False Uncertainty

The New York Times wants to promote dialogue between left and right on climate. This is a worthy impulse. And the person they have hired towards this end, a conservative journalist with a history of climate denial, states in his first piece for the Times that he accepts as “indisputable” the human influence on the observed warming of the earth since the late 19th century. Good.

The rest of Stephens’ piece, though, is a stew of innuendo and misdirection, in service of no apparent goal beyond a smug scolding of some unnamed others’ perceived “100% certainty” on climate.

Who and what is Stephens talking about? The entire climate science literature, including the 2014 IPCC Report (which Stephens cites), is full of statements about uncertainty about virtually all aspects of future climate change. What climate scientist or credible policy maker has ever claimed anything is 100% certain? It would be great if a conservative writer who accepts the science on climate would engage, seriously and sincerely, with real arguments made by credible climate scientists and advocates of climate action on the pages of the Times. Stephens, instead, takes the lazy route, arguing with straw men.

Stephens shows no interest in making constructive arguments in defense of any actual position. He doesn’t articulate any specific view on climate policy, which is what really ought to matter to Times readers of any political persuasion. But one is left to assume he thinks we don’t need to do anything about global warming. Why? Because nothing is 100% certain.

This passes for substantive argument in some circles. Though his acceptance of scientific fact – at least in this piece, if not his prior work – distinguishes him from the climate deniers at the Heartland Institute and Heritage Foundation, Stephens’ strategy is nonetheless the same cynical one as theirs: promote doubt, nothing more. He seems to be saying that liberals (or someone) should be more tolerant of conservative “skepticism” on climate, but that skeptics have no need to justify their views (or even to have any), because it’s ok just to be generally skeptical.

And Stephens is uninterested in applying any of this skepticism to the claims of those opposed to climate action. Presumably referring to (unnamed) proposals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, he writes that “Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions.” Leaving aside the crass culture-warring tone – saying those who are in favor of climate action are “demanding” while those opposed are just “raising fair questions” is particularly absurd under the current regime in Washington – how well do we know how expensive any proposed climate policy is? Predictions of the economic impacts of climate policies are far more uncertain than climate projections. The price of renewable energy is dropping much more rapidly than nearly anyone expected a few years ago. Isn’t there some excessive certainty here that could benefit from self-examination?

Perhaps what Stephens means by “100% certainty” is the passion among many for the view that the evidence of a human influence on climate is sufficient to merit a serious policy response. This passion does not require absolute certainty on any aspect of the science, just an intellectually honest view of risk. Because what the genuine uncertainty on climate really means is that while there is a chance future climate change won’t be as bad as the projections say is most likely, there is also a chance it will be much worse.

In no other area of life do we respond to risks by simply assuming the best case scenario. We take out insurance on our homes not because we are 100% certain they will burn down, but because there is a chance they might. Climate should be no different – except that the situation now is more like one in which a wildfire is already spreading towards our house, and we’re just debating whether it will singe the house a little or consume it entirely. How is skepticism a justification for inaction, as long as one accepts at least some possibility that the science is right?

This is the fundamental dishonesty of Stephens’ piece, and of all those who justify inaction by claims of skepticism. It makes no sense to be opposed to any action to mitigate global warming just because there is uncertainty in climate projections. The only way it makes sense is if you’re certain the science is entirely wrong. Or, though maybe you don’t want to say it, you just don’t care, because you’re pretty sure it won’t affect you personally. That is the true false certainty, masquerading as skepticism.

Thanks to Emmanuel Vincent of Climate Feedback for asking me to write this.

December 2015’s crazy weather

I’m in Oregon, where December has broken rainfall records east of the Cascades, and the Cascades themselves are deep in snow. I got to see some of it up by Mt. Hood yesterday on a Christmas Day family cross-country ski outing.


Though that was beautiful, I’m still sad to be missing the record-breaking warmth back east. (I like warm weather; it’s not an accident that most of my research over my career to date has been about tropical meteorology.) To help myself experience it vicariously, I wrote an op-ed piece for CNN about what the probable causes are. It has even been translated into Spanish.

Patricia’s ultra-fast intensification

I have a piece in CNN today about the incredibly fast jump that Hurricane Patricia made from tropical storm to what some people are saying should be called “category 7”. I point out that this case shows vividly why we need advances in the science of hurricane intensity prediction, at the same time as funding for this work was severely cut earlier this year. And, I compare Patricia to The Hulk.

Earlier, before landfall, Allison Wing and Chia-Ying Lee wrote an expert but accessible analysis of what the storm was doing and how the forecast models failed to capture it.


Urgency and Uncertainty in Rolling Stone

Eric Holthaus has a recent piece in Rolling Stone enitled “The Point of No Return: Climate Change Nightmares Are Already Here.” The subtitle is “The worst predicted impacts of climate change are starting to happen — and much faster than climate scientists expected.”

It’s a good article. But it highlights the difficulty of talking about current extreme weather events and their relation to human-induced climate change. On the one hand, the essential message of the piece is to communicate urgency on climate and need for action. This is right and appropriate. And sentence by sentence, the individual statements about specific weather and climate phenomena are accurate (at least those where I have adequate expertise to make an evaluation).

On the other hand, the piece implicitly attributes a lot of individual weather and climate events – all of those it mentions, really, which is a long list – to human induced climate change. Some of those attributions are justified, but others aren’t.

In the cases where the attribution isn’t justified, Holthaus doesn’t explicitly make it, not line-by-line in the sentences talking about those events. I couldn’t find anything outright wrong at that level. The piece was, clearly, researched and written quite carefully and with deep respect for the science. But the attribution is there implicitly, through the piece’s headline, its subtitle, and its overall framing.

I’ve added some annotations at the site Climate Feedback (my annotations and others’ on this piece are not visible yet, as far as I can tell; soon, I think), a new site designed for scientists to evaluate the science content in popular articles on climate. Two of my comments are about Holthaus’ discussion of the ongoing El Niño and positive phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. These two are enough to make the point I’m interested in here.

These two climate phenomena, manifest by slow changes in the sea surface temperature in various parts of the Pacific ocean are indeed having major impacts, as described well in the article. But most climate scientists consider these phenomena to be essentially natural. We can’t be certain that the current instances of El Niño and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation aren’t in any way connected to human induced climate change, but there is no convincing evidence of such a connection, to my knowledge. Holthaus doesn’t say there is one, but to my eye it’s clearly implied. The title and subtitle, as well as the overall framing of the piece, say that it’s a list of impacts of “climate change” – which presumably most will understand to mean “human induced climate change”.

I’m being critical on this issue because it’s one I struggle with myself, and because Holthaus is a thoughtful, serious and committed writer on climate, one who actively seeks criticism from scientists (I understand that he asked Climate Feedback to evaluate his piece). And because while I read the piece as making some implied claims that are outside what science can justify, I agree completely with its bottom line, and appreciate the force with which it comes across.

Human-induced climate change is real, is a grave threat to human society, and is already having significant impacts now. Some of the events Holthaus describes almost certainly do have some imprint of human influence: heat waves and ocean acidification, for example. And natural and human influences can’t be completely untangled. While the heat, drought and wildfire in the west now are likely caused in large part by natural variations in the Pacific sea surface temperature (El Nino and Pacific Decadal Oscillation), greenhouse gas warming adds extra heat, making the impacts worse.

And regardless of the causes of individual extreme weather and climate events now, the disasters they cause still tell us something about our vulnerabilities, and that is relevant to the longer-term climate change question. The human influence will grow larger in the future, as warming proceeds. It will eventually make some kinds of extreme events significantly, detectably more frequent or more intense, even if we can’t clearly detect that influence in individual events of that type happening now. (Tropical cyclones are a good example of this.) The current events can rightly be seen as harbingers, if nothing else.

Holthaus writes quite a bit about the recent paper by James Hansen and colleagues, which warns that sea level rise may occur much sooner and more severely than most of us had thought. This paper is controversial, and not yet even through peer review. But in my view it deserves the coverage it gets, here and elsewhere – its predictions may or may not be right, but it seems pretty clear that we can’t rule them out. Contrary to denialist lines of argument, the uncertainties in climate projections should make us more worried, not less.

What if Holthaus had made a more concerted effort to avoid any implication of human influence on events to which it wasn’t justified? In a piece with the title and subtitle that this one has, the simplest way to do that would have been not to write about those events at all. That would have meant leaving out some of the most serious and visible disasters going on right now in the US, where the main readership for this piece presumably is. Alternatively, the piece could have had a different title and subtitle (my guess is that these were written by an editor rather than by Holthaus himself), one that communicated that the piece was about events of both natural and human origins. Either way, would the sense of urgency have been diluted?

Professional scientists are sometimes criticized for under-communicating the urgency and reality of climate change, especialy when we talk about current extreme events. This criticism is often fair in my view. We talk so much about the uncertainties that we leave nonscientist audiences with the feeling that we don’t know anything. We do this, I think, because we are used to talking to each other. Being clear about uncertainties is an inherent part of scientific practice. Also, our colleagues already share our knowledge and understanding of the big picture on climate change – the consensus is real – so we don’t feel a need to restate that. We fail to recognize that that underlying knowledge is not shared outside our professional circles, and that it’s often appropriate to emphasize what we do know more than what we don’t.

Journalists, on the other hand, are often criticized by scientists (and others) for overstating the connection of extreme events to climate change by glossing over uncertainties – as I have done here, in my first few paragraphs above. This is also often fair, and as with scientists, similarly traceable to the daily realities of their jobs. Journalists are under great pressure to make it current, make it exciting, keep it simple. It’s easy to see how that leads to a little exaggeration and overstatement, whether by implication or outright.

If there’s a perfect solution I don’t know it. I’m glad that writers like Holthaus (and many other good ones) are grappling with the science and doing their best to keep it accurate while still getting the essential message on climate into the popular press. I don’t love everything about this Rolling Stone piece but I think we need more like it anyway.

Full disclosure: Eric Holthaus is an alumnus of Columbia University, where I teach, though I didn’t teach him when he was here and haven’t met him in person to my knowledge. He has interviewed me a couple of times for other pieces he has written, though not for this one in Rolling Stone. He wrote a very kind review of my book when it came out last fall.

Annapolis Book Festival

Yesterday I had the opportunity to participate in the Annapolis Book Festival, at the Key School in Annapolis, MD. I had never been to a book fair of any kind, and this one was just lovely, with a bunch of other interesting panels (I brought my 14 year-old and we went together to a great one on dystopian fiction). I spoke on a panel with Gernot Wagner, climate economist and author of Climate Shock, hosted by journalist Miles O’Brien – among other relevant credits, the writer and director of Megastorm Aftermath, the second NOVA documentary made about Sandy. It was a lively and stimulating discussion, ranging from the science through the economics, to the politics of climate change and extreme weather. The whole thing was filmed by C-SPAN, and you can see it online here:


Climate change as a storytelling problem

About 2 months ago I had the opportunity to speak in the TEDx Broadway 2015 conference. I spoke about the psychological difficulty of taking climate change as seriously as we should, because it seems like a long-term problem. Since I was speaking to people in the theatre industry, I related that to the problem of making good fictional stories about climate change. I proposed my own idea for a climate change scifi movie, you have to watch to find out what it is (I’m talking to you, Marvel Comics).

Tug in the surge: Capt. Forsyth’s Sandy story

After reading my book Storm Surge, Capt. Mike Forsyth sent me an email, in which he included the story of his experience in Sandy. It’s a good story, and so with his permission, I am putting it up as a guest post here. What follows is Capt. Mike’s self-introduction, followed by his story.


I was born and raised on Staten Island, spent two weeks of most childhood summers on Long Beach Island, NJ, and as an eight-year-old child was brought by my parents to LBI to see a navy destroyer put up on the beach by the Ash Wednesday Storm.  I am a tugboat captain, and work for a New York-based tug and oil barge company.  If, as “W” said, America is addicted to oil, I am a mule.  However, I have been intellectually convinced of the reality of climate change since the mid-1990’s.  This was reinforced by a conversation with a meteorologist about a destructive line of storms that came through upstate New York, where I now live, on July 14th, 1995.  The reality was driven home, quite literally, when a similar line of storms did $45,000 damage to my home in a few seconds on Labor Day 1998.  I support candidates, donate money, keep myself informed, try to reduce my own carbon footprint, and speak out on the issue when the occasion arises.

My Hurricane Sandy Story 

© 2015 Capt. Mike Forsyth

In October of 2012, I was captain of the tug Stephen-Scott, engaged in moving Reinauer Transportation Company’s oil barges in the Northeast.  I worked on another Reinauer tug on the Gulf of Mexico during the previous year’s hurricane season and spent a good bit of time following forecasts and tracking storms on charts.  On Wednesday morning, October 24th, I drove to Reinauer’s dockyard, at Erie Basin in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, parked my car and started my two week tour of duty.  Almost immediately, I started paying attention to Sandy while she was still in the Caribbean.

On Saturday morning, October 26th, I received orders to take a 60,000 barrel barge loaded with diesel fuel from a New Jersey refinery to Newburgh, New York, about fifty-five miles up the Hudson.  By that time, it appeared likely that the storm would impact New York Harbor.  The Hudson River at Newburgh is within the US Coast Guard Captain Of The Port (COTP) of New York zone, and the USCG had issued a storm-related notice requiring commercial vessels staying in the COTP NY zone to file a “remain in port” plan.  My plan was to depart with the barge that evening as ordered, and arrive early Sunday morning at the oil terminal in Newburgh, discharge the cargo of 2.5 million gallons of diesel fuel, then anchor in the Hudson River off Newburgh until New York Harbor was re-opened to navigation.  The plan was received and approved by the COTP.

The prediction for the storm surge was then four to eight feet.   The paved parking area at Erie Basin is at dock level, probably seven or eight feet above the high water level.  I expected that there would be some water running across the pavement or possibly a little ponding, if the storm hit at other than low tide.  My Honda Element has good ground clearance, but that would not be enough.  Before my boat left Erie Basin that Saturday, I drove to the Pep Boys auto parts store in Park Slope and bought a couple of oil-change ramps.  Back at Erie Basin, I put a staggered stack of 2×12″ lumber about 8 inches high in front of each rear wheel, and put the oil change ramps in front of the front wheels, and drove ahead and up.  I figured that would keep salt water out of the engine compartment, and maybe keep the brakes and suspension out of the water.

Our barge discharged its cargo on Sunday, October 28th, and we dropped anchor in the Hudson between Newburgh and Beacon at 8:50 that evening.  I was following the forecasts, and had the feeling that my precautions with my car were pitiably, laughably, inadequate.  An 8 to 11 foot surge would float the car off the blocks, and fill it with harbor water.  Monday morning I checked the forecast, and called my insurance agent to make sure that my comprehensive insurance included flood damage.  She confirmed that, and gave me the telephone number for claims, which I told her I expected to use later that week.  There was absolutely nothing more I could do.

Within an hour, I got a phone call from Chris, the captain of the tug Jill Reinauer.  He told me that his boat and the Kristy Ann Reinauer were at Erie Basin and their crews were moving all the cars they could to higher ground.  I told him where my spare key was.  I told the other tug and barge crewmembers to call the Jill or the Kristy, so that their cars might be saved.  I woke up my first mate, Davey, and asked about his spare key.  He told me that his new car had a “smart” key, so smart that a new one cost about two hundred dollars, so he hadn’t had a spare made.  Too smart for its own good, his car was a total loss by nightfall.  Someone sent him a cell phone video of his car, doors-deep in water with the lights flashing and windows going up and down while the salt water shorted out the electrical connections.

Sunday night and Monday, several other tug and barge units had joined us at anchor off Newburgh.  Monday afternoon and evening, the wind and rain came through, fierce, but a pale shadow of what had befallen the coast.  Like the other captains and mates, we kept a close watch on GPS chart plotters and radar, in case the wind and current caused a vessel to drag anchor.  I also watched our depth sounder, and compared the readings to the charted depth and the predicted normal tidal changes.  The depth under the keel reached the predicted maximum early, and continued to increase.  On the electronic display of our depth sounder, I could see the storm surge from Sandy pass under our keel, several feet above the maximum predicted by the moon and the sun, while a powerful current carried this surge of water upriver.

On the chart plotter, a neat circle, centered on the spot where our anchor had dropped, circumscribed what should have been our range of motion in any direction.  The “own ship” icon on the chart plotter crept slightly closer to the edge of the circle.  I started the twin 1,700 horsepower engines and put the propellers in gear at low speed to try to oppose the force of the surge.  The radar range to the next vessel anchored up river began to decrease, and it was clear that our anchor was dragging.  I have dragged anchor numerous times on the Hudson.  However, that usually happens when gravity carries the run-off from heavy rains or snow-melt down from the hills and mountains, adding fresh water to the ebb tidal flow, and usually with a northwesterly gale blowing as well.  I have never, before or since, dragged anchor on the flood current of incoming ocean water  in the Hudson.  We picked up the anchor, stemmed the tide under power, and when the surge had passed, we re-anchored, and remained there until November 1st.  We moved down to the section of river off the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and anchored for another two days, until portions of New York Harbor were re-opened to limited navigation.

During this time at anchor, I received welcome news that my car had been moved from Erie Basin to the roof of the parking garage of the nearby Gowanus branch of The Home Depot, and then returned to Erie Basin, none the worse for the experience.  Some cars were moved from Erie Basin, but parked in the lower level of the Red Hook Ikea parking garage.  They did not fare as well, since all basements and first floors in Red Hook were inundated by the surge.  About forty cars were saved.  Returning to Erie Basin on November 4th, I counted twenty cars and pickup trucks belonging to fellow employees which obviously had not been moved out of harm’s way.  I was puzzled by big dents in the roofs of some of them.  Then I saw some anchor buoys, yellow-painted hollow steel balls about four feet in diameter which are used to mark the location of dredge anchors.  These had obviously come from the far side of Erie Basin, and were on the pavement by a chain link fence which is the boundary of the employee parking area.  They apparently floated across the basin, blown by the wind, until they came up against the fence, floating above the parked cars.  The dents in the roofs were made by the steel buoys, bobbing up and down on waves and pounding on the roofs.  The oil change ramps would not have done the job.

The waterfront was dramatically changed by Sandy, with destruction and large mis-placed items all around.  Most striking for several days after the harbor re-opened was the absence of lights.  For decades, New York mariners have been complaining about light pollution, more numerous and brighter lights on shore, which impair night vision and can make buoys and navigational lights difficult to see.  The power was out at most waterfront facilities, including oil docks, for a long time after the storm.  Here and there were construction lights from a portable generator, or an isolated dock which had power restored, but mostly we had a dark shoreline for a couple of weeks.  With most of the oil terminals in the metropolitan area out of commission, I reflected that the 2.5 million gallons of diesel fuel which we delivered probably was put to good use in the immediate recovery from the storm, since Newburgh had some of the closest oil terminals to New York which were still in operation.

At the end of my two weeks, I was able to drive home in my own car, thanks to efforts in the teeth of the storm by the crews of two tugboats, and to the people at the Gowanus Home Depot.  The tugboatmen did something above and beyond the call of duty or any job description, bordering on heroic.  Boatmen don’t have to do these things, but no one in the business is surprised when they do.  It is almost expected.  (The first four Apostles were boatmen, not farmers or shopkeepers or divinity students, and the choice was probably well-considered.)  However, the folks at Home Depot could have easily blathered some corporate line about liability, and closed their doors to those seeking shelter from the storm.  Instead, they did a great thing for people in their neighborhood, including Erie Basin in Red Hook.  That deserved some recognition.

I had three dozen custom tee shirts made.  On them was imprinted the legend, “Hurricane Sandy – October 29, 2012 – Heroes of Erie Basin” at the top, followed by drawings of the two tugboats done by a professional artist, and at the bottom, “The Crews of the Tugs Jill Reinauer and Kristy Ann Reinauer, and Home Depot, Gowanus, Brooklyn”.  On my next crew change, I went to the Home Depot, saw the assistant manager, and gave him half the tee shirts to distribute to those deserving however he saw fit.  He was overwhelmed.  He had a co-worker hold a shirt while he took a cell phone photo and sent it to his manager at home.  I gave the other half to the tugboat crews who moved the cars in the wind, rain and rising water.  A few months later, I started a kitchen remodeling project and ordered $2,400 worth of cabinets from Home Depot, which, pre-Sandy, I would have bought somewhere else.