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.

Walking and chewing gum at the same time

Nature Climate Change has wandered into political science with a study from Stanford University. Seth Werfel’s examination of the “crowding-out” effect — the idea that humans have a tough time pursuing more than one strategy to solve a problem — is worth considering, even if its finding aren’t exactly earth-shattering.

The problem is laid out right off the top and requires no further explanation:

Household actions and government policies are both necessary to mitigate the effects of climate change. However, household behaviour may crowd out public support for government action by creating the perception of sufficient progress. … Further evidence suggests that the crowding-out effect may have been driven by an increase in the perceived importance of individual actions relative to government regulation and a decrease in the perceived issue importance of energy and environmental sustainability.

The results of the study’s survey, which involved 14,000 Japanese living in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima meltdown, show only a “marginal” effect, and some of the confidence intervals are pretty wide. But the conclusion is yes, people do tend to ease up on making political demands after they’ve taken a few steps to address the problem at home. No surprise there.

It may seem a bit trite. Activists are forever bemoaning the apparent inability of the citizenry to walk and chew gum at the same time. “You want me to buy new light bulbs (again!) AND call my congressman?” As Werfel summed up existing thinking among social theorists:

When people consider progress on a single sub-goal, additional actions toward achieving a superordinate goal are less likely to be pursued unless prior actions establish commitmentoward that goal.

But a couple of days after I came across the study, a piece in Slate magazine on a seemingly unrelated subject but with a similar theme got me thinking. In “Swim Lessons Won’t Keep Your Toddler From Drowning,” Melinda Wenner Moyer argues that too many parents treat swim lessons as sufficient when it comes to their responsibility for making sure their kids don’t drown. Instead of choosing supervision and lessons, they choose the latter alone and then return to their Instagram accounts. This despite the fact that drowning remains the leading cause of death from injuries among children between 1 and 4 years old.

The American Red Cross states that “the best thing you can do to help your family stay safe is to enroll in age-appropriate swim lessons,” which it starts offering at the tender age of 6 months. Yet the statistics are clear: Swim skills are simply not enough. Two-thirds of kids who drown, believe it or not, are excellent swimmers.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. Also playing a role is the tendency of many swim instructors to focus on technique and comfort levels instead of survival. The classes I took four decades ago were all big on staying alive (and I am happy to report that my offspring’s instructors this summer are still big on it), but apparently it’s not as top-of-mind as it used to be in all corners of the pool. It is another example, and one with even better stats to support it,  of a mindset that doesn’t allow for complexity. There’s no doubt that the crowding-out effect is real.

So what do we do about this latest addition to the long list of psychological obstacles (motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, plain old laziness, etc.) to getting people to care enough about anthropogenic climate trends? For me, it all goes back to the same place: People have to be taught to be critical thinkers in a democratic society. I know, I know. We don’t have time for pedagogical reform. Not when we have to get our carbon emissions down to zero two or three decades. But there’s no reason not to harp away at the idea that it is possible to act on parallel strategies simultaneously.

Meanwhile, if people are going to be intellectually lazy, then we can at least try to ease their stress by being more selective about what we ask them to worry about. We need to pay more attention to those things that pose real risks and stop fretting about every imagined catastrophe. When it comes to our kids,

When it comes to our kids, unsupervised play about the water’s edge is relatively hazardous. Unsupervised fort-building in the woods, not so much. We can apply the same thinking to environmental messaging. We all need to be responsible for our carbon footprints and we need to keep our members of Congress aware that we know how much of their campaign war chests is sourced from the fossil-fuel lobby. But maybe we don’t need to worry so much about nuclear reactors.

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 “bridge” fuel that wasn’t

Among those who spend their working lives and/or spare time worrying about climate change, there are many subjects that still provoke heated debates, so to speak. Chief among them is the wisdom or folly of turning to natural gas as a “bridge” between the carbon-intensive oil- and coal-dominated present and the clean renewable future that we all know is coming sooner or later. The opponents just found their case a little bit stronger thanks to another controversial issue: nuclear power.

Natural gas is, as anyone with a basic grasp of the fundamentals of greenhouse gas forcings can tell you, only  half as good at warming the atmosphere as coal. So replacing coal-fired plants with natural gas alternatives should get us half-way to cutting our emissions to zero. Right?

Well, not quite. Natural gas is almost entirely methane, which has 20 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a century, and several times that in the near-term. And as all operations involving natural gas also involves some release of methane directly into the air, the effect of that methane has to be added to the calculations used to compare the emissions impact of each fuel.

Let’s say for argument’s sake an operator could get “fugitive” emissions of methane down to 1 or 2 percent, which is quite possible, though much lower than what is probably the industry norm these days. Consider also that gas-fired plants are more efficient than coal. So the best-case scenario is gas will cut the effective warming of gas by 30 to 40 percent. Whether that is sufficient given the amount of time we have left before triggering irrevocably serious climate change is also a matter of some debate. After all, we know we need to get to zero, so why pour scare resources into switching to one alternative only to spend even more in a decade or so to switch again?

But all this is only relevant when comparing gas with coal, which supplies only about 40% of the American electricity mix. What about nuclear power? Its carbon footprint is measurable, but tiny compared with coal. So if you replace a nuke with a gas-fired plant, you’ve increased your emissions budget from near-zero to 100% of whatever the non-nuclear alternative was.

Geoffrey Lean at the Telegraph asks “Is shale gas killing nuclear power?” Several nuclear power plants in the U.S. are being replaced by gas, undoing a significant portion of whatever minor advantage gas presents in the effort to reduce carbon emissions.

Add to this the complicating factors of the cooling aerosols associated with coal, and natural gas is starting to look more than a little problematic.

Yes, natural gas can provide real carbon-emissions reductions in some situations. It’s relatively easy to install, the technology is well understood, and it’s a fossil fuel, so the status quo doesn’t feel so threatened. But the math suggests it isn’t going to do the trick.

NY Times kills environment desk

Inside Climate News reports that “The New York Times will close its environment desk in the next few weeks and assign its seven reporters and two editors to other departments. The positions of environment editor and deputy environment editor are being eliminated.” Is this a good thing or bad?

The conventional response would be that it represents a loss of commitment to the subject. Dean Baquet, the paper’s managing editor for news, says not all:

… environmental stories are “partly business, economic, national or local, among other subjects,” Baquet said. “They are more complex. We need to have people working on the different desks that can cover different parts of the story.”

OK. fair enough. It would, in theory, be great to see environmental issues find their way into other stories. Climate change has an effect on just about everything, after all. But let’s follow the logic. Surely no one would challenge the reality that business stories are party environmental, national or local among other subjects. They are more complex and so require people working on different desks that cover different parts of the story. And yet, find me a major metropolitan daily editor who would last more then two news cycles after dismantling a paper’s business section and redistributing the staff among the general reporting staff.

No, the reality is that some subjects require reporters — and editors — who specialize. Without an unwavering focus and dedication to understanding a subject rooted in sometimes-counterintuitive science, it is impossible to do justice to the field. This is one of the primary lessons of the last few decades of science and environment reportage. It is not the same as chasing ambulances.

Back in the pre-Internet days, dedicated science sections seemed like a wonderful idea — to science journalists. But publishers who have to worry about ad revenue tended to come to a different conclusion and few let their science section survive into the 21st century. Now the bells tolls for environment coverage at the Gray Lady. Plus ça change.

Teasing out the signal from the noise

The pseudoskeptical argument goes something like this: the last decade hasn’t been significantly warmer than the previous decade, so global warming has stopped. And because the causes of anthropogenic climate change have not stopped, the link between fossil fuel combustion and global warming is therefore broken. This is, of course, complete nonsense.

The video above from the good people at Skeptical Science should be widely disseminated. I have little to add, other than to emphasize we always have to take the long and truly global view, one that takes into account that most of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, and stop going down the up escalator:

Guns, climate and growing up

Every now and then someone who ordinarily makes a fair amount of sense writes something that serves only to remind us that even the extraordinarily smart can be extraordinarily wrong. So it was with Sam Harris‘s defense of gun rights, The Riddle of the Gun.

First, Harris insists that “the correlation between guns and violence in the United States is far from straightforward.” He doesn’t really attempt to bolster that argument with relevant facts, though, and there there’s little point in an all-too-easy exercise in debunking. In fact, that’s not even his central thesis. No, that would be good old-fashioned defeatism, which seems to me to be more and more a defining characteristic of American culture.

For Harris, because there are so many guns in the United States (300 million is the most widely quoted figure), it just doesn’t make sense to try to do much beyond making sure everyone who has one knows how to use it responsibly.

Guns are everywhere, and the only people who will be deterred by stricter laws are precisely those law-abiding citizens who should be able to possess guns for their own protection and who now constitute one of the primary deterrents to violent crime. This is, of course, a familiar “gun nut” talking point. But that doesn’t make it wrong.

No, it’s wrong because it doesn’t hold up to even cursory scrutiny. Sean Faircloth, a former assistant state attorney general, offers one of a near infinite number of possible counterarguments here and Greg Laden offers some valuable historical context here.

Harris, a philosopher and neuroscientist, admits to a penchant for target shooting, and he suffers from the same stubborn, child-like refusal to accept the fact that life is sometimes hard. And just because something is hard is no reason for not trying. I am reminded of my six-year-old son, whose response to challenging tasks is often “But I can’t!” As his father, I often know he can, but convincing him not to give up is among the most challenging tasks either of us face these days.

Yes, a handgun buyback program isn’t likely to be effective in the short term. But such programs have worked elsewhere (Australia being the most recent example), so it’s just not rational to give up without even trying. And yes, doing something about the hopelessly ambiguous and atavistic Second Amendment won’t be easy, but the Constitution has been amended before, against comparable opposition. So again, don’t try telling us there’s no point in organizing what may be a decades long-campaign.

The whole affairs brings to mind one of the common arguments against doing something about global warming. The world is hopelessly addicted to fossil fuels. True. There’s enough easily accessible volumes of the stuff in the ground to tip the climate into some new equilibrium much less hospitable to civilization as we know it for the next 100,000 years. Also true. And all of the alternatives are more expensive. Yes, and yes and yes. But does any of that mean we shouldn’t even try to make the switch to clean renewables?

“It’s too hard, Daddy!”

When did America come to embrace defeatism? Somewhere between the last moon shot and Ronald Reagan’s first term, is my guess. Of course, it’s no coincidence that defeatism in the face of an overwhelming need for change always seems to bolster the profit margins of the secure and wealthy. Still, I suspect there’s something else at work here.

Chris Mooney has written about the evidence for a physiological basis for conservatism, which is now intimately associated with defeatism. Dan Kaheman makes the case of two types of thinking, one adapted for surviving on the Paleolithic plains of Africa, and one for civilization (although he doesn’t put it that way). But all of this dances around the essential fact that civilization is all about overcoming our ancient programming. We may not be designed to take the long view, and walk the hard path, and set aside our gut instincts in the face of carefully reasoned argument, but that’s what mature and responsible people – and societies – do.

Nothing give fills me with more pride than seeing my son try again, even when he isn’t sure he’s going to succeed. Even when he’s almost sure he won’t. It’s called growing up.

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.

Frankenstorm predicted

OK, no one can predict a specific weather event months in advance. But what we can do is anticipate expected frequency of events. Back in February of this year, Nature Climate Change published a paper, Physically based assessment of hurricane surge threat under climate change, (PDF bypasses Nature’s paywall) that predicted more frequent storm surges for New York City thanks to the changing climate.

Here’s the abstract:

Storm surges are responsible for much of the damage and loss of life associated with landfalling hurricanes. Understanding how global warming will affect hurricane surges thus holds great interest. As general circulation models (GCMs) cannot simulate hurricane surges directly, we couple a GCM-driven hurricane model with hydrodynamic models to simulate large numbers of synthetic surge events under projected climates and assess surge threat, as an example, for New York City (NYC). Struck by many intense hurricanes in recorded history and prehistory, NYC is highly vulnerable to storm surges. We show that the change of storm climatology will probably increase the surge risk for NYC; results based on two GCMs show the distribution of surge levels shifting to higher values by a magnitude comparable to the projected sea-level rise (SLR). The combined effects of storm climatology change and a 1 m SLR may cause the present NYC 100-yr surge flooding to occur every 3–20 yr and the present 500-yr flooding to occur every 25–240 yr by the end of the century.

Think about that. Storms that used to occur every 100 years can be expected between 5 and 33 times as often.