William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Cornell’s Cancun Climate Conference Crew

“A delegation of Cornell researchers will join the fight against climate change Monday in the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico.” So begins an article in the Cornell Daily Sun, the university’s student-run paper.

To repeat: this is a student-run paper and every allowance must be made for the immaturity, inexperience, and typical tendency toward enthusiasms of its writers. One does not expect nuance, or even complete correctness, in its coverage of major political events. This granted, this article encapsulates everything that is wrong with the public debate over global warming.

Or “Global Climate Change” as Schindler, the writer, put it. The event is of such moment to deserve full capitals, as if it were a personage. One cannot “fight” a common noun, but the perpetually concerned can do battle with a proper one.

Who’s going? Not I. I am only semi-attached to this august institution, so perhaps it is natural and right that my invitation has gone missing. However, no other person directly associated with matters atmospheric made the cut. Maybe they weren’t asked; or maybe they were, but had clearer heads.

We do know that the “Cornell Center for Sustainable Future — the Atkinson Center — has been working on coordinating the delegation.” You’ve got to hand it to activists: they picked the right word in sustainable. Who could be against sustainability? The amorphous nature of its definition is a tremendous advantageous in debate. Fling the word at an opponent, and he is immediately set back on his heels, too busy fending off suspicions that his motivations are purely pecuniary.

Anyway, on the sustainable Cornell bus will be “Eight undergraduates and ten graduate students” and three bosses. These are Antonio Bento, professor of Applied Economics and Management, Johannes Lehmann, professor of Soil Sciences, and Sean Sweeney, director of Cornell’s Global Labor Institute.

Bento and team “will present a theoretical and computational model of a cap-and-trade model”, which—do I need to say this?—is based on output from climate models. A model of a model of a model. Put another way: an approximation of a surmise of a guess. What could go wrong?

Sweeney—who I say truly is the man you want on your side in a negotiation—”will give a presentation on labor unions’ role in fighting climate change.” He said, “The labor unions are divided politically. There are those who see climate protection as a threat — the carbon-intensive industry.” A fascinating battle shaping up there. Will Sweeney be the one to break it to Teamsters members that their livelihood is harmful to the environment?

With lots of money to be had, it was only natural that organizations of every stripe, including unions, would want to nose around the trough. “About 200 labor organizations will attend the COP 16 and they will also have their own conference.” Mark that: their own conference, not the official one. Just being near all that cash is its own reward.

Lehmann, in a departure from the norm, will offer the meeting some research, “on how to avoid carbon dioxide losses from soils that would contribute to global warming, and how to increase organic carbon in soils that will be a sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide.” Could be interesting, that.

But if you begin to muse on soil physics, you’ll have missed the meat, which is that Lehmann, the only scientist in the group, is being shunted off onto a “side event”, which is “meant to inform the delegates.” Lehmann said, “The presentations by scientists are attended by negotiators that will hopefully be better informed through the material. Often, negotiators are directly interacting with presenters to deepen their knowledge.”

Do you see? This is the “Aha!” moment, dear readers. If you didn’t have it, reread that quotation, and pause at the word “Often.” The revelation is not even that the word is not “Always”. The key is that this meeting is being run by politicians who, if they care too, which oftentimes they do not, have to go out of their way to meet with actual scientists at what is, after all, purportedly a meeting about science.

Since physics has been relegated to “side events”, it must mean that the politicos have already made up their minds. But about what? I differ in many from thinking that these land sharks have grasped the fundamentals and uncertainties of thermodynamics and are convinced “It’s worse than we thought.” Instead, they are going for the same reason the unions are: power and money.

10 Comments

  1. Sounds to me that it is a bit like an early Spring Break. It is astonishing to me that so many have been bamboozled by so few into to giving away so much of our tax money.

  2. StephenPickering

    30 November 2010 at 10:41 am

    The purpose of such UN conferences is to give a high profile launch to an international agreement prepared in advance. The previous conference failed because the Danes misused their role as host to try to force additional measures on delegates. The fringe events give an aura of democratic involvement and scientific respectability, but have no influence whatever on the outcome.

  3. Cornell has a “Global Labor Institute” and a “Center for Sustainable Future”? Sounds like a Red / Green alliance!

    No one wants to work for the plain old “Liberal Arts College.”

  4. Wow. Scratch another Ivy League school off the list of candidates for my kids.

    I think only Princeton and Dartmouth are left.

    Errrr, uhhh, or not so left, unless I’ve missed something.

  5. The academics and politicians have bee rent seeking at the climate change trough for decades. In the 1970s we were all going to freeze to death and now we are going to bake. There’s lots of grant money if you can frighten people enough.

  6. Ah, power and money. The elixir of the gods. But it takes money to make money — just who or what is paying to fly 24 faculty members, staff, and students from northern NY to Cancun in December? How much excess CO2 will the “delegation” generate from their junket? And who are the 3 staff (I did the math), and why are they going? Designated drivers?

  7. Anthony Watts has a piece that suggests that the meeting in Cancun is even more of a waste of time than I thought – http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/11/30/what-really-goes-on-at-cop16-in-cancun/#more-28694
    It now looks like Spring Break for Geeks. I only hope the students from Cornell are more articulate and coherent, have more class and have something of relevance to say.

  8. “A model of a model of a model…”

    Last month I went to a conference where a presenter described his mathematical model which relied on inputs from at least 4 other models (I lost track of them all). Naturally the models were all trustworthy because they were calibrated against historical data. During the talk I got a strong vision of Mr. Briggs having a convulsion.

  9. After LOL at Matt’s post I received the email invitation below. Note I actually earn a living making engineering models and other ciphering and I have no idea what value such a “modeling” conference would have.

    The purpose of MMMse 2011′s Organizing Committee is to bring together modelers in science and engineering

    1. to present qualitative, quantitative, or hybrid models and/or methods in
    Science and Engineering (authors are encouraged to present models
    related to the topics of the collocated symposia and conferences), and/or
    to the topics of the collocated symposia and conferences), and/or
    2. to share their reflections regarding modeling practice and methodologies,
    and/or
    3. to participate in informal conversational sessions (beside the usual
    sessions where they would present their accepted papers) with the
    objective of identifying
    a. synergic relationships among the different methodologies and
    ways of modeling in Science and Engineering;
    b. common grounds of modeling in different disciplines, or with
    different methods, so the identified commonalities would support
    inter-disciplinary communicational processes among modelers, in
    the different areas and through different methods, in Science
    and Engineering;
    c. similarities in different kinds of modeling which would support
    creative analogical thinking in this kind of thinking and
    practice.

    ===============
    Suggested Types of Submissions:
    ===============
    • Articles related to Models and/or Reflective Practice in Modeling in
    Science and/or Engineering
    • Articles related to specific models presented as case studies,
    where the model is presented with a reflection on modeling method
    followed and its potential applicability in other disciplines or areas.
    • Articles related to modeling methods and methodologies.
    • Articles related to Meta-Modeling: models of modeling processes,
    methods, and/or methodologies.
    • Articles related to differences among different kinds of modeling, their
    respective pros and cons, and/or the ways of synergistically combining
    or mixing them for specific purposes, as it is the case in some specific
    engineering problems.
    • Articles related to syncretistic, eclectic, or integrative methodologies
    in hybrid modeling.

  10. GoneWithTheWind

    1 December 2010 at 5:46 pm

    Considering the unusual cold weather in most of the Northern Hemisphere did they choose Cancun so they wouldn’t be embarrassed by a blizzard at the conference???

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