The Top Ten Things Environmentalists Need to Learn

The first source I look at every day is my RSS feed for Steve Packard’s – The Bad Science Blog. RSS is efficient, especially for a full-content RSS feed like Steve’s. The downside is most RSS feeds are only recent, in this case ten entries. So if a reader stumbles on to a prolific feed like DepleteCranium, it is easy to get so involved in the latest content that you forget to explore the blog back to time(0).

That is my lame excuse for missing Steve’s 2008 tutorial for environmentalists. I was alerted by the always reliable DV82XL, who mentioned that he often refers people to this post. So get on over there, read the whole thing. You will probably also want to link the post as a resource for your readers. Ensure your age 12+ children read and understand this, which begins with this intro:

This came out a lot longer than I expected. However, this is also what is becoming an increasingly large portion of this website. Maintaining the environment is a critical issue especially as evidence of accelerated global warming mounts and as energy becomes more of an issue than it has in recent past. Unfortunately, many of those who claim to be working for enviornmental improvements lack an understanding of a few basic concepts which are absolutely critical to accomplishing anything.

I often find myself in arguments over economics versus environmentalism. This becomes a very difficult situation because the immediate accusation is that I care only about money and need to realize that sacrifices must be made for the good of the planet. I am also told that wind or solar is the answer and the costs and reduction of energy output is acceptable. These ideas that it is okay or honorable to make such sacrifices are overly simplistic and lack a true understanding of the forces at work. To use a phrase I have come to like, they are “Not even wrong.”

Thus, the top ten list

I mention the age 12+ children because I can almost guarantee they are not learning any of this if they are attending a state school. As I write, there are 525 (!!!) comments on this post, many of them first-class. I’ve a LOT more reading to do.

Steve has continued to update this post with links to his newer related posts. I’m tempted to quote them, but it is best if you straight to the source so you get the complete up to date list.

Added (2/5/08):
Having gotten a lot of attention on this article I’ve added a couple of follow-up posts which related to this and which I might suggest checking out. You may also want to check
other parts of this blog filed under “environment”. Examples are:

Sources of Greenhouse Gas and a Quick Math Lesson

Greenpeace On Nuclear Science

What is Spent Fuel? – I’m most proud of this one as it addresses an issue most people know very little about. The issue of nuclear “waste” and methods for dealing with it.

The latter article on “spent” nuclear fuel (SNF) is well written to be followed by the lay person. The article has a one paragraph summary of fast neutron reactors, but does not dwell on advanced reactor options like the IFR or LFTR. This is a nice, short primer to prep the reader to have a go at the latest MIT report on the nuclear fuel cycle. And please review the comments to this article. There I learned thanks to DV82XL that the Canadian CANDU reactors can make a valuable contribution value-extraction from the SNF from conventional PWR:

Actually, even current CANDUs have a high enough neutron economy to burn fuel discharged from light water reactors. The DUPIC cycle is a research project presently being carried out co-operatively by Canada and Korea. It provides an alternative to chemical reprocessing. DUPIC stands for Direct Use of PWR Fuel in CANDU. In DUPIC, “spent” PWR fuel is first mechanically decladded and then treated by a dry oxidation-reduction process to remove the volatile fission products. The process yields a powder, which can then be pressed into pellets again. The process does not involve chemical separation of the uranium and plutonium, and so silences the proliferation concerns. This DUPIC fuel will typically have a total fissile content of about 1.5%, so cannot be used in PWRs.

However, the fissile content is certainly sufficient for use in CANDU, where in fact DUPIC fuel would yield about twice as much energy again as was produced in the original cycle in the PWR! The ideal synergism between CANDU and PWR: fuel is first burned in PWR, and then, instead of being thrown away, yields another two times as much energy in CANDU. Again, the total amount of spent fuel per unit of electricity is much reduced.

Of course then it could be reprocessed and the cycle run again.

Much further along in the comments, DV82XL offered a very clear, concise explanation why the meme is so silly — that “terrorists an easily build a nuclear weapon from reactor-grade plutonium”. For my future reference, here is the reality of what the terrorist organization has to organize and achieve:

The technical problems confronting a terrorist organization considering the use of reactor-grade plutonium are not different in kind from those involved in using weapons-grade plutonium, only to a greater degree.

• Technical Personnel.

Competence and thorough understanding will be required in a wide range of technical specialties. These include: shock hydrodynamics, critical assemblies, chemistry, metallurgy, machining, electrical circuits, explosives, health physics, and others. At least several people who can work as a team will be needed. These will have to be carefully selected to ensure that all necessary skills are covered.

• Costs.

In addition to support for the personnel over a period adequate for planning, preparation and execution, a considerable variety of specialized equipment and instrumentation will be required, all or most of which need be obtained through controlled sources.

• Hazards.

Dealing with radiation, criticality, and the handling of, all present potential hazards that will have to be foreseen and provided against.

• Detection.

Assuming the operation is contrary to the wishes of the local national authorities the organization must exercise all necessary precautions to avoid detection of their activities. They would no doubt be faced by a massive search operation employing the most sensitive detection equipment available once it should be known that someone had acquired a supply of material suitable for use as a weapon.

• Acquisition.

Very early in the planning and equipment procurement phase the organization will need information concerning the physical form and chemical state of the fissile material it will have to work with. This will be necessary before they can decide just what equipment they will need. The actual isotopic content of the material may be undetermined until it is acquired, making preplanning difficult. The actual acquisition would entail dealing with the problems and hazards that would be set by the safeguards and security authorities.

The point here being that this is a project that is unlikely to be within the grasp of a paranational organization, at the best of times, and given the poor performance of the one device that was tested by the U.S .using this isotope, a very low likelihood of the device assembling properly when fired.

Ultimately, despite the fears of the West that such an attack may occur, the probability of one is vanishingly small – not when a semi or two filled with fertilizer and heating oil will yield a much greater explosion, more reliably and at a fraction of the cost.

A Guest Post: No Fluid Dynamicist Kings in Flight-Test

Captain Joshua Stults, an aeronautical engineer with the US Air Force, contributed a fascinating guest post to Roger Pielke Jr’s blog — offering some very useful clarification of the Honest Broker concepts.

(…) The value we brought (as we saw it), was that we were separate from the direct program office chain of command (so we weren’t advocates for their position), but we understood the technical details of the particular system, and we also understood the differing values of the folks in the Pentagon (which the folks in the program office loved to refuse to acknowledge as legitimate, sound familiar?). That position turns out to be a tough sell (program managers get offended if you seem to imply they are dishonest), so I can empathize with the virulent reaction Dr Pielke gets on applying the Honest Broker concepts to climate policy decision support. People love to take offense over their honor. That’s a difficult snare to avoid while you try to make clear that, while there’s nothing dishonest about advocacy, there remains significant value in honest brokering. Maybe Honest Broker wouldn’t be the best title to assume though. The first reaction out of a tight-fisted program manager would likely be “I’m honest, why do I need you?”


Google: "Operation Aurora" attack

From the McAfee Security Insights Blog

(…) As I have written before, I believe this is the largest and most sophisticated cyberattack we have seen in years targeted at specific corporations. While the malware was sophisticated, we see lots of attacks that use complex malware combined with zero day exploits. What really makes this is a watershed moment in cybersecurity is the targeted and coordinated nature of the attack with the main goal appearing to be to steal core intellectual property.

The list of organizations reported to have been hit by the cyberattack continues to grow. As a result, many companies and governments are asking us how they can determine if they were targeted in the same sophisticated cyberattack that hit Google. The high profile cyberattack, linked to China by Google, targeted valuable intellectual property.

We’re also getting a lot of questions about the yet-to-be-patched vulnerability in Internet Explorer that was exploited in the cyberattack. That’s an important question as well, because Internet Explorer users currently face a real and present danger due to the public disclosure of the vulnerability and release of attack code, increasing the possibility of widespread attacks.


From the McAfee special page on Aurora

On January 14, 2010 McAfee Labs identified a zero-day vulnerability in Microsoft Internet Explorer that was used as an entry point for Operation Aurora to exploit Google and at least 20 other companies. Microsoft has since issued a security bulletin and patch.

Operation Aurora was a coordinated attack which included a piece of computer code that exploits the Microsoft Internet Explorer vulnerability to gain access to computer systems. This exploit is then extended to download and activate malware within the systems. The attack, which was initiated surreptitiously when targeted users accessed a malicious web page (likely because they believed it to be reputable), ultimately connected those computer systems to a remote server. That connection was used to steal company intellectual property and, according to Google, additionally gain access to user accounts. Learn more.

Stewart Brand's Four Camps

This is a great post by Roger Pielke Jr. because it reminds us all of Pielke’s 2005 taxonomy of the climate debate.

In the NYT today Stewart Brand explains that the climate debate really has four — not two — different poles. He confuses me and my father as an example of a “skeptic” (he refers to my father, a climate scientist, but then cites my research on IPCC scenarios). While it is nice to see a little nuance creep into the debate, the fatal flaw in Brand’s taxonomy is that it defines its ordering with respect to views on science. The climate debate has much more nuance among people who share the same views on the science, so I find Brand’s taxonomy a bit simplistic.

In 2005, I blogged my own taxonomy of the debate.

Here you’ll want to read the original taxonomy…

Climate change e-mail scandal underscores myth of pure science

Arizona State prof. Daniel Sarewitz has long been a Seekerblog reliable source on issues of science and technology policy. Here is Sarewitz with Samuel Thernstrom in an LA Times op-ed:

The East Anglia controversy serves as a reminder that when the politics are divisive and the science is sufficiently complex, the boundary between the two may become indiscernible.

(…) We do not believe the East Anglia e-mails expose a conspiracy that invalidates the larger body of evidence demonstrating anthropogenic warming; nevertheless, the damage to public confidence in climate science, particularly among Republicans and independents, may be enormous. The terrible danger — one that has been brewing for years — is that the invaluable role science should play in informing policy and politics will be irrevocably undermined, as citizens come to see science as nothing more than a tool for partisans of all stripes.

(…) Moreover, problems such as climate change are much more scientifically complex than determining the charge on an electron or even the structure of DNA. The research deals not with building blocks of nature but with dynamic systems that are inherently uncertain, unpredictable and complex. Such science is often not subject to replicable experiments or verification; rather, knowledge and insight emerge from the weight of theory, data and evidence, usually freighted with considerable uncertainty, disagreement and internal contradiction.

Thus, we write neither to attack nor to defend the East Anglia scientists, but to make clear that the ideal of pure science as a source of truth that can cut through politics is false. The authority of pure science is a two-edged sword, and it cuts deeply in both directions in the climate debate: For those who favor action, the myth of scientific purity confers unique legitimacy upon the evidence they bring to political debates. And for those who oppose action, the myth provides a powerful foundation for counterattack whenever deviations from the unattainable ideal come to light.

(…) The real scandal illustrated by the e-mails is not that scientists tried to undermine peer review, fudge and conceal data, and torpedo competitors, but that scientists and advocates on both sides of the climate debate continue to claim political authority derived from a false ideal of pure science. This charade is a disservice to both science and democracy. To science, because the reality cannot live up to the myth; to democracy, because the difficult political choices created by the genuine but also uncertain threat of climate change are concealed by the scientific debate.

What is the solution? Let politics do its job; indeed, demand it.

We do not believe that climate change is merely a Trojan horse for a Democratic dream of destroying global capitalism. Nor do we believe that Republicans are so bent on maximizing the profits of the fossil fuel industry that they are choosing to consign their grandchildren to a ruined world. Yet these are only slight caricatures of the fantasies that each side cherishes about the other because the true complexity of the climate debate has been camouflaged by the myth of pure, disinterested science.

That myth has allowed politicians to shirk their responsibility to be clear about the values, interests and beliefs that underpin their preferences and choices about science and policy. (…)

Please continue reading…

Should Scientists Participate in Political Debates?

This Pielke piece is really excellent — it gets right to the essence of the distinction between “stealth issue advocacy” and “honest brokering”

I have long pointed to Real Climate as a canonical example of stealth issue advocacy. They claim on their site to be disinterested:

The discussion here is restricted to scientific topics and will not get involved in any political or economic implications of the science.

The reality is that they are far from disinterested. The fact that they have a political agenda is not problematic in the slightest. The problem is that they are seeking to hide their politics behind science. This has the net effect of pathologically politicizing the science because most of the issues that they raise, which they say are scientific in nature, are really about politics. It is not a big leap for observers to conclude that these guys are really about politics rather than science, regardless of the reality. People are not dumb and can see through this sort of misdirection with relative ease. Perhaps the most significant and lasting consequence of the CRU email hack/leak/whatever will be to strip away any possibility of a facade of disinterestedness among these activist scientists. In the long run that is probably a very good thing. In the near term it probably means an even more politicized climate debate.

In The Honest Broker I describe three effective roles that scientists can play in policy debates (the Pure Scientist does not play any direct role):

  • The Science Arbiter who responds to questions put forward by decision makers.
  • The Issue Advocate who seeks to reduce the cope of political choice.
  • The Honest Broker who seeks to expand, or at least clarify, the scope of choice.

The Stealth Issue Advocate claims to be a Pure Scientist or a Science Arbiter, but really is working to reduce the scope of choice using science. A problem is that science is particularly ill-suited for political battles because decisions that take place in the context of uncertainty or a conflict in values always involve much more than science. One message of The Honest Broker is that, even though these categories are very much ideal types, scientists do face a choice about what role to play in the political process. And among the more damaging roles to the institutions of science is the Stealth Issue Advocate.

So to avoid any further misconceptions of my views, should scientists talk about the policy implications of their work? Absolutely. Should they come clean on their political agendas? Yes. That is good for science and good for democratic politics.

Should any scientists, including the guys at Real Climate, wish to explain where they fit in The Honest Broker taxonomy, or where the taxonomy is flawed, I am happy to give them a forum here.

The Honest Broker

Don Monroe offers up a nice review of Roger Pielke’s The Honest Broker. We highly recommend the book so we agree with Monroe:

In case you hadn’t noticed, discussion of global warming has become somewhat polarized. Amid accusations, on the one hand, that industry-financed non-experts deliberately sow confusion, and on the other that a leftist cabal exaggerates the risks and threatens our economy, Roger A. Pielke, Jr. is something of an anomaly.

A professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Pielke is an expert who endorses the broad consensus that humans are causing dangerous changes. But he also criticizes scientists like those on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for stifling legitimate dissent in the service of narrow policy options. In his 2007 book, The Honest Broker: Making sense of science in policy and politics, Pielke touches on climate change only tangentially as he outlines how scientists can more constructively contribute to contentious policy decisions.

(…) But the intervening years, Pielke says, have shown that the whole notion that science provides objective information that is then handed over to inform policy makers, the so-called linear model, is naïve and unrealistic. Only rarely, when people share goals and the relation between causes and effects is simple, can scientists meaningfully contribute by sticking to their fields of expertise as a “Pure Scientist” or by providing focused answers to policy questions as a “Science Arbiter.”

More frequently, people do not share goals and the causal relationships are more complicated. Scientists who wish to contribute to these policy debates are naturally pulled into the role of “Issue Advocate,” marshalling the science in support of a narrowed range of politically-supported options. Although this is a useful role, Pielke warns, scientists often drift into it unwittingly. As they deny any political influence on their scientific judgments, these “stealth issue advocates” can damage the authority of science even as they obscure the true nature of the political decision.

To address this problem, Pielke pleads for more scientists to act as “Honest Brokers of Policy Alternatives,” to give his complete description. Such scientists, presumably as part of multi-disciplinary committees like the now-defunct Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, would act to expand the available policy alternatives rather than restrict them. Unlike the science arbiter, Pielke’s honest broker recognizes an inseparability of policy issues from the corresponding scientific issues, but nonetheless provides a palette of options that are grounded in evidence.

(…) Nonetheless, Pielke’s short, readable book provides a helpful guide for what we can hope for in policy debates involving science, and how scientists can most productively contribute. What we can’t hope for is a single, science-endorsed answer to complex issues that trade off competing interests and conflicting values. For that, we have politics.

Please continue reading…

Top 10 Things I liked about Prometheus

Roger Pielke’s Prometheus blog has been an important resource and a great pleasure. Sharon Friedman explains why.

A Guest Post by Sharon Friedman

1. We could keep up with the latest in the “big” climate science (as in GCM, IPCC) world in minutes a day. This comes in handy at work “hasn’t the A2 emissions scenario been proven to be way underestimating current conditions?”. Cocktail parties- not so much.

2. We could have discussions only other science policy wonks are interested in.. My model estimates the density of science policy wonks in the US is about 1 per 100 square miles. So without a virtual meeting place, we are likely to never interact except in hubs such as D.C. Those of us who spent time in D.C. can fondly remember our time worshipping at the Temple of Science (the NAS building) through virtual wonkhood.

3. We could interact between science policy practitioners in the real world and academics. What if medical researchers never spoke to actual doctors or got feedback on their research and how it applies in the real world? Whoops, forgot, most sciences do operate that way. This is actually pretty rare, and immensely mutually beneficial.

4. People were civil and respectful and dialogue led to deeper understanding. People would call each other on questionable claims and assumptions without the called upon leaving in a huff. I have tried to comment on some natural resource issues in online newspapers and magazines; the dialogue there seldom has to do with the exchange of ideas but rather clobbering people with accusations about their motives. Our level of civility is darn rare, in my experience.


Please continue reading Sharon… and note that the Prometheus tradition is carried forward at Roger’s new blog.

Science and Politics – Accepting a Dysfunctional Union

Roger Pielke, Jr. has a new article out in the Harvard International Review Summer 2008 — an excellent review of the real world of science policy forumulation, which concludes:

…We have choices in how experts relate to decisionmakers. Whether we are taking our children to the doctor or using science to inform policies, better decisions will be made more often if we pay attention to the role of expertise in decision-making and the different forms that it can take.

Striving for better decisions, rather than trying to separate science and politics, is the best method for dealing with the challenges of the politicization of science.