Steve Schneider, 1945-2010

This week’s Economist carries an obituary of Steve Schneider. Excerpt:

Mr Schneider’s high profile as a proponent of action on climate change—he was the editor of an important journal, Climatic Change, and an influential member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) more or less from its inception—would have made him a favourite target for such antagonists anyway, but he came in for particular scorn because of his willingness to discuss the inevitable tensions between advocacy and academic integrity. Critics of Mr Schneider, including this newspaper, portrayed him as giving in to this tension, and being willing to tell “necessary lies” when it suited his purposes. He countered such attacks vehemently, saying such a conclusion rested on a slanted reading of what he had said on the subject. He had no time for advocacy without truth.

Many comments and memories on this post of Andy Revkin’s

Also, here’s a review of Steve’s last book, Science as a Contact Sport (Amazon UK|US) I did for China Dialogue. Excerpt:

To sit next to Steve Schneider while listening to someone else give a talk about climate science is like watching a DVD with a commentary track by an insightful but rather grumpy director. As the speaker makes her points, Schneider, a veteran climate scientist now at Stanford University, will mutter about who first made all the interesting points in the talk, and when this or that bit of science was first appreciated, and how stupid people have been not to act on this knowledge years ago.

The purpose is to remind anyone listening than climate science has a history, if a fairly brief one, and that the message of that history is reasonably consistent — scientists have believed much what they believe now about global warming for decades, and if climate scientists in general and Schneider in particular had been listened to better, the world would have faced up to the issue better and sooner.

This personal memoir by Schneider provides a similar effect…

Image courtesy of Stanford, I believe

Svalbard diary
June 28, 2010, 5:58 pm
Filed under: Nature writing, Published stuff

The view from Mt Zeppelin, about 22:00

I’ve just been up to Svalbard, in the high arctic, for a symposium on climate change. Here are some excerpts from a correspondent’s diary over at The Economist.

Day 1

…How sustainable it is for 40-odd people to travel a very long way in order to attend yet another meeting on climate change is obviously open to debate. At the same time, old Arctic hands say that it is impossible to appreciate what is happening in the Arctic without at least some experience of being there, and there is no real way of proving them wrong. There’s also the possibility that the combination of people, topic, setting and isolation (because of the nature of some of the research Ny Alesund is a wi-fi, Bluetooth and mobile phone-free zone) will conjure new freshness into potentially tired discussions. Certainly it’s not an opportunity to turn down. [whole entry]

Day 2

…Perched up above the last working Longyearbyen mine (“Mine 7”, which produces only enough coal as the town’s power station needs) two radio telescopes gaze up into the sky. One, like most such dishes, can swivel around. The other is fixed, looking almost straight up; built to study the aurora, rather than the stars, it can see most of what it needs by looking straight up the earth’s near-vertical magnetic field lines. When turned on, these radio telescopes use as much as 20% of the electricity generated from the coal that is being mined out of the ground beneath as they tickle the northern lights above, listening for faint echoes. [whole entry]

Day 3

…The air is cool. The light is warm. The colours have changed in response to the sky. The soil, such as it is, seems darker, richer. The plants have taken on a fuller set of greens, mixed through with lichen orange and the persistent, almost-afterburn purple of saxifrage in summer flower, deeper the longer you look. Standing water, of which there is a lot, has turned sky-vault blue—except for that which forms the larger, more distant ponds, and reflects the mountains beyond. The fjord, by contrast, is lighter now than the puddles, almost milky. [whole entry]

Two of the "Three Crown" peaks, after midnight

Day 4

…In the late afternoon (sun west by southwest, over the airstrip) the symposium took to the water, heading to the top of the fjord to look at the glaciers under clearing skies. Bijou icebergs floated almost stationary in the still water. A flock of kittiwakes, startled, flashed up from their station at the point where meltwater and seawater meet. Scientists talked of kelp and copepods. The ice at the end of the Kongsfjord towered above us. But less so than once it would have. Many of the other glaciers no longer reach the sea, retreating to their mountain lairs, folded moraines left behind them.

Studies of fjord-floor sediments show that the glaciers are further back now than they were when Vikings sailed to Iceland and Greenland (and, possibly, Svalbard, though if so they left no trace of their presence for their descendants other than disputable references in some sagas). It is possible they were this shrunken in the northern hemisphere’s early post-ice-age warmth, 8,000 years ago, but that is not certain.[whole entry]

Day 5

…By the time the passengers for the third flight have been ferried out to the airstrip, perhaps a kilometre out of town, the top of Mt Zeppelin, at 474 metres, is in cloud, too, and snow is beginning to blow in from the northeast. The base’s radio telescope, part of a worldwide network that defines the absolute reference frame for GPS navigation, among other things, scans the now slate-like sky with a whirring creak. It is because of the dish’s sensitive measurements that wifi, bluetooth and mobile phones are banned in Ny Alesund. The Dornier turns up, we pile in, and the base quickly vanishes below us. It will be the last fixed wing flight out of Ny Alesund for a while. [whole entry]

Ny Alesund, from the airstrip

All pictures by me, available under Creative Commons share-alike: More pics here

Back pages: Ooops I contracted a meme
June 25, 2010, 5:04 pm
Filed under: Published stuff

Last weekend I had the pleasure of seeing Richard Thompson perform his “Thousand years of popular music” set as part of the Meltdown Festival on the South Bank. It’s not giving away too big a secret to reveal that it ends with this highly excellent Britney Spears cover.

As a result of this exposure, I found that the song kept coming back to me in odd moments as I set off on my subsequent travels (of which more will be blogged shortly). This prompted a memory of an earlier piece, written for Newsweek eight years ago, which I thought I’d paste here for whatever entertainment it brings.


Silly Ideas Are Attacking My Brain

I woke up this morning and, regrettably, I didn’t have the blues. Instead I had a bit of Britney Spears. Many people may enjoy thinking of Ms. Spears as they drift into the arms of Morpheus. Waking up with her, though, is disconcerting. The hook line to “Oops… I Did It Again”–a song only the deaf can avoid–was going round in my head before I’d had anything resembling a coherent thought. Indeed, it delayed the process considerably. I feel debilitated, and I’m thinking I might sue. While I’m at it, I may also lay into Pete Bellotte, Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer for “Love to Love You Baby.” This tune is currently being heard in a Diet Coke ad in which tediously pretty people make eyes at each other while the magnificently hangdog Wolf Saxon is scandalously neglected. That said, I may sue Wolf Saxon, too, for having such an unfeasibly memorable name. These people are contaminating my mind.

Continue reading

Earthly Powers
April 23, 2010, 3:50 pm
Filed under: Published stuff

A headline we decided against...

There are a couple of pieces on volcanoes, the environment and the bigger picture in The Economist this week. Here’s some of the reporting:

Over the weekend both airlines and research agencies made test flights. Air France-KLM, British Airways, Lufthansa and others carried out over 40 flights. Subsequent engine inspection apparently revealed no unacceptable damage. On April 21st the CAA established a new rule, deeming regions thought to have less than 2,000 micrograms of dust per cubic metre safe for flight. That threshold, the CAA says, was provided on the basis of data from equipment-manufacturers; Rolls-Royce, the leading European maker of jet engines for airliners, has made no comment on this. The new safety level is about 100 times higher than the background level of dust at ground level. It is also considerably higher than anything seen by research aircraft over Britain since the eruption started; those flights have encountered no patches of sky with an ash density of more than 400 micrograms per cubic metre, 20 times the background level.

If the exercise two years ago did not capture the range of problems that an Icelandic volcano might cause, it did show that the general situation was entirely foreseeable. A ridge of submerged mountains runs down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean; Iceland is the result of a “hotspot” in which material rises from deep within the Earth, pushing part of this ridge up into the air. Both hotspots and mid-ocean ridges are volcanic, so Iceland is doubly so. It boasts a fearsome array of volcanoes, 33 of which have erupted once or more since the end of the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago.

And here’s a taste of the leader:

One of the things that went missing in the shadow of that volcanic dust was a sense of human power. And as with the quiet skies, this absence found a welcome in many hearts. The idea that humans, for all their technological might, could be put in their place by this volcano—this obscure, unpronounceable, C-list volcano—was strangely satisfying, even thrilling.

Such pleasure in the face of overpowering nature, as seen from a place of safety, was at the heart of the idea of “the sublime” as expressed by the great conservative Edmund Burke 250 years ago, and its aesthetic and spiritual allure remains strong. The sublime offers solace and inspiration, but it makes a poor guide to policy. For humans are not completely powerless in the face of nature: rather the reverse…

When people talk about the charms of powerlessness in the face of nature, part of what they are saying is that they don’t want to be bothered with facing up to what humans can do, and to what they might have at risk. The business of looking after a planet requires being bothered in advance—and not just about little matters like volcanoes.

Some catching up: Asilomar
April 18, 2010, 8:19 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering, Published stuff

Asilomar morningSpending a week on the beautiful North California coastline with a bunch of interesting people talking about a fascinating topic is obviously a chore, but I girded my loins and took the plunge. The Asilomar meeting on the regulation of geoengineering research was intended to echo the Asilomar meeting of 1975, which set out procedures for moving beyond the moratorium on genetic engineering experiments that had been set up the year before. Alexis Madrigal looked at the historical precedent in some detail. Not an exact parallel, as pointed out by various people at the meeting, whose views were taken on board by The Economist

There are, however, important differences between the subjects. One is that in the 1970s it was clear that the ability to move genes between creatures was going to bring about a huge change in the practice of science itself, and biologists were eager for that to happen. Modern climate scientists, by contrast, usually see geoengineering research as niche, if not fringe, stuff. Many wish it would go away completely. Another difference is that in the 1970s there was a worry that DNA experiments could in themselves present dangers. With geoengineering the dangers are more likely to be caused by large-scale deployment than by any individual scientific experiment.

There was no consensus at the end of the meeting, but there was a statement by the steering committee. The Economist concludes

The participants … generally endorsed a set of five overarching principles for the regulation of the field that were presented recently to the British Parliament by Steve Rayner, a professor at the Saïd Business School, in Oxford.

The “Oxford principles”, as they are known, hold that geoengineering should be regulated as a public good, in that, since people cannot opt out, the whole proceeding has to be in a well-defined public interest; that decisions defining the extent of that interest should be made with public participation; that all attempts at geoengineering research should be made public and their results disseminated openly; that there should be an independent assessment of the impacts of any geoengineering research proposal; and that governing arrangements be made clear prior to any actual use of the technologies.

The conference’s organising committee is now working on a further statement of principles, to be released later. Meanwhile Britain’s main scientific academy, the Royal Society, and the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, which has members from around 90 countries, are planning further discussions that will culminate at a meeting to be held this November.

Producing plausible policies and ways for the public to have a say on them will be hard—harder, perhaps, than the practical problem of coming up with ways to suck up a bit of carbon or reduce incoming sunshine. As Andrew Mathews, an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, puts it, it is not just a matter of constructing a switch, it is a matter of constructing a hand you trust to flip it.

Both the fine people with books out on the topic were there and gave their own accounts. Here’s a bit of Eli Kintisch, author of “Hack the Planet“, in Science:

Although the climate scientists may have accomplished less in a week than did their biologist forebears, they did make progress. The conference organizers declared that geoengineering research is “indispensable” but said that it should be done with “humility.” Governments and the public should work together to decide what schemes are “viable, appropriate, and ethical,” the statement added. Cuts in greenhouse emissions should be a priority, it said, mirroring statements by the American Geophysical Union and the U.K. Royal Society.

Most conferees believe the possibility of climate tipping points has placed geoengineering on the global agenda. And so last week’s meeting—The Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies, or Asilomar 2, as it was dubbed—was driven both by fears of climate catastrophes and the potentially dangerous steps that scientists or politicians might take to avert them. It was “a meeting … we all wished was not necessary,” conference organizer Margaret Leinen of the Climate Response Fund in Alexandria, Virginia, told the participants.

And here’s Jeff Goodell, author of  “How to Cool the Planet“, afforded more opportunity for opinion and colour over at Yale360,

Lesson one: Geoengineering is a tabula rasa in the public mind. Like most of the attendees, I was well aware of the fact that geoengineering is an unfamiliar idea to many people. But I had not seen any actual data on this. Nor had I really grasped the implications of it.

One of the most enlightening presentations of the week was from Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, who presented the results of a long-running study on the public perception of global warming. In his most recent survey, he had thrown in a few questions about geoengineering. When asked, “How much, if anything, have you heard about geoengineering as a possible response to climate change,” 74 percent of respondents said “nothing.” The 26 percent that had heard about geoengineering turned out to be wildly misinformed — more than half thought it referred to geothermal energy. Only 3 percent of the people who had heard about geoengineering were correctly informed about it. “The public basically knows nothing about this,” Leiserowitz told the attendees. “That is both a great challenge, and a great opportunity.”

The other 4 lessons are: Nobody has any clear idea how to resolve the inequalities inherent in geoengineering; People will be talking about banning field experiments; It’s all about the money; and trust is everything.

Jeff Tollefson at Nature leads with Rob Socolow, who gave one of the meeting’s best talks (ppt, html)

“Be very careful.” The warning, from Robert Socolow, a climate researcher at Princeton University in New Jersey, came at the end of a meeting last week that aimed to thrash out guidelines for the nascent field of geoengineering. The discipline aims to use global-scale efforts to control the climate and mitigate the worst effects of anthropogenic warming — but the techniques used could also have far-reaching, unintended consequences.

Jeff also gets the best of many quotes from David Keith (“People aren’t discussing apples and oranges, they are talking about apples and oranges and Porsches and whales and moons”) that enliven much of the coverage. (Pablo Suarez probably runs him a close second for most quoted non-organiser)

Jim Giles at New Scientist takes in more of the science than most accounts, neatly highlighting some new wrinkles, before ending up with the opposition to the ideas (which was aired in the local paper, among other places):

A lack of consultation could fuel campaigns against geoengineering similar to those that have derailed the use of genetically modified crops in Europe, Shobita Parthasarathy warns. Such protests seem to be taking off already. While delegates were talking in Asilomar, a body of over 70 environmental, health and social groups published an open letter attacking the meeting. “Such a discussion cannot happen without the participation of the full membership of the United Nations,” it reads. “Determining guidelines for geoengineering research and testing in the absence of that debate is premature and irresponsible.”

Also worth mentioning: the California poppies, which I fell for the first time I visited the site, and still find entrancing.

Images by me: licensed under creative commons

Climategate: The Oxburgh report
April 15, 2010, 7:25 am
Filed under: Published stuff

The Economist has a piece on the Oxburgh report online. Extract:

The panel did express considerable surprise at the fact that the unit did not collaborate closely with professional statisticians. This is despite the fact that their work was “basically all statistics”, as one member of the panel, David Hand, of Imperial College, London, put it. The report found that the CRU scientists would, had they been more comfortable with statistics, have done some things differently. But the panel doubted that using better methods would have materially changed their results.

Bloggers and others, mostly outside academia, who criticise CRU’s work and other climate science tend to lay much stress on statistical shortcomings. Dr Hand, who has a particular interest in scientific and financial fraud, has read a lot of this work. Dr Hand admires the meticulous work of Steve Mcintyre, a mining consultant and blogger, who unearthed statistical problems in another climate analysis. This was a 1998 paper, not produced by CRU, that is now known as “the hockey stick”. Those problems served to enhance the prominence of recent warming in a thousand-year reconstruction of the northern hemisphere’s temperature, and have become a cause celebre among sceptics.

When the report refers to the possibility of “inappropriate statistical tools producing misleading results”, it is the hockey stick that it has in mind. But Dr Hand said he had seen no evidence of anything that worrying in the CRU work. His concerns centred mostly on questions about the selection of data sets and the need for studies that showed how sensitive the results were to different selections of data. These are, in effect, what some critics are offering (though with what the report calls “a rather selective and uncharitable approach”). This antagonism irritates Dr Hand, since he thinks proper statistical scrutiny would have improved the work with little fuss. “What I want to do”, he says, “is bang their heads together and say sit down together and work out what’s going on.”

Discussion at dot.earth; dissent at Climate Audit

Some catching up: House of Commons Climategate report
April 12, 2010, 10:09 pm
Filed under: Published stuff

Another recent greenview article in The Economist was on the House of Commons Climategate report.

The MPs’ most striking prescription is that climate science should hold itself, and be held to, a higher standard than heretofore when it comes to openness and transparency. When giving evidence to the committee, Phil Jones, the head of the UEA’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU), from which the e-mails came, said that freely disclosing data and the computer codes used to work with them “has not been standard practice” in the field. “If it is not standard practice how can the science progress?” asked Graham Stringer, a member of the committee. “Maybe it should be standard practice,” replied Dr Jones, “but it is not standard practice across the subject.” The MPs concluded that in a field as significant and important to policy as climate change this was not good enough. They are calling for data and methodological workings to be made openly available. On occasions when data are provided to scientists on the basis that they will not be further promulgated (as with some of the data Dr Jones used from meteorological agencies in other countries) that should be made clear, with all requests redirected to the relevant data-holders.

Many climate scientists will claim that the field is already highly transparent in these regards, and it is true that much data is freely available. But Dr Jones’s position on what has, in the past, constituted standard practice suggests that such claims to transparency have to be judged case by case.