Saturday, June 3, 2017

Springtime in Paris: Fact, Fiction and the Ruin Problem

Reactionary thinking underlies the White House decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and the criticism of putatively overwrought reactions to it is allowing the actual significance of the withdrawal problem to elude us. Aside from the stubborn facts that the Paris Agreement is multilateral and is supported by a majority of citizens in the United States, it was carried out in the messy forum of democracy at a global scale with 174 countries and the 28 member European Union all joining as signatories. That is 202 individual countries. This in itself is an important achievement and should be contrasted with the drafting of international trade agreements which in the name of democracy and free trade are carried out in secret by vested corporate interests whose shenanigans are only known about thanks to WikiLeaks.

So, what will this unilateral action really mean?

Forgetting history
Many of us who followed the Paris accord very closely were disappointed by the watered down results it delivered. The agreement is not set to achieve emissions levels recommended by leading climate science groups. Many factors contributed to the failure. It was easy to be disappointed. But to dismiss the agreement as meaningless because it was and is inadequate, is an error of logic and of interpretation. In the second decade of the millennium, China established a watershed by burning more coal in one year than the the rest of the world combined.  No civilization in history has ever faced the problems of scale that the Chinese have. A visit to Shanghai may be all one needs to understand this. Manhattan could be dropped into one its neighborhoods. With the removal of the Mao era Hukou system that limited inter province migration, China saw the beginning of the largest human movements in history when tens of millions of people began migrating from inland provinces to municipalities and manufacturing centers as China embarked on a program of state capitalism and became the world’s factory for consumer goods.

It is easy to blame China for being the number one polluter in the world - I stood less than a quarter of a mile away from the famous “Bird’s Nest” stadium of Beijing in the Spring of 2008 and could barely see it through the smog - but such a reaction ignores the history of our own country and the attendant luxury that US industry enjoyed in unbridled growth and consumption of natural resources over the last century and half. 

As legal scholar Morton Horwitz demonstrates in his landmark work, The Transformation of American Law: 1780 - 1860, US courts established early and numerous precedents for the expansion of corporate growth and power as judges considered the importance of economic expansion in the young nation as a means of independence from and defense against a still suspect Crown. In historical context, unbridled growth in the newborn nation was seen as a matter of survival. Ignoring the profound development challenges of modern non aligned nations and China or placing them on the same balancing scale as the US and Europe who have had two centuries to build modern industrial economies, is an act of ahistorical reckoning. 

An America first policy, assuming it were a noble aim, would resonate with a wider swath of the population if it were genuine and embraced one of the widely acclaimed US virtues: innovation. The kind of innovation that brings grand leaps forward with novel and world-changing technology. The current, populist representation of “America First” runs counter to this trend and in retrograde fashion seeks to return to an age that incentivizes 19th century industries; industries that rely upon extraction of finite natural resources while at the same time contributing to increased C02 levels and pollution. It is not only that this runs counter to modern regulatory trends of clean air and water and sustainability, but it denies one of the most important aspects of American national character: innovation and change.

The Federal Clean Power Plan (CPP), an Obama era regulatory regime, is the current keystone to actual US implementation of clean energy standards in support of the Paris Agreement. While Trump can unilaterally sign an order to abandon the Paris Agreement, the treaty is legally binding and withdrawal is a four year process. As the Council on Foreign Relations points out, Trump could, by executive fiat, also abandon CPP. But legal entanglements seem to make it unlikely that the actual force of law will accompany a presidential order and the CPP will continue while legal challenges are sorted out. To speed up withdrawal, Trump might also withdraw from the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Treaty that governs the implementation of actual international agreements intent on affecting C02 levels. He could do this and we should all be watching for indications of clear intent. This will be the heart of the battle for citizens. Short of the US refusal to sign the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, such a move could represent the most reactionary and catabolic legal action by the US in its 241-year history.   

For reasonably educated Americans wishing to maintain a sense of national identity, to look squarely at the assertion that withdrawal from the Paris agreement will save or even increase jobs, is to blush.  Already, there are more jobs in the solar industry, which is growing, than there are in the coal industry, which is in permanent decline. If industrial capital growth is dependent upon innovation and change, continuing to offer incentives and subsidies to the oil and gas industry while casting any kind of subsidy to the solar industry as “a scheme” for entrenched interests to get rich at everyone else’s expense is worse than a double standard. It is overt intellectual dishonesty. Tesla founder Elon Musk’s recent resignation from a presidential advisory council should serve as evidence to workers, capitalists and entrepreneurs that Trump’s quixotic notion of protecting US businesses - and therefore national prestige and jobs - is nothing more than a poorly veiled masquerade. The serial bankruptcies of a salesman and deal maker in the cutthroat and opaque business of debt laden real estate markets does not an innovation leader make. And as the incoherence of the first 100 days of the new presidency demonstrated, statesmanship is also sorrily absent. 

The politics of Science
The debates about climate change have taken place in the public square at the expense of rigorous science. Climate change deniers have been effective, in our fake news era, by selectively promoting purportedly contrarian evidence to the realities of planetary warming and the consensus views on anthropogenic sources as a primary, casual agent. Scientists themselves disagree about various aspects of interpretation in climate models. This should be seen as a healthy and promising enterprise. But much of the disagreement has to do with predictions about future temperature levels and projected rates of change, not about whether or not ponderous change is happening. Climate science is in its youth and planetary climate may  be best understood as a stochastic system. What this obscure term really means is that weather systems are characterized by so much complexity that they appear to have the properties of chaos and unpredictability. But that would be an oversimplification and as with all sciences, progress is being made. Any layman who has attempted to unravel the deep math, thermodynamics and statistical modeling of this endeavor walks away with a humbling sense of limitation. 

One of the most famous cases of dissent among climate scientists is that of Richard Lindzen, a retired atmospheric scientist from MIT. From all indications, Dr. Lindzen was and is a renowned researcher who in a 2001 paper he co-authored, set forth the Iris Hypothesis. In the paper, Lindzen and his colleagues suggested a mechanism that will increase the rate of escape of infrared radiation from the earth’s atmosphere. Lindzen’s important work has been under review and exists in proximity to numerous other hypotheses and research concerning the predictability of global temperature change. This is very complex stuff. What the Iris Hypothesis posits is that increases in tropical ocean temperatures brings a reduction in cirrus cloud production in those regions. Subsequently, this reduction in cloud formation leads to an increase in infrared radiation escape. This escape manifests itself in the form of a loss of atmospheric heat energy and this loss should have a mitigating effect on the overall rate of temperature rise. If such a hypothesis is true, it may challenge some of the more dire predictions about rate of change and would be welcome news for inhabitants of planet Earth.  However, the Iris effect is a hypothesis and is not yet an established scientific fact. It is under peer review and testing and summaries of current science literature suggest that more work must be done. It is also not clear what the quantitative impact of such an effect would be. Lindzen, who is known to have a Chomskyian memory and grasp of detail, has been vocal within his peer group and has engaged in public debates with some of his colleagues. We should applaud such activity, especially when it is done in a way that makes core issues of science intelligible to informed citizens.

But alas, experts in any given field are often unable to resist the temptation to jump out of their own lanes on the highway of public debate and politics. Lindzen can be seen as such a case. While his scientific work should be admired, his methods in conveying public opinion suffer from the same limitations and errors that most of us have: generalization. Lindzen has tried to cast the debate about climate change in oversimplified terms, the very charge he levies against those he terms uninformed. While he uses empirical rigor in his scientific work, he categorizes opinion holders into generalized groups with variously weak minded or politically motivated interests. He suggests that members of the “environmental movement” a suspect categorization, are motivated by self interest and the financial growth of their “organizations.” He then asserts that climate scientists are split into only two groups: those who believe that the primary causal agent in climate change is anthropogenic and those who don’t. 

In an astonishing act of reductionism, Lindzen further conflates diverse groups of scientists into one allegedly biased and politically motivated organization that prizes consensus over rigor: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPPC. He manages to skip over the National Academy of Sciences, scientists at the bipartisan Centre for Climate and Security who inform the Pentagon and those at NASA’s Goddard Space Institute for Space Studies (GISS) Surface Temperature Analysis, where the esteemed climatologist James Hanson has performed most of his work. Whether Lindzen realizes it or not, this becomes red meat and code word for the likes of the Bannon crowd who see anything originating in the UN as a cabal of anti-Americanism and sinister globalization. We can’t ascribe such a motive to Dr. Lindzen, but we can see how such a crafting of opinion can serve backward interests. Some of his public comments and summary conclusions were used by the Bush Administration to justify escape from ratifying the Kyoto Protocols and he is being used today  by puppeteers in the oil and gas industry and anti-climate change politicians who themselves lack scientific pedigree but have vested interests with the oil and gas industry. This particular group seems to thrive on theater and absurdism and the promotion of anti intellectualism as a badge of honor, while showing no shame in maintaining large war chests of cash from the oil and gas industry to ensure perennial reelection. One famous display of such absurdism came from Oklahoma Senator Daniel Inhofe when on a February morning, he marched to the Senate floor, snowball in hand and took the podium to prove global warming a hoax because it was snowing outside. He was cheered by right wing reactionaries despite the fact that February falls in mid winter and the US Capitol sits at 39 degrees North latitude.

As for Dr. Lindzen, he has also directed strident criticism at scientists from other disciplines who have weighed in on interpretations of climate change data that comport with the findings of James Hanson and others. More on that later.  

Uncertainty as a sledgehammer
With so much noise from all quarters of the public square and the dissembling of the traditional Fourth Estate in the internet age, it is no wonder that dirty-energy industries and their political cronies have cast a spell of jingoist nationalism over so many Americans. The election of Trump has furthered their cause beyond wild imagination and his victory in 2016 will be studied by political scientists for generations to come. Many popular assumptions about the American electorate were shattered. While it is not clear what Trump himself believes or even knows, there are strong indications that his policies are being driven by the most reactionary, fringe actors to ever attain power in the executive branch. One struggles to find comparisons in history, resorting to peculiar historical events like Woodrow Wilson’s screening of the overtly ahistorical and racist film, Birth of a Nation in the White House and his de facto embrace of Klansmen, or his passage of discrete segregation laws in Washington DC. But even there, we can assess some meagre amount of historical context without forgiving the action. In today’s political climate, millions of Americans find themselves in the emerging dystopia described by the late Sheldon Wolin in Democracy Incorporated. There is a surreal character to the shocking vulgarity of the current executive branch and its leader, and Americans have entered uncharted waters. The withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement and Trump’s behavior at the recent NATO Summit seem explainable only as intentionally rank behavior designed to project an image of US go-it-alone hubris without policy bona fides; a new kind of hegemonic behavior that treats long time allies as weak and misguided underlings, while courting authoritarian leaders and human rights abusers as noble role models and deserving peers. Whether this is some kind of carefully planned Realpolitik-shock-and-awe or inept fumbling, is not clear. It may be both. Based on all available evidence, it is clear that Trump operates in a perpetual state of nescience.

Given our current political turmoil and the massive volumes of disinformation we must sort through everyday, we have entered an age where the use of uncertainty in human affairs has become the sledgehammer of reactionary figures in politics. Every opportunity to use a grain of fact out of context for the purpose of appealing to the lowest forms of emotionally driven opinion formation is leveraged to deflect people from previously established facts that took years and decades to establish and even more time to inform public policy. No sector of society seems to be immune. Even trump himself, a hapless victim of his own lack of knowledge, has fallen under the spell and attempted to enact laws that were prima facie illegal and outside of the scope of the executive branch. While it is possible that these antics were crafted for theater alone, it seems unlikely that he knew failure was certain.

Wrestling with Reason
A cautious thinker might want to avoid the emotional gravity of their individual biases. The science of social psychology has demonstrated that we may not be able to escape what appear to be discernible neurobiological tendencies. Professors Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have given us landmark work on human decision making processes that challenge some of the underlying assumptions from Utility Theory in economics. Kahneman accepted the Nobel Prize for his work in integrating cognitive psychology and economics, spurring subsequent research in fields beyond his own. But his work with Tversky has also shed light on how we assess risk and what we perceive to be likely decision outcomes; how most of us live under the illusion that we are being circumspect about our decision making when in fact we are guided, unawares, by certain biases that are not part of our seemingly probative thinking. And that is the bad news for “thinking” people. But, sustained, intelligent activism has proven to be effective in changing social policies throughout history. While the internet age has broken down numerous barriers and disrupted everything from cultural norms to financial markets, societies still seem likely to move toward the magnetic north of justice, albeit unevenly. President Obama maintained his opposition to same-sex marriage right up until 2012. Whether he privately supported it earlier or not is irrelevant in this context: in 2012, public opinion had finally moved to a majoritarian position on the subject. He followed popular will.

The statistician Naseem Taleb is one of those scientists outside of climate science whom Dr. Lindzen might want to criticize or even dismiss. Taleb is best known for his acclaimed book, The Black Swan. In that seminal work, Taleb brings probability theory into the light of day and covers topics as varying as his own battle with cancer to the near collapse of the financial sector in 2008. Taleb was referred to by Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of fractal geometry and inventor of the Mandelbrot Set, as his best student. While being treated for cancer, Taleb analyzed his doctor’s use of the scientific method and found fault with it. He switched doctors and received a different treatment regime and survived cancer. He did not claim to be a doctor or an expert in oncology, but he was a practitioner of the scientific method and this was enough for him to make a medical decision in his own behalf. 

Taleb analyzes risk in complex systems very carefully. As part of his work, he developed the principle of Robustness as a primary property of system design and it has been applied in internet design, some financial modeling and modern electrical grid design among other things. Some of his more recent work has focused on the problem of climate change. Since his career has been based on assessing predictability using probability theory, it seems a perfect venue. While Taleb is an academic, he also became very wealthy by applying his Robustness model to financial markets and risk and had his work peer reviewed by Mandelbrot who was using fractal models to study stock market cycles. While he did not consider the 2008 financial crisis to be a Black Swan, since various statistical models predicted it, he did advise investors with a portfolio that provided very low returns in times of low volatility, but extremely high ones in the event of a market failure. It was an empirical nihilist’s dream come true and history vindicated his approach.

Taleb is concerned with fragility and systemic risk and since there is only one planet earth, climate change represents the ultimate in systemic risk. In a series of papers, Taleb assessed the risks of climate change in the context of the “Ruin Problem,” whose sole property was irreversible damage and loss of human sustainability. Though climate deniers have tried to use Taleb's statements about unpredictability as an argument against taking action on climate change, he has repudiated them numerous times. Stepping aside from the debate about whether the rate of climate change was likely to emerge in magnitudes represented by doomsday scenarios or something less shocking, he posited the following principle: if there are a set of possible outcomes whose probabilities are statistically significant, a robustness model must be put in place to address the most onerous of those outcomes; the ruin problem. In a post modern, non theological version of Pascal’s Wager, Taleb uses tools that Pascal hadn’t dreamed of to mathematically and pragmatically attend to the ruin problem. Though the Iris effect might be true, there may not be enough time to respond to the scenario where its positive effects are too meager to reverse a rapid warming trend. New research studies of the arctic ocean floor offer disturbing new evidence of deep sea warming. If the Iris hypothesis is falsified and worrying projections are realized, avoidance of cataclysm may be impossible, since there will not be enough time to respond. This is the ruin problem in a nutshell and the fundamental question that arises is, why take such a risk?  

One of the the strong intellectual traditions in our United States has been that of the school of Pragmatism as represented by American thinkers such as Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Thomas Dewey and Willard Van Orman Quine, among others. This influence has been felt around the world. Pragmatism has its foundations in the practical application of the most useful theories and ideas, based on evidence. Somehow, stronger voices must reemerge from our great pragmatic tradition to overcome a dangerous replay of Know Nothingism.

The Ruin problem requires it.