Global Warming TEDTalks 2

November 28, 2009    By: Jacob J @ 12:06 pm   Category: Uncategorized

No, this is about an entirely different global warming scandal. In this 2007 presentation, David Keith lets the cat out of the bag by revealing a cheap, fast, effective solution to global warming which we’ve known about for as long as we’ve been worried about global warming. Yes, you read that right.

Keith is a Canada Research Chair in Energy and the Environment at the University of Calgary and the opposite of a global warming skeptic. He loves conservation so much he is conflicted about telling everyone about the cheap, fast, effective solution to global warming because they may not want to conserve once they know about it. In fact, he cites political correctness as the reason no one discusses this cheap, fast, effective solution.

There is a lot to discuss here.[1]

  1. What is your reaction to this idea of geoengineering?
  2. Why didn’t Al Gore mention this idea when he was scaring me to death about how we’re all screwed?
  3. If Keith is correct that political correctness is the reason this does not get discussed, what does this say about global warming science? I’m pretty sure science is not supposed to be filtering its ideas through a political filter.
  4. Is anyone aware of any showstopper problems with this he didn’t mention? My impression is that fear of unintended consequences is the biggest (technical) problem.
  5. Is it a little bit weird that he keeps saying he’s sure he doesn’t want to geoengineer the planet even though one of the reasons he wants more research on the topic is to study the reasons not to do it? Does he have sufficient reasons to rule it out or not? If so, why doesn’t he list off a few of the worst reasons? The only thing he mentions here is other effects of CO2 other than warming like ocean acidity. I’d be interested in the rest of the list.
  6. In recent years and in certain quarters fighting global warming has become somewhat of a religious movement[2] (I live and work in Oregon so you’ll be hard-pressed to convince me otherwise). If the “imminent destruction unless we act!” claim was removed from the debate, how would that change things? Could we have more sensible discussions of what to do in response to global warming? Would Obama still want to pass cap and trade? Would global warming skeptics be more open to global warming being real if there was a solution on the table other than a massive overhaul of what we are allowed to buy and how we are allowed to live?
  7. What did you find interesting that I missed?

[1] This interview of Keith in Yale’s Environment 360 is also interesting for some further reading.
[2] Crichton gave a good speech explaining what I mean by that.



    “Trenberth and Dai conclude that “major adverse effects, including drought, could arise from geoengineering solutions to global warming,” according to Geophysical Research Letters. “

    Comment by symphonyofdissent — November 28, 2009 @ 4:33 pm

  2. 1 – This is really scary. If it is this easy and cheap to do this, then what is to stop some country to just haul off ad do it.

    2 – Puh-leeze.

    3 – Yes. Where does the money come from? The people paying the bills choose the filter.

    4 – You are likely right.

    5 – Mostly I think he is admitting how little is known about doing it. I have a hunch the ‘easiness’ is grandstanding.

    6 – Anything that would bring reason, real data, real science into the political debate would be welcome indeed.

    7 – I found it interesting at how much people laughed at things he didn’t intend to be funny.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — November 28, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

  3. It seems like anyone who lived through the 1980s would be able to figure out why pumping massive amounts of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. Believe me–the sulfur dioxide solution is well known to anyone even casually acquainted with the literature. It’s not that there’s some sort of conspiracy to shut down this solution, it’s just that it’s a really really bad idea.

    Comment by Nate W. — November 28, 2009 @ 7:08 pm

  4. Sorry–I meant above “why pumping massive amounts of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere is a bad idea.”

    As to your questions:

    1. I endorse the speaker’s take on it–increasing the atmospheric albedo is not a solution to the problem of global warming. At most, it’s a stop-gap measure. I’m all for greater understanding of the science in case it has to be used, but I think that geoengineering is an endeavor not to be taken lightly. If you think about the number of ecological disasters brought about by trying to improve on nature–kudzu, rabbits in Australia, starlings and asian carp in the U.S. (to name just a few), there is just cause to want really good data about the potential side effects.

    2. If this is what you thought about, then you missed the point of the speech. Geoengineering is not a solution–If you heard the speaker say that, you need to listen to the speech again. This is exactly the reason that scientists are reluctant to talk about geo-engineering solutions–politicians will use them as a reason to avoid facing the problem.

    3. I think you need to listen to the end of the speech. He refines what he means by political correctness–it is that there is a moral hazard if politicians believe that geoengineering can take the place of reducing CO2 emissions.

    4. Ocean acidification (both carbonic and if SO2 is used, sulfuric) is a major problem. Because acid levels in the ocean disrupts phytoplankton, the major carbon sink on the earth, the problem can turn into a vicious cycle. Killing terrestrial plants doesn’t help either. And then there is the fact that most albedo enhancers do not have the staying power that carbon dioxide does (although as the speaker says, that can be solved). If you have a short-term albedo enhancer, when it wears off, the earth is in worse shape CO2-wise than when you started, meaning that you have to use greater and greater amounts of geo-engineering chemicals to balance the climate.

    5. [Edited for tone]

    6. This assumes that the problem with talking about global warming is that we are trying to take steps based on fear instead of prudence. The speaker mentions the fact that we have not done anything about climate change at all–that isn’t an overreaction, it’s a non-reaction. So, no–I don’t think that giving people an excuse to do nothing will make anything better. (OT: Michael Crichton is not a scientist, and is not a very good author either).

    7. The fact that you seem to be using this speech to do exactly what the speaker has spent his life trying to fight against might be the most interesting thing about this post. [Edited for tone]

    Comment by Nate W. — November 28, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

  5. Entertaining presentation of an elegant solution to a non problem. Global warming has stopped and human caused global warming never was.

    The Argo float data shows that global warming stopped abruptly in about 2004 (graph on pp4 of )

    The research presented in the October 14 pdf at provides a model that accurately calculates all average global temperatures since 1895 with no consideration whatsoever of changes to the level of CO2 or any other ghg. All unknowns in the model can be determined just using data prior to about 1975. The model then accurately predicts average global temperatures since then.

    It would be more useful to consider how we will deal with the coming colder climate, shortened growing season, crop failure and famine.

    Comment by Dan Pangburn — November 28, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

  6. symphony,

    Thanks for the link. In the study they looked at the effect of volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions provide the proof of concept, but it seems plausible that we could do better than what happens in volcanic eruptions. In the talk he mentions that we could concentrate the particles above the poles which would mitigate the negative effects of volcanic eruptions:

    And finally, we could make the particles migrate to over the poles, so we could arrange the climate engineering so it really focused on the poles, which would have minimal bad impacts in the middle of the planet where we live, and do the maximum job of what we might need to do, which is cooling the poles, in case of planetary emergency, if you like.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 28, 2009 @ 8:46 pm

  7. Nate W,

    I edited out a couple of things where you forgot your manners, but decided to keep the comments since otherwise they had good content.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 28, 2009 @ 8:52 pm

  8. Nate (#3),

    I didn’t invoke any grand conspiracy to shut down this solution. As to sulfates, he says in the talk:

    This is a new idea that’s crept up, that may be, essentially, a cleverer idea than putting sulfates in. Whether this idea is right, or some other idea is right, I think it’s almost certain we will eventually think of cleverer things than just putting sulfur in.

    (#4) 1. I agree that this would not be something to be taken lightly. If I gave the impression that I would be blindly in favor of this sort of thing, I apologize. I am with Eric (#2), this would be a really scary road to start down.

    3. Rest assured, I listened to the talk before posting. I understand the moral hazard, but I side with the presenter in this regard. If it turns out to be a hopelessly bad idea (remember, many of the ideas we are currently going after are quite bad, we just think they are better than the alternative) then we should decide not to do it based on what a bad idea it is. The idea of not talking about something because of a perceived moral hazard is insulting. It reminds me of the people who want to hide all troubling church history because (although they can apparently deal with it) they think other people won’t be able to handle it. If it is obviously a terrible idea, I’m sure scientists will be able to convey that in simple words even I can understand.

    4. Yes, ocean acidification is a major problem. However, to my knowledge, even in the rosiest scenario where we implement all the global warming solutions on the table the CO2 levels would be rising for decades and decades to come. More than one solution is likely necessary to deal with all of the problems that exist.

    6. Michael Crichton is not a scientist, um, duh.

    7. I don’t know what you think I am trying “to do” with this post, but you’ve clearly missed it. This series is one in which I link to and discuss various TEDTalks that I found interesting. I am not on a mission here, chill out.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 28, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

  9. I apologize if I misunderstood the point of your post, Jacob. I recognized in your post something that I hear a lot of, but which you may not have meant: there are many folks that are fighting any action on climate change tooth and nail, and actively using ad hominems, out-of-context quotations, and any other number of fallacious arguments to try to mislead the public on this issue. I read the words “politically correct,” “Al Gore scaring me to death” and “Michael Crichton” and I was off to the races. My zeal in trying to combat what I interpreted to be a misinterpretation of Mr. Keith’s speech led me to violate my standard for blog commenting: always interpret the author’s post as charitably as possible. My apologies for that.

    It sounds like we’re on the same page and actually agree on the speech (I am wary of bioengineering but not dogmatically against its short-term use as a stop-gap measure), so I will just say that I think that this is one of those technologies that can either save us or destroy us depending on how we use it. If we use it as part of a comprehensive solution, it will be a great boon. On the other hand, if it is used as an excuse for inaction, it will make the problem worse. In a perfect world, scientists would not have to be concerned with the political consequences of their discoveries. But in the current political climate, I think that some discretion and ambivalence in publishing scientific research is justified.

    Comment by Nate W. — November 28, 2009 @ 10:38 pm

  10. P.S. re Michael Crichton: you would be surprised at how Drudge et al. cite him as though he is a scientific authority. Like I said, I heard dog whistles that weren’t there. Again, my apologies.

    Comment by Nate W. — November 28, 2009 @ 10:42 pm

  11. Nate,

    Thanks, no worries. I really am not on a crusade here and I’m interested in reactions from all different perspectives.

    As to Al Gore (who is not a scientist, just to be even handed), I am under the impression that An Inconvenient Truth was intended to be scary. I think there are some scenarios he predicts which, should they happen, would be worse than the risk of geoengineering. It seems only fair to mention that if we found ourselves truly screwed with rising sea levels killing thousands of people and quickly on their way to millions of people, we’d probably consider taking a stab at this geoengineering thing. That is the thought that led to my discussion point 2.

    I am not a fiction reader in general so I can’t comment on Crichton’s novels (I did read Jurassic Park when I was a teenager and enjoyed it at the time), but I thought the speech I linked to in the post was quite good. I work with a bunch of people who are not religious in the traditional sense, but who care deeply about environmentalism. It is interesting to me to see how it serves to create a larger community based on shared values and a shared moral outlook. Some of them are hyper-righteous on environmental issues in a way that reminds me of Mormons who don’t eat chocolate. I’m reminded of Jesse from the Simpsons: “I’m a level 5 vegan — I won’t eat anything that casts a shadow.” Given my impression of their world view, I wondered how this video would strike them which was the thought that led to discussion point 6 and the link to Crichton.

    But in the current political climate, I think that some discretion and ambivalence in publishing scientific research is justified.

    I strongly disagree. To use political “discretion” with regards to publishing scientific research is simply to politicize science. When science is politicized it looses its credibility which is devastating to people of all political persuasions.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 29, 2009 @ 2:08 am

  12. The problems with geo-engineering are interesting, but probably a moot question at this point. The world is not going to undertake anything but stop gap measures (largely for appearance’s sake) to solve what is increasingly looking like a non-existent problem.

    The only reason to spend $40-$100 trillion dollars at this point is to make Al Gore’s stock portfolio more valuable, and reward a bunch of “scientists” who have been caught red handed engaged in the sort of activities that would get private businessmen indicted for racketeering.

    Comment by Mark D. — November 29, 2009 @ 6:41 am

  13. Jacob J:

    I’m not sure we’re understanding each other on my last point–I think it’s an uncontroversial point that scientists have to be concerned with the ethics of the ends of their research, not just the means. Both Oppenheimer and Nobel were incredibly ambivalent about their greatest scientific discoveries because of how they were used. That seems understandable, no?

    Comment by Nate W. — November 29, 2009 @ 10:05 am

  14. Sure, I think ambivalence is understandable (and perfectly acceptable) for a scientist who worries that their research will be used to bring about bad ends. It was the word “discretion” that I disagreed with. I don’t think it is acceptable for a scientist to use discretion in determining what to publish based on the political climate, despite any ambivalence they might feel. The sentence I quoted seemed to be saying this was justified.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 29, 2009 @ 11:53 am

  15. Dan,

    I hope you’ll forgive my skepticism of people and their climate models. I have a healthy skepticism of all climate models, but especially ones that predict everything correctly for 100 years. As to global cooling, do we really have to panic about global cooling if global warming turns itself around? Must the be a climate crisis no matter what?


    I think it is unrealistic to believe that the recent Climategate stuff will invalidate all of the global warming research for the last fifty years. There are multitudinous points to debate in the argument about what is happening in the climate, what is causing it, and what we should do about it, but referring to all the climate scientists as “scientists” because of a relatively small number of them seems unfair.

    However, if it turns out to be a non-problem that would certainly be welcome. I agree with Mark that I’m not anxious to spend 40-100 trillion dollars on this any time soon. At the very least we should make sure the solutions do more than delay the problem for 5-10 years 100 years from now before we blow the bank.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 29, 2009 @ 12:05 pm

  16. Jacob, The “scientists” concerned here are the leading, most prestigious climate researchers in the field. Among other things, they distribute the temperature data that a lot of secondary climate research is based on, climate research that is virtually invalidated due to the fabrication and falsification of data by the CRU and GISS, to say nothing of the falsification of historical temperatures based on selective choice of evidence and “statistical” techniques by Michael Mann et al, and the overwhelming errors in reported polar ice extents, and so on.

    Satellite based surface temperature measurements show that the global surface temperature was rising for about twenty years during the 80s and 90s. No one disputes that. Temperatures have been flat since then. In fact they were falling for about the four decades previous to that. The raw data for New Zealand does not show any significant warming over the last century. There is historical evidence that temperatures were *much* warmer than at present during the medieval warm period in Europe and North America, and several other periods within historical memory.

    So while it is true that there are certainly honest climate scientists out there, they have likely either been taken by the biggest scientific fraud of the century, or are among the minority AGU skeptics themselves.

    This would all be little more than a sideshow if they weren’t on the verge of persuading the world to double everyone’s energy prices with the only measurable effect of making the world poorer, sicker, and less well off than we would be otherwise, based on the sketchiest of (apparently largely fabricated) evidence and defective computer models – the raw data and source code for which they won’t even release. That is not science, but rather something more like palmistry.

    Comment by Mark D. — November 29, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

  17. Not sure I understand how ambivalence shouldn’t lead to discretion. Given that science is inherently political (i.e. used by policymakers to bring about certain political ends), ambivalence should be the default position of a scientist. To suggest otherwise would be to encourage the scientist to pretend that her findings will not be politicized, which is a naive and self-deceiving position. If a scientist believes that it is not only possible that her findings will be used for bad political ends, but that it is likely that they will be, then there is an ethical obligation on the part of the scientist as a member of society to use her judgment in whether to release her findings. It seems to me that to say otherwise assumes that scientists have no ethical obligation to consider the ends of their research, which is an unacceptable normative framework. While it would be wonderful if scientists did not have to worry about their findings being misused, that is not the world we live in. I don’t think it is overly paternalistic of me to say that if the development of a tool is likely to be net-detrimental to society, a person ought to use discretion in how she develops and distributes the tool to the public in order to mitigate the detriment and maximize the benefit.

    Comment by Nate W. — November 29, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

  18. I’ve decided that from now on I’m going to base my decisions on how I feel rather than on the best scientific evidence available. Science can be wrong sometimes, but how can a feeling be wrong?

    Comment by Owen — November 29, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

  19. [O]ur calculations suggest a decrease in global temperature by as much as 3.5 degrees C. “Such a large decrease in the average temperature of Earth, sustained over a period of few years, is believed to be sufficient to trigger an ice age.
    (Stephen Schneider, Science, 1971)

    After cooling for decades, global temperatures switched directions in the late 1970s, and like many others, Mr. Schneider changed with the times, from proclaiming the next ice age, to proclaiming catastophic global warming. This is what Scheneider said about moral responsibility with regard to the latter:

    [T]o reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change, capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.(Schneider, Discover, October 1989)

    In other words, scientists have a moral obligation to lie. The problem about systematic lying is, no one (least of all the scientists) knows what the real truth is anymore.

    Comment by Mark D. — November 29, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

  20. Nate W,

    If a scientist believes that it is not only possible that her findings will be used for bad political ends, but that it is likely that they will be, then there is an ethical obligation on the part of the scientist as a member of society to use her judgment in whether to release her findings.

    In my opinion what you have described is the opposite of science. There are plenty of opportunities for ambivalence to tempt us to lie or withhold information, but that doesn’t mean we should do it. Plenty of people have been ambivalent about the testimony they had to give in a court of law, but as a witness your job is to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Scientists are the eye-witnesses of the natural world, so to speak. You said science is inherently political because it is used by politicians to make policy, but your statment ignores the meaning of the word “inherently.” Making political policy is inherently political, but to the extent that a scientist leaves out facts/findings or covers up facts/findings they are no longer doing science. I subscribe to the Richard Feynman model of scientific integrity:

    But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school–we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty–a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about
    it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked–to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

    Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can–if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong–to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem.
    When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

    In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

    ….We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it’s this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science.

    ….But this long history of learning how not to fool ourselves–of having utter scientific integrity–is, I’m sorry to say, something that we haven’t specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you’ve caught on by osmosis.

    The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

    I would like to add something that’s not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you’re talking as a scientist. I am not trying to tell you what to do about cheating on your wife, or fooling your girlfriend, or something like that, when you’re not trying to be a scientist, but just trying to be an ordinary human being. We’ll leave those problems up to you and your rabbi. I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you are maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 29, 2009 @ 8:21 pm

  21. But Jacob, I’m not talking about science. Scientists do more than just science; they are people and are expected to do their research ethically. I take it you have no problem telling scientists that their means of experimentation have to be ethical, right? What is the difference between ethical means and ethical ends?

    Science is not an end in itself–it is a method of gaining knowledge. What matters is not knowledge itself, but to what uses it could be put. Don’t get me wrong, I am hardly the type that advocates censorship of any sort. I am only advocating prudence. There are competing values to the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge. I am simply stating that scientists, like the rest of us, should not fetishize one value to he detriment of all competing values.

    Comment by Nate W. — November 29, 2009 @ 9:13 pm

  22. Nate,

    I take it you have no problem telling scientists that their means of experimentation have to be ethical, right? What is the difference between ethical means and ethical ends?

    What is the difference between doing your research in an ethical manner and deciding what results to publish based on your judgment about what the eventual impact of those results may be? Is that the question?

    If so, the differences seem obvious and stark. Doing your research in an ethical manner usually means things like making sure you don’t harm your participants, getting their informed consent before doing experiments on them, not fudging your numbers, not torturing animals, confidentiality, etc. Although the application of these principles can be tricky, these ethical obligations are fairly clear.

    However, when you start filtering your results based on your agenda and your guesses about how those results may be used by others, you have entered a whole new realm:

    Firstly, filtering your results destroys the credibility of science since the whole point is to go to scientists for the empirical. Once you find out a scientist is manipulating you by giving you only the results which further their agenda (their personal ideas of a good outcome), no one can trust science anymore. Notice that doing research in an ethical manner does not have this downside.

    Secondly, your ability to predict how your findings will be used is not likely to be very good (it is hard to predict the future and the results may be used by any number of people for different things). Thus, the ethics here are vague to a whole new level when compared to the ethics of doing research.

    This is a Mormon blog, so allow me to draw an analogy to Mormon history. Your position strikes me as nearly identical to the position some leaders have expressed with regard to Mormon history that “not everything that is true is useful.” When historians tell only those parts of history that they deem to be “faith promoting” they stop being historians and start being apologists. There are a whole bunch of volumes of Joseph Smith Papers in the works. People will use them in all sorts of ways to draw all sorts of conclusions. If the people creating those volumes filtered the content based on their own agendas, the whole purpose and usefulness of the volumes would be undermined.

    Instead, we need to get on the record in as straightforward and unbiased a way as possible what happened in the past. Once that is done, then everyone (even those who helped create the volumes) is free to start advocating various positions. What I want from scientists is the same thing I want from historians. First sort out the raw data in as unbiased and objective a manner as is possible (that’s the first job of science and history) and then if you want to make me a pitch afterward about your view of what actions should be taken as a result, go ahead and do so, but I want those two endevours to be as separate as is possible.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 30, 2009 @ 12:32 am

  23. Jacob J
    This (#15) may be the first time a model was considered to be questionable because it was accurate for too long a time.

    By the way, it is 114 years . . . and counting.

    For any who missed it, the objective of all models is to predict.

    The model (with eye-opening graph) presented in the October 14 pdf at accurately predicts average global temperatures since 1895. It says that the temperature trend for the next 28 years or so will be down.

    As shown at slides 7, 8, and 9 at the 20 or so GCMs that the IPCC uses fail miserably to predict

    Comment by Dan Pangburn — November 30, 2009 @ 10:58 am