Making the A.I.-Climate connection

Anyone asked to identify the two biggest forces for change in the world today could do worse than choose artificial intelligence and climate change. Both are products of technology whose effects are only beginning to be felt, and the ultimate consequences of both will almost certainly be transformative in every sense of the word. Other than that, there hasn’t been much tying them together. Until now.

Welcome to Climate City, a label that a group of current and former data analysts and entrepreneurs has applied to Asheville, N.C. It might seem an unlikely spot for revolutionary thinking on such matters. We are, after all, nestled in Appalachia’s Blue Ridge Mountains in a state that seems hell-bent on taking the prize for most backward in the nation.

But Asheville is home to the National Centers for Environmental Information, the primary clearing house and analysis lab for the country’s — and increasingly much of the rest of the planet’s — climate data. It’s part of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and until a couple of years ago had the less obfuscatory name of National Climatic Data Center. (Although the name was changed a couple of years ago, before Trump took office, I’m guessing NOAA brass realized that a less inviting target made sense given the science-denying, research-defunding druthers of the party that was and still is ostensiby running Congress.) A few hundred climate scientists work at the NCEI and a handful of other local university and government agencies that are still allowed to care about the climate.

James McMahon
James McMahon

So, to one familiar with the scientific culture of Asheville, it only makes sense that it would be the right coop to hatch the idea of marrying AI and climatology. And hatched it has been, by James McMahon, who for the last year has been the CEO of a unlikely non-profit called The Collider. The year-old organization offers physical space and social networking links to anyone who wants to be part of what is known as the embryonic “climate services” community. Friday morning meet-and-greets over coffee and pastries supplied by local bakeries are becoming a popular networking opportunity. This past week it played host to the annual meeting of the American Association of State Climatologists. (Who knew?)

Collider logoA proper definition of “climate services” is still a work in progress, but basically it refers to the provision of scientific advice and number-crunching for the benefit of private and public entities that need to worry about the effects of a changing climate. Think the city of Miami Beach, which is facing serious threats from sea-level rise. Think of any large corporation with physical assets. Think most of all about insurance companies. They all need people to tell them what to expect and when to expect it. What we have here is an emerging industry that, instead of just figuring how to forestall climate change, is using its expertise to profit from it.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even climate scientists are entitled for make a buck.

McMahon, a former atmospheric chemist who worked on ozone depletion back in the day, has spent the last year watching, and helping, some of the smartest people navigate the high-tech consultancy start-up maze. More than a couple of senior scientists at NCEI have taken early retirement to pursue this path, and he’s decided to follow suit, after only a year as Collider chief.

His new company will draw on Silicon Valley brainpower and target Wall Street money in an effort to apply artificially intelligent systems to the problems posed by climate change. “I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and just waiting for the market to be ready,” he told the Collider gang on his last day at the office. “It’s not, but I am.”

Kudos. I’m no expert in the subject, and have no idea if the plan merits investment. But anticipating what to expect and when to expect it is exactly what AI is all about. And humans haven’t exactly been doing all that great when it comes to solving the climate crisis. Maybe AI will be our salvation? “It will if I have anything to do about it,” McMahon told me while enjoying a slice of the cake served in his honor.

One could argue that humans have already come up with perfectly good solutions. The price of solar and wind power continues to plummet. Economic growth has mostly been decoupled from carbon emissions. And check out those Teslas. Isn’t the real obstacle political and corporate inertia? Yes. But maybe AI could help there, too. Indeed, maybe one of the hallmarks of genuine AI is how well it can be applied to socio-economic challenges.

Rob Ford and the planet

Apologies for the blatant exploitation of an ostensibly tangential news story to drive traffic to this blog. But I think there is a connection, and it’s high time I resurrected Class M.

The spark is, of course, the revelations about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s contempt for the people who elected him. Toronto doesn’t deserve to be embarrassed, at least not in this manner. The latest affront to decency comes in the form of a drunken rant during which the mayor threatens to kill someone. Sooner or later, the city will be relieved of Ford, but in the meantime, we can contemplate how it is that a man with so little common sense and respect for society norms could continue to enjoy as much support as he does.

I would hope that most of us can agree that Ford’s behaviour  should disqualify him from serious consideration for political office. Why then isn’t the public en masse — not just politicians and newspaper editorialists — demanding his resignation? It evokes the contempt so many Americans have for the “liberal elite.” At some point in the past 35 years or so, intelligence, embrace of diversity and compassion became liabilities in the minds of a significant portion of the population. And progress on a long list of issues will be difficult to achieve until we remedy this problem, of which Ford is just a symptom.

Climate is such an issue. Tuesday’s victory of Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race or climate change denier Ken Cuccinelli, a win that owes perhaps a small degree of its success to the campaigning of climatologist Michael Mann, suggests that, at least in one state, rejection of reality may no longer be as popular a position as the Tea Party once made it. But support for fossil fuel projects remains high, even among Democrats, including the U.S. President. Indeed, more oil and gas is now flowing from American wells and fracking operations than ever before thanks to support from the Obama administration. Despite reductions in domestic consumption, coal production and export continues at a furious pace. And the latest greenhouse-gas emissions projections do not paint an optimistic picture.

The UN Environment Program said that even if nations meet their current emissions reduction pledges, carbon emissions in 2020 will be eight to 12 gigatonnes above the level required to avoid a costly nosedive in greenhouse gas output.

The Emissions Gap Report 2013, which was compiled by 44 scientific groups in 17 countries, warns that if the greenhouse “gap” isn’t “closed or significantly narrowed” by 2020, the pathway to limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5C will be closed.

At UN talks in 2010, the international community agreed to limit the rise in average global temperatures to 2C by 2100, based on pre-industrial levels.

Scientists at the recent IPCC gathering warned that the world could emit enough carbon to surpass the 2C limit within 30 years, and this latest UN analysis heightens concerns that the world could be heading for a temperature rise of 4C or even 6C, triggering damaging sea level rises, extreme weather events and food insecurity. (The Guardian, Nov. 5, 2013)

We all understand why the powers that be are reluctant to stop burning fossil fuels. They make a lot of money and they know that switching to decentralized, more efficient,  clean renewable alternative source of energy and fuels is not compatible with maintaining their profit margins. Fair enough. Everyone has a right to be greedy. But too many of us consumer-citizens continue to support governments that are content to allow the status quo to continue. Too many of us have nothing but contempt for the scientists who are telling us what has to be done to prevent widescale disruption to life as we know it.

Just as too many suburban Torontonians continue to resent the liberal elite who, not too surprisingly, have determined the city’s fate for so long. It’s way past time to restore respect for education and the power to make a reasonable argument. It’s all connected, folks.

The Barry Bonds of storms

BBW coverThe other day I found myself looking for reading material in a clinic waiting room and for the first time ever I picked up a copy of Bloomberg Businessweek. It’s not that I never used to care about business. I just found business publications and business journalists rarely demonstrated a decent level of understanding of the forces behind the financial numbers that dominated their reports. (And yes, I include The Economist in that generalization.)

But BBW was different. The edition contained a half dozen science, environment and technology stories that tweaked my interest and all of them were well written and illuminating.

So it wasn’t too much of a surprise to discover that the latest BBW trumpets a cover piece by Paul M. Barrett that “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.” What was pleasantly surprising was the use of perhaps the best metaphor I’ve ever come across to describe the link between climate change and hurricanes, one that should  resonate with just about anyone:

“We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”

The insight comes from Eric Pooley, formerly senior VP at the Environmental Defense Fund, and former editor at BBW. The metaphor fits nicely into another term, Frankenstorm, with its implication of humans tinkering with nature. CNN banned use of the term, but Joe Romm makes the case for it at Think Progress.

Let’s face it: science is fascinating and fun for a lot of us. But without the right language, we aren’t going to change many minds. We need more language that makes the case so clearly and convincingly that the listener, reader or viewer just has to accept it. Saying climate change has nothing to do with what just happened to New York City is like saying steroids have nothing to do with Bond’s RBIs. And who’s going to make that argument with a straight face?

Thanks, Eric.

Republicans with cooler heads

Barring a miraculous revival of the fortunes of Jon Huntsman, Republicans this year will, for the first time, elect a presidential nominee who does not believe that humans are responsible for global warming. How did things get this bad?

The Climate Desk team found a few of the last Republicans among the party’s leadership who break with this new orthodoxy and spliced their heresies together in this video.

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A climate change report for the Tea Party

“Major storms could submerge New York City in next decade” cries a randomly selected mainstream media outlet over a story about a new report warning residents that climate change could make life difficult in the not-too-distant future. The report, from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, is pretty standard stuff for those who have been paying attention to the growing link between global warming and extreme weather. And maybe it will spur New Yorkers to take the subject a bit more seriously.

But there’s a certain set who will welcome this 600-page conpendium of alarming research. After all, most Tea Partiers aren’t living in NYC, and most members of the far right persuasion have contempt for those do call the city home. So when they read that

By the mid-2020s, sea level rise around Manhattan and Long Island could be up to 10 inches, assuming the rapid melting of polar sea ice continues. By 2050, sea-rise could reach 2.5ft and more than 4.5ft by 2080 under the same conditions.

In such a scenario, many of the tunnels – subway, highway, and rail – crossing into the Bronx beneath the Harlem River, and under the East River would be flooded within the hour, the report said. Some transport systems could be out of operation for up to a month.

they will probably just say: “Good serves ’em right.” Proving only the political climate is now so absurd that scientists can’t win whatever they do.

What if climatologists reversed the null hypothesis?

ResearchBlogging.orgKevin Trenberth’s latest paper, which appears in Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, is uncharacteristically and refreshingly blunt right from the first few words of the introduction:

Humans are changing our climate. There is no doubt whatsoever. There are arguments about how much and how important these effects are and will be in future, but many studies (e.g., see the summary by Stott et al.1) have demonstrated that effects are not trivial and have emerged from the noise of natural variability, even if they are small by some measures. So why does the science community continue to do attribution studies and assume that humans have no influence as a null hypothesis?

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Just how much heat does global warming entail?

Everyone talks about global warming, but it’s not easy to get one’s mind around just how much heat we’re talking about. Even more difficult is putting that heat energy in terms that the average layperson can grasp. Fortunately, some scientists are making an effort to do just that.

ResearchBlogging.orgIn a recent paper in Geophysical Research Letters, “Observed changes in surface atmospheric energy over land,” Thomas Peterson, of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, NC, Katharine M. Willett of the Met Office Hadley Centre in Exeter, UK, and and Peter W. Thorne, who works alongside Peterson at the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites, try to separate the various elements of all that energy being trapped by the greenhouse effect. There’s surface temperature, kinetic energy (wind) and latent heat (energy associated with water changes from one state to another, such as during evaporation).

All that is useful stuff from people who make their living studying climate. But what’s really interesting for our purposes is the team’s effort to express the energy being absorbed by the atmosphere. As part of the paper’s concluding section, they convert that energy into a gravitational equivalent: the energy required to lift an object:

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BEST paper in the urban heat island effect category

There’s this notion among the climate denial community that somehow the entire professional climatology community has overlooked an obvious flaw in the science behind anthropogenic global warming. Their hypothesis is that too many of the thermometers used to record temperatures over the last 200 years have been located in or near cities, and so have produced a warming bias produced by the waste heat generated in urban areas.

It sounds plausible. The problem with the notion, of course, is that it’s so obvious a potential bias that climatologists long ago learned to take the “urban heat island” effect into account. Still, the idea persists, and so a bunch of still-open-minded-despite-reams-of-solid-evidence-scientists, known collectively as the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project, and all but one of them new to the field, decided to conduct their own independent analysis of the data that NASA, NOAA and HadCRU say shows unequivocal evidence for global warming.

Today, that team released its findings. Can you guess what they found?

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Scientific literacy and climate concern: An inverse relationship?

This story has been around a while, but I haven’t been blogging much lately so I am only getting around to it now.

“..the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones.”

So says a new paper. Troubling findings. Something’s not quite right, and am hoping to nail it down. “The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change,” by Harvard’s Dan Kahan et al. tested a sufficiently large sample size of Americans on basic science questions — questions that anyone with a high-school education should be able to answer correctly — and matched them up against the level of concern each had about climate change. The more science they knew the less worried they were. Huh.

Continue reading “Scientific literacy and climate concern: An inverse relationship?”