The rate of global warming

In the long comments thread below, Ken Parish makes the point that the observed rate of global warming over the past few decades has been about 0.2 degrees C per decade, and that the IPCC and others (including some Ken has cited with approval) suggest that about half of this is due to human activity, mainly the emission of greenhouse gases. The rest reflects factors such as the cyclical fluctuations that led to warming in the first part of the 20th century and cooling in mid-century. (There are both higher and lower estimates of the share due to global warming, but half seems reasonable, especially when we compare the recent rapid warming to the more gradual warming and cooling observed in the past).

The simplest way to interpret these numbers is to suppose that there are no lags, sinks or feedbacks, so that current emissions feed directly and immediately into increases in global concentrations of greenhouse gases and then, also directly, into higher temperatures. On this basis, a continuation of the late 20th century rate of emissions would imply a temperature increase of 1 degree C, which seems unlikely to cause major disasters.

But of course, under business as usual, emissions will not remain stable. If no mitigation policies are adopted, it seems likely that emissions will at least double over the next 50 years suggesting warming of at least 2 degrees C.

Now lets think about lags, sinks and feedbacks. To the extent that lags and sinks are important, and that sinks are gradually filled, the final impact of CO2 emissions will be greater than the initial impact. Thus, if emissions stabilise at a high level, temperatures will keep rising. This again supports a higher estimate of damage. It’s hard to estimate, but I’d suggest that this supports a baseline business as usual estimate of around 2.5 degrees C.

Feedbacks can go in either direction. The IPCC argues that positive feedbacks will dominate, critics such as Richard Lindzen disagree. I find the arguments too complex to resolve, so lets call it an even-money bet that feedbacks will either enhance GW by 50 per cent or reduce it by 50 per cent. On this basis, it’s about equally likely that the impact will be 1.25 degrees C (not too bad) or 3.75 degrees C, enough to wipe out a wide range of vulnerable ecosystems. (This is spurious precision, but the range of possible outcomes is what matters)

The basic question is whether to start preparing for the bad scenario now (Kyoto) or to wait for more information. If we start preparing and it turns out that things are not as bad as we thought, we incur a cost (about 0.5 per cent of world income on most estimates) for no benefit. On the other hand, if the news is bad, we will be well placed to take the action needed to prevent a disastrous rate of warming.

If we kill Kyoto (negotiated over nearly the whole of the 1990s), wait ten years and then start negotiating an alternative when we get bad news, we will have lost 15-20 years at least, and possibly more. The cost of achieving any given level of atmospheric concentrations will be greatly higher, and the amount of unavoidable damage much greater.

The Future of Ideas

I’ve posted my review of Lawrence Lessig’s new book The Future of Ideas at UQ. It was originally published in the Financial Review which, paradoxically enough given the subject matter, is subscription-only. A short take:

The great paradox of the information age was apparently first summarised in 1984, by Stewart Brand, now with the Sante Fe Institute:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

For many years, enthusiasts for the Internet focused only on one side of this dichotomy. ‘Information wants to be free’ became first a slogan, then a cliché. In the late 1990s, as the idealism of the Internet pioneers was succeeded by the financial madness of the Internet bubble, the paradox intensified. Billions of dollars were sunk into dotcoms based on the belief that vast fortunes could be made out of giving away free information or, in other words, that you could have your Internet cake and eat it too.
On the sidelines of the Internet boom, though, were large and powerful groups who had never believed in free information. The music and motion picture industry had a long history of resisting every new technology or social development that might challenge their absolute control over their product.

To read a lot more on this topic,be sure to visit Kim Weatherall’s blog. She’s finished lectures for the year and is posting lots of interesting stuff.

Update I haven’t managed to get links to files working for the new UQ site. I’ll try and link this ASAP.

Update 2 Ken Parish has a long post on this which I missed in the chaos of my move. He makes the point that it’s a mistake to regard file-sharing services like Napster and Kazaa as heroes of freedom – they’re commercial enterprises which often use dubious money-making methods like spyware.
On the other hand, I think Ken gives too much credence to the concept of intellectual property. The idea that intellectual property is like property in land misses the valid component of the claim that ‘information wants to be free’, namely that information is ‘nonrival’ inuse. If I use your land as a football field, you can’t use it for growing wheat. On the other hand, if I use your idea for a better way of growing wheat, you’re still free to use it and, if I improve on your idea you can copy it. By imposing restrictions on this free use of ideas patents and copyrights are a barrier to innovation and efficiency. On the other hand, by rewarding innovation these devices encourage more innovation (information wants to be expensive because it is valuable and costly to produce). There is a balance that needs to be struck here, and it is not helped by the spurious metaphor of ‘intellectual property’.

Enarchy in Oz?

PP McGuinness worries about the prospect of rule by an elite band of career bureaucrats along the lines of the French ‘ENArques”, graduates of the Ecole Nationale d”Administration. Given the steady politicisation of the upper ranks of the public service which began with some relatively innocuous moves by the Whitlam government, this is the least of the dangers facing Australia. In fact, we are approaching the point where we need a clear division between ‘career’ and ‘political appointees’, and a convention that the latter go out with the administration that appointed them, as in the US.

Bizarre Science gets it right

Bizarre Science notes an Op-Ed piece by Sallie Baliunas and others, criticising the Kyoto protocol on a number of grounds and claiming that global warming is a natural phenomenon. As BS points out, Googling Baliunas (try Baliunas + Institute) reveals that she is a Harvard-based astrophysicist, and also that she is affiliated with a wide range of anti-Kyoto thinktanks including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the George Marshall Institute, the Fraser Institute and so on.

So Baliunas is both an astrophysicist and a political activist. Although this is not a particularly common combination, there’s nothing wrong with it. Most of the time, one would expect astrophysics would not have political implications, nor that discoveries in astrophysics would be particularly likely to suit the political proclivities of those making them.

When such a coincidence does occur, as in the case of Baliunas’ theory that fluctuations in solar irradiance are the main cause of global warming, a conflict of interest arises. Such conflicts are part of life, and there are straightforward ways of dealing with them. In most cases, all that is required is a frank declaration of one’s position.

Provided Baliunas declares her affiliation with anti-Kyoto thinktanks, there is no problem with her putting forward her theories regarding the causes of global warming. Sadly, scrolling to the bottom of her Op-Ed page, we find ‘Dr. Sallie Baliunas is deputy director at Mount Wilson Observatory and an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.’ Her other affiliations are not mentioned, although, in a piece that is not primarily about astrophysics, they are at least as relevant and arguably more so.

This is a straightforward test of Baliunas’ good faith, and she flunks it. As BS observes “We obviously cannot trust anything she writes, can we?”
Update(Sigh) For irony-challenged readers, I should note that Aaron Oakley of BS really thinks we should trust Baliunas and is speaking ironically, and that I am doing the same in taking his words literally. Ken Parish is perhaps even more subtly ironical in his response, where he suggests I am trying to deceive unwary readers into thinking that BS is a pro-Kyoto site.
On the general point of ad hominem attacks, I’d be happy at any time to drop this kind of argument and accept the verdict of the great majority of scientists who’ve studied this topic, as represented by the IPCC, the US National Academy of Sciences, CSIRO etc. Kyoto sceptics routinely claim that the great majority of atmospheric scientists are lying in order to boost their research grants. Having raised the issue of potentially dishonest motives for scientists as a group, they complain when the same test is applied to the handful of individual scientists on whom they rely.

Monday Message Board

I’m creeping back towards regular blogging, which includes resuming my weekly features. This is the opportunity to comment on any topic that takes your fancy (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). To kick things off, is anyone willing to defend the anti-terrorist laws recently introduced by state governments in Victoria and NSW?


I’ve also published a piece on elites at On Line Opinion. Opening paras:

Of course there is an Australian elite. In fact, there is more than one. Business wealth commands one sort of power, central position in political machines commands another, and senior office in the public service yet another.

The recent discussion of elites in Australia has focused on the ‘opinion elite’. Many of the assertions that have been made about the opinion elite in recent months, particularly by supporters of the Howard government, have been self-serving nonsense. Nevertheless, there is no denying the fact that some Australians have more influence than others in determining the ideas that are taken seriously in formulating public policy, and that, on many occasions the views of this influential group are not representative of the population as a whole.

Republicanism and popular sovereignty

Ray Cassin gives a great analysis of the current state of the republican debate. Ever the optimist, I disagree with him about one thing. I think that once it becomes clear that we are not going to remain a monarchy, a significant number of old-style monarchists (those who actually like the monarch as a person rather than as a cog in the wheels of the Westminster system) will switch to support for direct election.

Book reviews

I recently reviewed Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God, and William Baumol’s The Free-Market Innovation Machine: Analyzing the Growth Miracle of Capitalism,for The Drawing Board, an Internet journal published out of the University of Sydeny. My concluding para

The Free-Market Innovation Machine is a disappointing book from an author who has made substantial and creative contributions in many fields of economics in the past. By contrast, One Market Under God deserves to be recognised as the best dissection of the bubble culture of the 1990s that has yet been written.

Fin Review plug

It may be a little while before my latest contribution to the Fin goes up on my new website at UQ, and of course the Fin is almost the only paper in the world with a website that’s “all pay, all the time”. In my most recent column, published on Thursday, I argue that Labor needs to push for higher taxes and conclude

For the moment, it is probably too optimistic to suppose that any political party in Australia would advocate an increase in standard rates of income tax to finance improvements in health, education and the environment. But ultimately, those who will the end must will the means.