You can imagine the start of a climate geoengineering programme in a number of ways. The way that most appeals to me is as part of a policy portfolio aimed at reducing the future risks of climate change. This would entail careful consideration of a variety of proposals for reducing incoming sunlight, research into the weaknesses of all of them and the choice of a preferred option. Then, if as the result of a deliberative process that has been going on in parallel to this, with each informing the other, you — for a suitably inclusive, legitimate value of “you” — decide that such risk management is worth trying you start implementing on such a programme, with the aim of slowly but steadily ramping up to the level of offset you have decide is wise, while continuing with other mitigation and adaptation measures.
On the other hand, a programme might be triggered by a specific event — for example, something sudden and dire happening in the Arctic. Some such events (lots of methane coming out of permafrost) might indeed be checked by prompt cooling, though you might need rather a lot of it. Other catastrophes (radical destabilisation of Greenland ice) probably wouldn’t be helped at all. But such an emergency might trigger demands for prompt climate action that politicians found hard to ignore, and climate geoengineering might be the prompt action they turned to whether or not it met the needs of the specific emergency.
I’ve always seen this as a rather worrying scenario. Much better to think carefully about climate geoengineering’s merits and dangers and build it into a portfolio of climate action than to be bounced into it as some sort of new alternative. Among other drawbacks, a programme put together in the context of a climate emergency might have to be sized so as to deliver a dramatic effect — one with a cooling that might be measured in watts per square metre, rather than something a tenth that size — right away. This seems likely to be imprudent.
A new paper by Jim Haywood and colleagues at the Met Office and the University of Exeter in Nature Climate Change brings up a new version of this question, though, one which I find intriguing. What about the use of geoengineering to counteract a natural, rather than man-made, climatic event? (more…)
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Not that he is alone in this, but he did make it rather glaringly obvious in his NYT column this morning.
The column is on CCS, and in particular the new Summit energy plant outside Odessa, the Texas Clean Energy Project. Like Mr Nocera, I quite like the TCEP. Unlike Mr Nocera, I don’t think that in and of itself it provides a reason for thinking that CCS is going to be a big part of emissions reduction.
That, though, was not the part of the article which stood out. The part which stood out was:
A reduction of carbon emissions from Chinese power plants would do far more to help reverse climate change than — dare I say it? — blocking the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
For some people the naffness of that “dare I say it” will be the unacceptable part of that sentence, and for others it will indeed be the slight on the importance of the issue that a great many American greens seem to have decided is the most important battle to be fighting. To me, though, the problem is that Mr Nocera seems to believe that reducing emissions would mean reversing climate change. It wouldn’t. Emissions increase the carbon dioxide level. Higher carbon dioxide levels lead to more warming (people of good will, and others, can disagree about how much more). Reduce emissions appreciably and you slow the rise in the carbon dioxide level, which should reduce the rate of warming. But to reverse climate change you have to either bring the carbon dioxide level down or cut the amount of sunlight warming the earth in the first place. If you don’t understand the difference between reducing and reversing I don’t think you should be writing about this subject. Or for that matter driving a car.
The main point of Mr Nocera’s column seems to be to pick a fight with Bill McKibben. Fair enough. I have wanted to do so, on different grounds, many times. Who knows — maybe one day I will. But when I do I will try and show a slightly better grasp of the basics.
Filed under: film
I’d like to preface this by saying that I am a big fan of Anne Thompson and Kris Tapley’s Oscar-race podcast. It has just the sort of insider-knowledge-pitched-slightly-over-my-head vibe that I like in conversational podcasting. The general respect and affection in their relationship is given spice by just the right amount of with occasional needle and crossness. I like Anne hitting the table (at least I assume that’s what she’s doing). And most of the time it seems to me to have just the right balance on the question of whether taking the Oscars seriously is silly or not.
But I have to take exception to what they say on statistical approaches to predicting Oscar outcomes about seven minutes in to their post-Oscar post mortem. Noting but dismissing the predictions at Fivethirtyeight.com, we have the following exchange:
Anne: He got a lot of his predictions wrong because it was a very crude system he was using
Kris: There’s no way to Nate Silver this kind of thing
Anne: Exactly– you have to have a little bit of knowledge, experience, intuition — [to] see the movies, talk to people, you know — what we do for a living is required.
The evidence this year, though, suggests that there are ways to Nate Silver this kind of thing — that is, to come up with a good prediction based simply on the data available and statistical models based on past races. Let’s compare the results from the “Gurus o’ Gold“, a college of 14 Oscar predictors to which Anne and Kris belong, with the results from a statistical model put together by Ben Zauzmer, a student at Harvard.
Ben used his statistics to predict the results of 21 of the 24 races. He got 4 wrong. If you look at the aggregate results for the gurus in the same 4 races, they got 5 wrong. Looking at the gurus individually, I count 4 who did better than Ben on this subset (including Anne), and 8 who did worse (including Kris).
If you want to make Zauzmer’s stats look worse, then look at the whole field of 24 awards. Ben didn’t make predictions in the categories of documentary short, live action short and animated short categories because he doesn’t think the data are strong enough. If you count this failure to engage as getting the results wrong Ben gets seven mistakes out of 24. The gurus have five out of 24. But look at the gurus individually and six did better than Ben (including Anne and Kris), six did worse. So even on the less charitable interpretation of what he achieved, he’s right in the middle of the pack.
If by “Nate Silver-ing” you mean calling every race accurately then no, you can’t Nate Silver the Oscars, or at least no one has managed it yet. But the idea that you need to have a lot of insight or insider knowledge to do as well as the people who are best at it doesn’t seem to wash. An outsider with data and stats can, it seems, do as good a job as reporters doing it for a living.
By pointing this out, though, I do not for a moment mean to suggest that Anne and Kris should pack up shop. The results of a race matter, for sure — but so does, like, the race. Things being overtaken, leads stretching out, resources being squandered or carefully husbanded — that’s what’s fun to watch. And in this case, for me, there’s a bonus in the insights into what matters to film people and what is seen, and not seen, as working. Not to mention gossip. The stats don’t give narrative or context or tangential insights, and that’s what interests me, much more than the final results. I will be listening to Anne and Kris again next year. But that doesn’t mean that, on the home straight, stats aren’t as good as most gurus and better than quite a few — and the gurus might get better if they acknowledged that.
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Filed under: Books
For a while I’ve been meaning to write something – a post or a column or whatever – about the widespread fallacy that science fiction and the real world are in some way exclusive realms: that if something is happening in the real world it is not science fiction, and vice versa. This is obviously a mistake: there’s a robot with laser beams zapping rocks on Mars, there are debates about creating kids with deliberately arranged genomes, humans are changing the climate, etc. These are all the stuff of science fiction as it was constituted from, let’s say, 1925 to 1975, and they don’t stop being science fictional just because they are happening.
One of the reasons I haven’t actually written about this is that I’m not quite sure what this says about the world. I’m putting up this sort of placeholder, though, because I was struck by what Paul McAuley has to say about it means for science fiction in this excellent blog post on the distinctions people make between literary and genre fiction.
Too much science fiction looks ‘inward’, but I wouldn’t make a strong distinction between science fiction that attempts to revitalise genre tropes and science fiction that attempts to inject new ideas for ‘outside’; some of those tropes have escaped into the real world, and by engaging with them and using them to discover new meanings science fiction is in dialogue with both its own ideas and with the real.
That’s very true of Paul’s work: his The Secret of Life, for example, is a dialogue between science fiction staples (life on mars) and the real world (an ever more commercialised biology); The Quiet War is about what green politics could mean long term as well as dogfights in the rings of Saturn. The bravura “invasive species” moment in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 brilliantly plays a staple of science fiction off against real-world ecological concern. These are exciting ways that science fiction can deal with the fact that some of its traditional subject matters are now part of the reality of the world — in Paul’s words,
laying the groundwork for all kinds of debates that stimulate writers and readers, and refresh the field and widen its possibilities, and crack open the limitations and boundaries (too often self-imposed) that, according to critics like Krystal, consign genre fiction to the outer dark of the second-rate.
So science fiction has ways to deal with the fact that it has infected/invaded/annexed the real world, and Paul is clearly right that the prospect of using and developing those means is an exciting one. But it’s not yet clear that the real world has good ways of talking about the fact that it is in part science fictional, which is the deficit that I really want to address.
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I don’t have much to add to various wise and lovely things that have already been said about the great man by friends and others. My colleague Tim Cross’s obituary struck me as warm and perceptive
As the first man to walk on another world, Armstrong received the lion’s share of the adulation. All the while, he quietly insisted that the popular image of the hard-charging astronaut braving mortal danger the way other men might brave a trip to the dentist was exaggerated. “For heaven’s sake, I loathe danger,” he told one interviewer before his fateful flight. Done properly, he opined, spaceflight ought to be no more dangerous than mixing a milkshake.
Indeed, the popular image of the “right stuff” possessed by the astronaut corps—the bravery, the competitiveness, the swaggering machismo—was never the full story. The symbol of the test-pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave desert, where Armstrong spent years testing military jets, is a slide rule over a stylised fighter jet. In an address to America’s National Press Club in 2000, Armstrong offered the following self-portrait: “I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace and propelled by compressible flow.
Particularly grateful for the nuance he brings to the notion of “The right stuff”, which many others failed to bring out. It’s a complex and layered book, and far from a simple paean.
Clive Crook’s response struck, unusually for Clive, a personal tone. In general, I was struck by how many memories people were blogging and tweeting were about their fathers.
When it came to what NASA accomplished, [my father's] admiration turned to awe. It makes me chuckle even now to think back to it. This reverence was so unlike him. He wanted me to understand just how difficult a thing it was–and how daring. “I know you think it’s incredibly hard, but it’s so much harder than that.” He followed the engineering as closely as he could and explained a lot of it to me. He persuaded me so well that I secretly decided it couldn’t actually be done. The margins for error were just too small. I was sure something would go wrong and they’d fail. Of course we stayed up all night and watched the video of the first walk on the surface. We were both moved to tears.
Neil Gaiman posted this picture, which is not just great fun but also seems to capture a particular happiness on Mr Armstrong’s part.
Endymion – for Neil Armstrong
In her white silent place, the hangings dust,
grey pebbles stretching to the edge of black
so far away. The goddess feels a lack
somewhere elsewhere, an ache deep as her crust
and weeps dry tears. The gentleman is gone
the first who ever called. His feet were light
as he danced on her. Went into the night
quite soon, his calling and his mission done
yet still his marks remain. Footfalls and flag.
The others she forgets. He was the first
to slake her ages long and lonely thirst
for suitors. Now she feels the years drag
as they did not before he came to call.
Our grief compared to hers weighs naught at all.
I have little to add. He was clearly a magnificent man, and, as Tim notes, one who would never have dreamed of trying to take credit for the remarkable political and technological instrumentality that took him so high into the sky. Many mourning his passing mourn the passing of that instrumentality, too, and would wish it revived. It is a feeling that I understand, though less well than once I did, but cannot share. It does no disservice to Mr Armstrong’s memory to believe, as I have come to, that now is not the time to try and recapitulate those achievements, nor to try and surpass them with similar feats of human space exploration.
And if you feel worried about giving up the honour that goes with the next landing on the moon to the Chinese, remember that their envoy has already been there. The process that sent him there might have been deeply rooted in the cold war: but Neil Armstrong really did come in peace for all mankind.
I’m fascinated by the fact the Earth-system is a massive conduit of power, with energy flowing into the system in the form of sunlight, flowing out of it as infrared. The flow involved is simply extraordinary: 120,000 terawatts. That’s 10,000 times the amount that flows through our industrial civilisation – all the world’s reactors, turbines, cars, furnaces, boilers, generators and so on put together. Yet so firmly are we tethered, and so smooth is the flow, that we hardly notice this torrent thundering past and through us. It just feels like the world.
So here’s an image to try and capture the immensity of the flow in which we are embedded. Picture Horseshoe Falls, the most familiar, forceful and dramatic cataract in Niagara Falls, in full spate.
Now increase the height of the falls by a factor of 20; a kilometre of falling water, a cascade higher even than Angel Falls in Venezuela.
Now increase the flow by a factor of 10. Instead of 30 tonnes of water falling over each metre of the lip of the falls every second, allow 300 tonnes of water per metre.
Finally, widen the falls. Stretch them until they span a continent, with billions of tonnes of water falling over them every second. And don’t stop there. Go on widening them until they stretch all around the equator: a kilometre-high wall of water thundering down incessantly, cutting the world in half, deafening leviathan in the abyss.
That is what 120,000 terawatts looks like. That is what drives the world in which you live.