on. So tossing it into discussions about climate change can seem pretty convincing.

The trick is that the 6.8 billion people alive today, multiplied by all the mining, agriculture, industry, heating, cooling, transportation, etc. that keep us alive and support our lifestyles obviously are having huge impacts on the Earth, impacts that are easily seen and measured in terms of land use, water use, deforestation, depletion of fisheries, loss of biodiversity, and climate change.

We’re not at all humble about our lifestyles and what it takes to support them. So it seems very self-serving to suddenly be humble about taking responsibility for their impacts on the Earth. It reminds me not at all of humble, God-fearing adults but of spoiled children who feel free to make any kind of mess knowing that Mommy or Daddy will clean up after them.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing about the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull to suggest that we're not making a mess or that God is going to clean it up for us.

If you want more facts regarding climate change, please do not hesitate to let me know. There are lots of excellent books and articles on the subject, and I’ll be happy to refer you to them.

Lou Miller

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Denial runs deep

How often it is that the angry man rages denial of what his inner self is telling him.
--Frank Herbert

Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
--Mark Twain

Whether or not Twain or Herbert ever read Freud, both writers would have seen and understood the inability or unwillingness to face reality or admit obvious truths that so characterizes the angry tone of our current debates.

More than just an “inconvenient truth” as Al Gore describes it, human-driven climate change challenges some of the most basic Western assumptions about progress and purpose. Not only does it threaten the dominance of deeply rooted and interrelated economic and political interests but the psychic structures and societal self-images which sustain them as well.

What will we become if our carbon-based economy in its multiple manifestations has to be phased out? What will be left of our identity if the glories of expansion, conquest and mastery have to give way to humble sustainability?

The confluence between powerful vested interests and psychologically driven denial and anger powers the regressive counter-reformation being mounted by climate skeptics, ideologues and their paid media flacks aimed at undermining and discrediting both the science of climate change and its scientific proponents.

Politicians like Sarah Palin and Jim Inhofe are adept at both fomenting and cashing in on this reservoir of frustration and anger, and so are savvy advertisers.

A telling twist to the anti-limits crusade is captured in a recent TV ad for the Mazda3. At the conclusion of the ad, a self-confident, slightly rebellious male voice vows, “I will not sacrifice fun at the altar of practicality.” The Canadian version runs, “Between fun and practicality there are victors and victims.”

The ad captures perfectly the anger aimed at public figures like Al Gore or Bill McKibben when they warn that because of climate change, environmental degradation, peak oil, or other limiting factors, we need to cut back now on our lavish, high consumption lifestyles.

Emotionally, which one do you want to be—fun-loving rebel or drab do-gooder, victor or victim?

Not surprisingly the dominant reaction seems to be to let someone else throttle back. It’s zoom-zoom-zoom for me. Fun as usual. Business as usual. CO2 as usual. Oil guzzling as usual. Environmental catastrophes as usual. And defiant anger at anyone who says otherwise.

What lies under the denial, beyond the anger? Just the quiet voice of that inner self. Hopefully, it will be heard.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Emergent misbehavior

How would you like a beer? How about a beer company along with it?

On Thursday, the 6th of May, for a few minutes, you could have bought a delicious Sam Adams plus a substantial interest in its maker, the Boston Beer Company, all for the price of a pint. Boston Beer stock, along with dozens of others on the major U.S. stock exchanges, plummeted to zero, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average nosedived 700 points in a matter of minutes.

To the great relief of most traders and to anyone whose financial well being is linked even indirectly to the stock market—and that’s pretty much all of us--the market rebounded almost as quickly. Still, the wild ride left even seasoned traders in shock.

It’s hard to overstate how much value was at risk during this ten-minute event. As just one example, Exelon, a utility worth about $30 billion at 2:49 p.m. was worth nothing three minutes later. It’s estimated that one trillion dollars of value evaporated during the “flash crash.” That’s three times what the U.S. spends on public education per year, $300 billion more the U.S. government bailout of the banking system in 2008, and about equal to the current European package to rescue Greece.

The grab-your-airsick-bag crash and rebound was an anomaly, but that’s not the same as saying that it was an error, in the sense that it was caused by some specific mistake or malfunction.

Economist and market analyst John Hussman points out that U.S. stock markets have hit similar “air pockets”-- in 1955, 1987 and 1999. Like the Thursday event, those episodes resulted in roughly ten percent losses. The big difference is that they played out over weeks rather than minutes.

Since the Thursday debacle there’s been no shortage of fingerpointing.

Early speculation centered on a so-called “fat-fingered trade” as the trigger for the selloff. Instead of offering to sell a few million shares of Procter and Gamble, rumor had it that a trader mistakenly put up a few billion shares. Lacking buyers, the stock tumbled, starting a panic that took the rest of the market down with it.

The theory got a lot of attention, but like the infamous weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, there’s no evidence for it.

The most recent theory is that as the market started to drop, a particular hedge fund placed a $7.5 million bet that it would continue to fall. Other hedge funds immediately followed its lead, pushing the market over a cliff. Do lemmings come to mind?

One suspect that most market gurus agree on is high frequency trading. Multiple firms now trade using high speed computers linked directly to the stock exchanges. These constantly analyse massive amounts of data and exploit fleeting opportunities by buying and sell huge quantities of stocks and futures in milliseconds. Experts estimate that these automated agents now make from sixty to seventy percent of all trades.

The existence of these computerized agents goes a long way towards explaining what happened, and the absence of an identifiable trigger.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about complex systems since chaos theory pioneer Edward Lorenz popularized the idea of the “butterfly effect” in the 1960s, it’s that they are capable of amplifying the tiniest perturbation to virtually any scale. It takes just one last snowflake to unleash an avalanche.

The stock market is a classic example of a highly dynamic system driven by multiple independent but interacting agents. One state it’s capable of occupying—what system theorsists refer to as an attractor-- is when the tug of war between buyers and sellers arrives efficiently at a stock’s current value. That’s the state that economists tell us represents the stock market’s raison d’etre.

It would be great if that were the only way the system functions. Unfortunately, history shows that the stock market can also wander into at least two other states or attractors. It’s prone to huge bubbles, in which contagious enthusiasm drives the prices of most stocks well above their “true” value, and, as we’ve just seen, “air pockets”, in which contagious panic does the opposite.

That was bad enough when human traders were the ones calling the shots. Presumably they had some sense that a company valued at $30 billion one minute couldn’t really be worth zero a few minutes later. Their interaction led to dramatic booms and busts, but at least these had believable tops and bottoms and unfolded on a human time scale.

Over the years the markets have instituted various fixes to try to keep the market from stumbling into its most unattrractive attractors. After the global “Black Friday” market crash of 1987, The New York Stock Exchange, for example, put in place “circuit breakers”—trading curbs that snapped into place when the market fell too quickly that were supposed to slow panic selling and so prevent a full-scale crash.

Some market analysts are blaming the circuit breakers themselves for the Thursday meltdown. They think that when the NYSE circuit breakers clicked in, the effect was to shunt the flood of sell orders to other markets that were even less able to find buyers for them .

(Just as a star needs to maintain a continuous flux of nuclear fusion to keep from collapsing under the force of gravity, stock markets need to maintain a continuous matching of sellers and buyers. If there are no buyers, stock prices start to fall. We now know that computerized trading can drive a sagging stock to zero in minutes, and can threaten to implode the entire market).

The circuit-breaker problem has gained traction. Six major exchanges have now agreed to strengthen and coordinate their circuit breakers. New rules are currently being negotiated and should be in place within a few weeks.

Those fixes may be good ideas, but they almost certainly are nothing but temporary patches. The system remains as complex, dynamic, and unpredictable as ever. It’s still shuttling hundreds of billions of dollars form buyers to sellers at inhuman speeds every day, impelled not just by humans vacillating between greed and fear, but increasingly by computerized agents impelled by abstruse algorithms. There’s no “beta testing” for these patches, which leaves all of us as guinea pigs in a very high-risk experiment.

Regulators and investors would like to believe that the proposed fixes will result in an efficient, reasonably stable market. I think it’s more accurate to view the market as something like a manic-depressive chef on speed—brilliant at what it does but capable of cooking up a disaster at any time.

Thursday's collapse and rebound, and the current fix-it-on-the-fly patches, ought to make normal investors think hard about their nesteggs. Harry Truman's aphorism about politics seems even more appropriate for investors. "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

Robert Adler
For the institute

Monday, May 03, 2010

Let's BOINC!    

How would you like to do something that really feels good? Something that costs you nothing and actually contributes to important scientific projects? 

If that sounds like fun to you, then I suggest you click on over to the BOINC Project at BOINC stands for the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. It's an easy-to-use interface that links your computer, along with thousands of others, with one or more research projects of your choice that require enormous computing capacity but can't afford to buy time on a supercomputer.

By dividing computations into lots of small pieces and distributing those pieces to hundreds of thousands of small computers to work on when they would otherwise be idling, BOINC creates an amazingly powerful virtual supercomputer, of which your desktop, laptop or even your PlayStation can be a part. You can do this individually, or, just to add to the fun, join an existing team or create a new one.

As I write this, BOINC has 573173 computers humming away, with a combined capacity of 5.552 petaflops. (A petaflop is a million billion--10 to the 15th--floating point operations per second.) That makes the BOINC network three times faster than the world's current fastest stand-alone supercomputer, the Cray XT5 Jaguar. Not bad for a bunch of volunteers!

In a few minutes you can download BOINC to your computer and chose from among 36 projects that tap into the BOINC network. These cover a remarkable range of scientific challenges, including helping CERN's Large Hadron Collider determine stable orbits for the particles it's accelerating and smashing together (LHC@home), detecting gravitational waves from neutron stars (Einstein@home), studying the evolution of our home galaxy (Milkyway@home) or of the entire universe (Cosmology@home), figuring out how best to stop the spread of malaria (, protein structure and function (Rosetta@home), comparing climate models (, and dozens of others.

I've picked two so far--Einstein@home, looking for gravitational waves, and SETI@home, looking for technologically-created signals from outside our solar system. A few minutes after I stop working at my laptop, one of these programs automatically starts up. If I wander by after a bit I'll find one of their colorful displays on the screen, along with an indication of how much calculational support I've contributed to that product so far.

Einstein@home screensaver

The next two on my list are and either Milkyway@home or Cosmology@home.

BOINC-ing turns out to be ridiculously easy, fun, and it lets me contribute effortlessly to important scientific research. What more can I say except let's BOINC!

Robert Adler
for the institute