Reforming the IPCC

Alternative title: What to do when everybody ignores you?

In the wake of University of East Anglia email scandal, there has been yet another review of the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This one was chaired by Harold Shapiro, a Princeton University professor, and concluded that “[t]he U.N. climate panel should only make predictions when it has solid evidence and should avoid policy advocacy.”

The IPCC has certainly made some mistakes: issuing some untrue statements, and evaluating some evidence imperfectly. That being said, the details they got wrong were largely of a nitpicky character. The core claims of the IPCC reports – that climate change is real, caused by humans, and dangerous – remain supremely justified. The trouble is, governments aren’t willing to take action on anything like the appropriate scale.

The situation is akin to a doctor giving a patient a diagnosis of cancer, after which the patient decides that he will try to cut down on his consumption of sugary drinks. That might improve the patient’s health a bit, but it is not an adequate response to the problem described. At that point, it would be sensible for the doctor to engage in a bit of ‘policy advocacy’ and stress how the proposed solution is dangerously inadequate.

It can be argued that the IPCC works best when it presents the bare facts and leaves others to make policy decisions. The trouble is, people don’t take the considered opinions of this huge group of scientists sufficiently seriously. They are happy to let crackpots tell them that there is no problem or that no action needs to be taken. While scientists should not be saying: “Here is what your government’s climate change policy should be” they should definitely be saying: “Here are the plausible consequences of the policy you are pursuing now, and they don’t match with the outcomes you say you want to achieve (like avoiding over 2°C of temperature increase)”. They could also very legitimately say: “If you want to avoid handing a transformed world over to future generations, here is the minimum that must be done”. James Hansen accomplishes this task rather well:

Today we are faced with the need to achieve rapid reductions in global fossil fuel emissions and to nearly phase out fossil fuel emissions by the middle of the century. Most governments are saying that they recognize these imperatives. And they say that they will meet these objectives with a Kyoto-like approach. Ladies and gentleman, your governments are lying through their teeth. You may wish to use softer language, but the truth is that they know that their planned approach will not come anywhere near achieving the intended global objectives. Moreover, they are now taking actions that, if we do not stop them, will lock in guaranteed failure to achieve the targets that they have nominally accepted.

Scientists don’t lose their integrity when they present scientific information in a way that policy-makers and citizens can understand. Indeed, it can be argued that they show a lack of integrity when they hide behind technical language that keeps people from grasping the implications of science.

Photo storage costs

At Ottawa’s 2010 Capital Pride festivities, I found myself thinking back to my Oxford days when I would generally only take a couple of hundred photos a month on my 3.2 megapixel digital camera.

By contrast, I took around 400 shots during the course of the parade and the party that followed. Initially, that struck me as a bit excessive and made me nervous. Then it occurred to me that a 4 terabyte external hard drive sells for about $400 these days, meaning that the cost of storing one gigabyte worth of photos is around 20¢ – ten for the external drive, and ten for the internal one it is backing up. The biggest constraint I face is the cost of replacing the 750GB hard drive in my iMac, given that the things really have to be stripped apart for that to be accomplished.

The cost per shot of digital is pretty amazing, compared with film. Of course, there is a new danger that accompanies that. With big memory cards and high speed internet connections, you risk putting more photos online than your friends or readers would ever wish to see.

iTunes artist bug

Here’s an odd iTunes bug. Sometimes when you import a CD, the tracks get copied to your iTunes Library and onto your iPod/iPhone when you sync it. Oddly, the albums are not accessible through the ‘Artists’ list in either iTunes itself or on an iPod.

The problem results when iTunes inappropriately labels tracks as ‘part of a compilation’.

To fix it, open iTunes and select the problematic tracks. Right click on them and select ‘Get info’. From the window that comes up, choose the ‘Info’ tab. There, select the checkbox beside ‘Part of a compilation’ and select ‘No’ from the dropdown menu.

You must then re-synchronize your iPod/iPhone.

This bug is present in iTunes 9.1.1 and possibly other versions.

Greenland offshore oil

In a development that seems to reinforce a number of ongoing trends, it seems there may be oil to exploit off the coast of Greenland. As with other places in the Arctic, the combination of new technologies, higher oil prices, and retreating ice is making it plausible to access fossil fuels that would once have been out of reach. At least as reported by The Economist, residents seem moderately intrigued by the prospects for increased wealth, but largely disinterested in the ongoing climate change that could profoundly transform the massive island:

Most of Greenland’s 56,000 inhabitants seem persuaded [that the risk from oil spills is acceptable]. Despite the vulnerability of the country’s ice sheet to global warming, a recent Greenpeace meeting in Nuuk drew a paltry 45 people. Even this minimal interest in the environmentalists’ message could fall further as the implications of this week’s news start to sink in.

Cairn Energy, a British oil and gas firm, already has an area designated for exploration which is thought to include 4 billion barrels of oil. United States Geological Survey data suggests that a total of 17 billion barrels may lie in the waters between Canada and Greenland.

As with so many issues related to climate change, there is an important disjuncture here between different relevant timescales. Whereas it is plausible that the next few decades could see the deployment of offshore oil and gas platforms in the Arctic – and at least the beginning of significant revenues from them – the warming of the climate will largely occur over a more extended span of time. Nevertheless, we have good reasons to believe that the emissions trajectory humanity is investing in right now is incompatible with the continued existence of the Greenland icesheet, though the disappearance will probably take centuries. Of course, that change will profoundly alter life in the region. At the same time, the seven metres of sea level rise embedded in that ice would surely prove problematic for many of the cities and nations that may find themselves benefitting from the use of Greenland’s oil and gas in the interim.

Climate and the timing of emissions

Climatologist James Hansen emphatically argues that cumulative emissions are what really matter – how much warming the planet experiences depends on what proportion of the world’s fossil fuels get burned.

One reason for this is the long lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere, with much of it remaining after thousands of years. That being said, the model simulation I have seen shows concentrations dropping sharply, and then tapering off with time:

It seems like it would be helpful to put together that chart with this one, showing historical and expected CO2 concentration increases:

Atmospheric concentration of CO2

A combined chart on the same scale would illustrate what would happen to CO2 concentrations if we stopped emitting at some point soon, specifically what the next few decades would look like.

It seems at least logically possible that timing of emissions could matter. Imagine, for instance, that having emissions cross a certain concentration threshold would really matter. If so, spreading out human emissions so that absorption of CO2 by the oceans would keep the concentration below that cap could be quite beneficial.

It seems an important question to sort out, given how the whole BuryCoal project is focused on limiting total human emissions, rather than trying to space them out.

“Don’t be evil”

The above, famously, is Google’s motto. When I first saw it, it seemed like an embodiment of the ways in which Google differs from other large corporations. They are involved in charitable works, in areas including infectious disease and renewable energy. Furthermore, they give away most of their products, getting the financing from those famous automatic ads.

On further reflection, however, “Don’t be evil” isn’t some lofty, laudible goal we should applaud Google for having. Rather, it is the absolute minimum required of them, given just how much of our personal information they have acquired. Think about GMail: many of us have tens of thousands of messages, many of them highly personal, entrusted unencrypted to Google’s servers. If they were evil – or even a few of their employees were – they could embarass or blackmail an enormous number of people. What Google has is, in many cases, far more intimate than what sites like Facebook do. Facebook may have some private messages to your friends, but Google is likely to have financial information, medical test results, photos you would never put on Facebook, etc.

Now, Google has incorporated a very useful phone calling system into GMail. Install a plugin, and you can make free calls to anywhere in Canada and the United States. In my limited experience, it seems to work better than SkypeOut, while being free to boot. Of course, it is another example where we really need to trust Google to behave ethically. For Google Voice, they already developed algorithms to convert spoken words into transcribed text. Users of their phone service need to trust that their conversations are not being archived or – if they are – that the transcripts will not be used in any nefarious ways.

In short, Google must avoid being evil not out of benevolence, but because their whole business model requires people to view them that way. So far, their products have been remarkably empowering for a huge number of people (any other sort of email seems deeply inferior, after using GMail). If they are going to maintian the trust of users, however, they are going to need to avoid privacy disasters, or at least keep them on a pretty minor scale, like when Google Buzz abruptly let all your friends know who else you are in contact with.

Canada and Joint Strike Fighters

Responding to criticism about Canada’s decision to purchase 65 Lockheed-Martin Joint Strike Fighters (F-35), through a sole source contract for a total cost of about $16 billion, the government has twice highlighted interceptions of Russian bombers as justifications for the purchase.

Does this analysis make any sense?

Partly, it comes down to what the Russians are trying to do. If they just wanted to obliterate Canada, they would do so using ground- and submarine-based ballistic missiles, and perhaps cruise missiles. There would be no reason to send vulnerable bombers into Canadian airspace. On the other hand, just as NATO regularly tests Russian air defence systems, the Russians could be flying into Canadian territory to provoke us into pointing RADAR in their direction, so they can try to suss out what capabilities we have. Finally, the flights could be an attempt to assert sovereignty or de facto control over the Arctic.

In the foreseeable future, the only plausible path to a war with Russia would be an invasion of a central European country prompting an armed response from NATO. In such a circumstance, Canadian Joint Strike Fighters could conceivably be useful. They could also potentially be useful in conflicts like Afghanistan, where air superiority and close air support are clear advantages for Canada and its allies. Also, purchasing Joint Strike Fighters could help keep Canada in the good graces of the United States, especially given how politically savvy the big defence companies are, and how strategic they are about spreading big weapon contract jobs across the country.

Does that justify a price tag of around $500 per Canadian? Does it justify whatever ‘collateral damage’ will result from the purchase of the jets?

How much can one person steal?

Perhaps one of the reasons why intellectual property law is in such a strange state now is because of how much the sheer value a single person can steal has increased.

The most a human being has ever lifted (briefly) during Olympic weightlifting was 263.5 kg, lifted by Hossein Rezazadeh at the 2004 Summer Olympics. Right now, the price of gold is about US$1,300 an ounce for Canadian Gold Maple Leaf coins. That means the world weight lifting record (or just under 8500 Troy ounces) comprised about C$12 million worth of gold.

Compare that with the losses potentially associated with a book or DVD getting pirated early, or a pharmaceutical manufacturing process getting released to a generic drug manufacturer, and it seems clear that the value in goods that a person can now steal is substantially higher. I remember one memorable illustration of this in fiction, from Jurassic Park. In it, corporate spy Dennis Nedry tries to steal 15 dinosaur embryos, developed as the result of painstaking genetic reconstruction undertaken by his employers. He is offered something like $1.5 million for these (I don’t remember exactly how much), but they were surely worth more to both his employer and to whoever was trying to acquire them.

Lots of other pieces of fiction focus on the fate of valuable intangible commodities. For instance, in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the principal thing being stolen (at considerable difficulty and loss of life) was three musical notes, which in turn served as a control on a computer system.

When people are stealing gold, or diamonds, or cattle, or DVD players there is a fairly set limit to how much they can actually make off with. Furthermore, after such thieves are caught, there is a good chance that much or all of their loot can be restored to its rightful owners. Compare that to some savvy teenager who comes across a valuable bit of information and publishes it online: the value is potentially enormous, and the scope for ‘setting things right’ pretty much non-existent. Of course, locking up grandmothers whose computers have been used to download a Lady Gaga song or two isn’t a sensible thing to do, regardless.