William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

EPA’s Climate Change Adaptation Plan

Motto: “It’s for your own good.”

The EPA has asked for my advice.1 They will not listen to, or harken, or act on this advice, but asking for it gives them a sense that they have participated in our great Democratic Experiment. Since one of the goals of this column is to make people feel good about themselves, even bureaucrats in our ever-increasing government, I’ll provide constructive counsel.

There is no reason to ask for advice on what to do about the climate because nobody knows what the ideal climate is. By “nobody” I mean no body, no person, no living or dead soul, no individual no matter his, or even her, “degree” or credential or experience. The very concerned, the activists, the nerve-racked environmentalists, the emotionally and financially committed, the mindful, the most deeply vexed greens; none of these have any idea what the climate should be.

If you don’t have a target it is futile to take aim. It is worse to shoot. It is insane to ask strangers to pay for your arrows.

The climate has never been static. It has always changed. From the day a wanton pile of mass coalesced into a molten ball and called itself Earth (Gene “von Frahnkensteen” Wilder was in my mind here), to when it cooled sufficiently to form a surface crusty enough to host oceans, to the point yesterday afternoon when the weather was clement enough for the Tigers to host the Pirates in Lakeland, Florida, the only constant has been change.

Strike that: there was another constant. Mankind’s ability to adapt. He has thus far lived through all environmental vicissitudes. He has not flourished everywhere and always—there have been times when the change of seasons forced a change of address—but he surely prospered, usually without the “benefit” of central planning. Evidence for this can be had by comparing head-counts from then to now.

When mankind was far less technologically sophisticated, he managed, even thrived. The consequence is that life is better now on average than it has ever been, speaking purely in terms of comforts. Paradoxically, however, the biggest danger to mankind is comfort. Everywhere it is introduced, fewer children are produced. Too much of a good thing is deadly. Comfort is therefore far scarier than a few tenths of a degree increase in average temperature that might, or again might not, happen.

Next consider the layers of uncertainty of climate change. First is measurement. We don’t have a perfect idea of what climate was everywhere; uncertainty increases backwards through time; we only know (with reasonable certainty) that it was different and that it changed. The EPA, in its request for comments, says the climate is changing “more rapidly than society has experienced in the past.” This is false, or at least not at all certain. To prove this article of faith requires having certain or near certain historical observation, which we lack. We also need proof that recency bias has been accounted for, which it has not (this is when periods of frequent measurement are compared against times with sparse measurement: the frequent measures can often falsely cause one to conclude that changes are happening more rapidly).

So we lack conclusive evidence of what the past was. It is clear, however, that what happened previously is a good predictor of what will happen (climatologists call this “persistence forecasting”). Yet EPA claims “the past is no longer a good predictor of the future.” This is false. Persistence forecasts for climate have remarkable accuracy, far better than climate models.

If the past cannot be used, what can? EPA says expert opinion (codified into computer circuitry). Yet to gain our trust experts must first demonstrate superiority over the past (skill over persistence). Have they? No, sir, they have not. For years experts said it was going “to be worse than we thought.” Has it been? No, sure, it has not.

We don’t know for sure how it was, we have a reasonable idea of what weather and climate conditions are now, but we do poorly predicting skillfully the future. What about things that are affected by climate? We must necessarily be less sure of what will happen to them. This is a provable, logical statement. Thus: if there is probability X that polar bears will die off if the climate changes, and there is probability Y the climate will change, then there is only X x Y probability—noting X x Y < X or Y—that the climate will change and polar bears hand in their dinner pails as a species.

This isn’t nearly the end. You must multiply the uncertainty of every other thing you say will be “impacted” (like a tooth?). If there is probability X x Y of climate change and polar bears dying, there is probability X x Y x Z of climate change and polar bears dying and corn crop decreases, where X x Y x Z < X or Y or Z. Etc. ad nauseum.

That simple, and true, math married to the other arguments given above implies the best thing to do is nothing until such time we see items which actively need attention. None do currently.

This won’t satisfy because government bureaucracies are created to do something, anything. Therefore they will do something, even if it something as small as calling for “more study”. To admit nothing need be done is to concede one does not need to exist. This the EPA will never do. See? It really is worse than we thought.

————————————————————————–

1The link provides another link to EPA’s Climate Change Adaptation Plan, the document from which I draw my quotes.

12 Comments

  1. Yours is a faulty analysis. I might as legitimately think of putting a pot of water on the stove and turning the burner on. Then I can say “I can’t predict how many bubbles will form, the mean size of the bubbles, the rate of bubble production, the path that any individual bubble will take to the surface, the shape of the surface of the water at any given moment, the precise temperature distribution of the bottom of the pot, etc. ad infinitum. But I can still predict with awfully good certainty that, the Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, the water will boil.

    Amazingly, I find much to agree with in your blog and your philosophy and have even used your writing (through attributed links, of course) to echo my own sentiments. But with respect to climate, it’s true that we (they) can’t count the bubbles, map their paths, etc. but simple and well understood physics indicates that the water will boil.

  2. William Sears

    3 March 2013 at 4:44 pm

    Somewhat off topic, Briggs, but the following links might represent increased job prospects in your field.

    http://blogs.wsj.com/numbersguy/the-upbeat-stats-on-statistics-1216/?mod=wsj_valettop_email

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323478304578332850293360468.html?mod=wsj_valettop_email

    Rob Ryan, I may be missing the point of your post. Could you be more specific with your criticism or claims? Surely the climatologists’ (or EPA’s) inability to predict even the simplest of trends is the theme of Briggs’ article.

    Cheers, Wm

  3. Ye Olde Statistician

    3 March 2013 at 4:58 pm

    Especially when, after some bubbles have formed, the boiling does not commence, one might conclude that the stove’s burner has not been turned to ‘high’ but perhaps to ‘warm’.

    Given that the burner is turned to high, one might confidently predict that (if it remains turned to high) boiling will one day commence. But what if “the burner is turned to high” is that which is to be proven? (quod est demonstrandum.) Suppose we observe not that bubble formation is specifically unpredictable, but that no bubbles have formed and that the temperature of the water has both increased and decreased (depending perhaps on the sun shining through the window onto the stove)?

  4. @William Sears

    Sure. The details of where, exactly, heat will be stored, how and where it will flow, the precise effect on temperatures, ocean pH, prevailing winds, major storms, etc. are the bubbles. The well-known physics of radiative transfer and the Earth taken as a whole are the flame and the pot in my analogy. Thus, Dr. Briggs is correct in terms of the precise pathways for the Earth’s adjustment to radiative forcing being unknown and possibly unknowable in advance, but the radiative forcing causing a thermal effect on the Earth’s energy balance is not. I.e., the Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, the pot will boil.

  5. William Sears

    3 March 2013 at 5:34 pm

    Rob Ryan,
    The statement “radiative forcing causing a thermal effect on the Earth’s energy balance” is vague. It could mean just about anything. In any case none of what you say seems relevant to Briggs’ claims, or so it seem to me. Maybe he will clarify the point for us. I also feel obliged to point out that heat can not be stored, anymore than work can.

  6. Rob Ryan, The pot of boiling water analogy loses it charm if one looks at clouds, a climate control at least an order of magnitude larger than CO2 forcing. Temp goes up a little for any reason and more cloud appears reducing the energy in part of the equation. Energy in = energy out has two parts and you are only thinking about energy out, as if energy in is constant.

  7. Rob Ryan,

    How many planetary climates have you catastrophically warned by adding a little bit of CO2? How many pots of water have you boiled?

    Your rationalization about the analogy is amusing, but totally speculative.

  8. Here is another thing. The pot of boiling water analogy is intentionally misleading because the majority of the water on earth is only a little above freezing, on average 90+ deg C away from boiling. So a better analogy is a big dog dish outside in freezing January. Using Trenberths convention there is a 400 watt heater keeping the water a little above freezing. Now today that heater has been turned up to 400.5 watts. How may extra bubbles does this extra half a watt create?

  9. john robertson

    3 March 2013 at 6:18 pm

    Bureaucrats do what they always do, pretend to obey the forms, expand the bureaus and grow until the host is killed.
    Nearest natural organism is cancer.
    Never has a nonproblem garnered so much wealth and power unto the bureaucrats.
    What could go wrong?
    Solving Anthropogenic Global Warming is so easy.
    Fits government skills perfectly.
    A none existent problem is of course solved by doing nothing.
    But our economy and society is being destroyed by the greed and stupidity of our political bureaucracy.
    This “emergency” is being used to consumate political control.
    However I still vote for natural law, the law of unintended consequences.
    What can not continue, will not continue.
    Theft through regulation works until the victims awake or run out of property.
    Control works until the controlled lose patience.

  10. @ William Sears,

    Yes, you’re quite correct from a formal physics/thermodynamics point of view that heat cannot be stored. It is thermal energy in motion. But the vernacular is “the ocean heat content is rising/falling/higher lower” etc. It is unfortunate that that is the language used, because, as you correctly point out, there’s no such thing as “ocean heat content.” There’s ocean internal energy.

  11. The water boiling in the pot is a highly over-simplified example implying climate is driven by ONE variable–in the case of the pot, the heat underneath it. However, in real life, climate has hundreds of variables involved: oceans, ice, wind, atmospheric concentrations, trees, and so forth. In your boiling water example, this would translate to: pot with pure water is heated by a candle, the temperature of the room it’s in affects how long it take to boil, the draft that pulls part of the heat from the candle and may extinguish it (no boiling then), a small space heater that fluctuates in intensity, the open window in the room allowing outside air into the room, or if the room is sealed and no air gets in so the candle may go out, etc., etc. No variable can be easily isolated or shown to be the driving force unless you assume the candle is very, very large and thus overpowers everything else in the room. This is an assumption. And for the conclusion that the water will boil to follow logically, that “assumption” has to be declared true, with or without evidence. What matters in climate science is Proof that CO2 is the Major driving force and that all feedback, amplifying and catalyst forces in the atmosphere are available at the required levels. The proof that all variables are correctly identified and will behave as the models predict is necessary before one can claim climate change is due mostly to human activities. The science just is not there.

  12. Patrick Moffitt

    4 March 2013 at 11:45 pm

    EPA regulatory policy does not ask for the ideal condition but rather attempts to define some pristine or other natural condition that it uses to define what is called a reference condition. However, as your post notes, all life is adaptive to the ever changing conditions. There is no natural state even when we control for time and climate. Native Americans used fire to terra-form North America and created the tall grass prairies. Our current fire suppression practices are causing lands that were once prairie to change state to forests. Both are stable states controlled by fire frequency and each have a large and mutually exclusive set of associated species. What is the natural state- who knows? Only well fed and warm humans ask such questions- the rest of Nature is too busy adapting or dying to waste any time on trying to identify some past state that may no longer hold a survival advantage.
    What is the ideal state is the far more important- and difficult- question to ask given the inherent messy value judgments.
    EPA does not ask what we want. EPA regulates what we may have. And EPA does so in accordance with it interests and values. Natural background and temperature anomalies are the smoke and mirrors EPA uses to disguise value judgments as scientific imperatives.

Comments are closed.

© 2014 William M. Briggs

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑