There’s an excellent article in the inaugural issue of Nature Climate Change this month, written by Kurt Kleiner, entitled Data on Demand. Kurt interviewed many of the people who are active in making climate code and data more open: Gavin Schmidt from NASA GISS, Nick Barnes, of the Climate Code Foundation, John Wilbanks of Creative Commons, Peter Murray-Rust at Cambridge University, David Randall, at Colorado State U, David Carlson, Director of the International Polar Year Programme, Mark Parsons of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), Cameron Neylon, of the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, Greg Wilson of Software Carpentry, and me.

25. March 2011 · 1 comment · Categories: greentech

I’m just collecting some readings for my grad course next week, for which the topic is Green IT. Here’s what I came up with:

Murugesan seems to give the best overview, although I also like the case studies in the GeSI report. The latter is dated November 2010, so it’s pretty much up to date.

The WWF report makes the important point that as the energy consumption of computers only make up about 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the potential for incremental solutions that focus on more energy efficient computing are relatively small, while the potential for emissions reduction by applying smart IT solutions to other sectors (e.g. reducing the need for travel, smart buildings, dematerialization) is much greater. Hence the suggested shift in terminology, from “Green IT” to “Greening with IT”.

Which brings me to another plug for Bill Tomlinson’s excellent book, “Greening through IT“, which I ought to get around to reviewing properly…

I introduced some ideas from systems thinking last month, and especially the idea of second order cybernetics: the study of how people’s perceptions of systems affect their ability to understand and control them. I want to pick up on this idea, because I think it’s crucial to understanding the predicament we’re now in with respect to climate change. The system of systems that we have to understand in order to grasp the challenges of climate change is so complex that naturally, everyone sees it a little differently.

When describing relatively simple systems, most people’s descriptions coincide to some degree. Typically, one person will give more detail than another, such that the simpler description is completely subsumed in the more detailed one. However, for more complex systems, different people’s descriptions tend to diverge more. For any reasonably complex system, it will be impossible to completely derive any one person’s description from another persons – each will offer unique details that the other missed. Weinberg dubs this the principle of complementarity in his book on General Systems Thinking: any two descriptions of a complex system are likely to be complementary.

Here’s a simple example – these two photos are of the same lake, but are complementary views:

The principle applies whenever we have partial descriptions of the world from our observers, and may disappear if we ask the observers to make increasingly detailed observations. Assuming they really are describing the same system, it should eventually be possible to reconcile their descriptions completely. For example, with a little effort, you can match up the peaks in the two photos above, and even some of the trees (it’s a little easier with the enlarged photos – click on them for bigger). Unfortunately, if the systems are complex enough, the descriptions can only ever be partial, and it may be infeasible to trace down every last detail in order to reconcile them.

When it comes to climate, the principle of complementarity works overtime. People end up talking past one another because they don’t even realise they’re describing the same systems – their descriptions appear to have no common ground. For example, one person might talk in terms of atmospheric carbon concentrations, and emphasize the need to stop using fossil fuels. Another person might talk in terms of the costs of climate policies, and the risk to the economy if we place a price on carbon. Because they don’t stop to explore how the systems they are describing inter-relate, they don’t understand that they are each focussing on just one part of a much larger system of systems.

And the problem is that most people are so embedded in a particular worldview, they are incapable of understanding the systems in the way that others see them. To illustrate the depth of this problem, consider this story from Bill Tomlinson’s book “Greening through IT“:

One day, when I was in graduate school, I was walking along a paved bicycle path near my Davis Square apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts, on the way to the T station (the Boston area subway). A father and son were walking a few yards in front of me. The boy was about four years old. He was running back and forth across the path, looking under rocks and investigating things. I saw him find something small, pick it up, and carry it over to his father. I heard the father say, “Oh, you found a snail!” I could feel a life lesson about to ensue. “Let’s see how far you can chuck that snail, Bobby!” (p109)

I feel a strong sense of revulsion towards this father, because my values are very different from his. I see the snail as a fascinating creature, to be studied and admired for its behaviours, and it’s interaction with the urban environment in which it lives – my kids and I have spend ages admiring how they wave their feelers and how they move. The father in the story sees the snail as part of a system of objects that can be hefted and thrown in sport. But this is just the principle of complementarity at work: we’re focussing on very different systems, which overlap. If we can’t step back and understand how our different values cause us to have complementary views of the ‘same’ system, then we’ll never manage to reach agreement on the broader goals of tackling a problem as complex as climate change.

Toronto takes second place in the WWF’s assessment of the top ten Canadian Cities Taking Action on Climate Change. Although it strikes me as more than a little odd that the detailed notes for Vancouver, Montreal and Victoria give actual data for emissions reductions already achieved and/or future targets, while Toronto’s just gives some vague fluff about the programs we have going, along with a link to a City of Toronto sustainability page that hasn’t been updated since 2003. So who paid for our ranking??

As usual, the Onion nails it: Nuclear Energy Advocates Insist U.S. Reactors Completely Safe Unless Something Bad Happens

Alright, I can’t resist saying more. I grew up in Europe and remember Chernobyl vividly. The nuclear fallout reached as far as northern Britain, and for months we were reminded just how risky nuclear power is. Many years later, I studied systems failures in the aerospace industry, and learned just how hard it is for humans to prevent catastrophic failure in complex socio-technical systems. No, worse: I learned that human organisations often conspire to make complex systems less safe. Or, as Nancy Leveson puts it in her book, Safeware (a must read for anyone interested in complex systems failure):

“In most of the major accidents of the past 25 years, technical information on how to prevent the accident was known, and often even implemented. But in each case… [this was] negated by organisational or managerial flaws.”

The problem isn’t a question of whether small radiation leaks are dangerous or not. And it isn’t even a question of whether, on average, coal-fired power plants emit more radiation than nuclear plants (although this infographic from xkcd helps to put it into perspective). The problem is that human organizations are just inherently too flawed to manage the safe operation of something as inherently dangerous as a nuclear fission reactor. The failings of TEPCO aren’t really news: this is how normal accidents occur.

In the last few years, I gradually became convinced to ignore my objections to nuclear power, on the basis that if we’re going to switch from fossil fuels quick enough, we have to consider everything else. The risks from nuclear power pale into insignificance compared to the risks from climate change on our current fossil-fuel-intensive path. That’s not to say the risks aren’t there. But it’s a trade off between what’s essentially a local risk to people living within a hundred km or so of a nuclear power plant (which I do), versus a global risk to pretty much everyone on the planet. But just as we don’t have a suitable global governance structure for taking appropriate action on climate change, so we also don’t have a suitable global governance structure that’s able to weigh up the risks to, and represent the interests of, different groups of communities in considering whether to build more nuclear power plants to reduce the risk of climate change.

The bottom line is that nuclear power poses the same kinds of inter-generational ethical problems that climate change does: we build nuclear power plants now to enjoy our profligate energy-intensive lifestyle, and leave future generations to cope with the costs and challenges of decommisioning, site clean up, and long term storage of waste. We don’t know how to solve these problems right now, so do we really have the right to leave them to future generations to solve?

It seems to be me that nuclear power can only be part of the solution to climate change once we demonstrate that we’ve fully pursued every other avenue for clean energy and energy conservation, and once we’ve come up with an adequate governance structure for balancing the risks to different communities. Some people make an even stronger argument, based on the economics – e.g. Amory Lovins crunches the numbers and points out that nuclear power is both unsafe and uneconomic.

And, as the Onion reminds us, it’s only safe when nothing unforeseen happens.

Here’s an excellent article by U of T geology professor Nick Eyles, explaining the geological context for the earthquake last week, how it fits into the history of earthquakes in Japan, how these earthquakes have affected Japanese culture (including an influence on Japanese rejection of Western building styles, and hence to some degree of Western culture in general). I love the way he connects a number of different issues. He ends the piece with some observations about predicting earthquakes in Canada.

There’s an interesting parallel with climate prediction here: seismologists can calculate the expected frequency and trends in seismic activity, and hence advise people on what they should do to minimize the risk to people and infrastructure. But they can’t predict the timing or size of any specific earthquake. Likewise, climate scientists can understand the trends and the overall impact of climate change on different regions, but they can’t say exactly when specific consequences will be felt, nor when particular extreme events will happen. In both cases, failure to take the advice seriously will dramatically worsen the impact when a disaster does occur.

This article in the NYT times, “Japan’s Strict Building Codes Saved Lives” about today’s earthquake reminded me of the classic poem by Joseph Malins, entitled “The ambulance down in the valley”. The parallel with climate policy is obvious:

‘Twas a dangerous cliff, as they freely confessed,
Though to walk near its crest was so pleasant;
But over its terrible edge there had slipped
A duke and full many a peasant.
So the people said something would have to be done,
But their projects did not at all tally;
Some said, “Put a fence ’round the edge of the cliff,”
Some, “An ambulance down in the valley.”

But the cry for the ambulance carried the day,
For it spread through the neighboring city;
A fence may be useful or not, it is true,
But each heart became full of pity
For those who slipped over the dangerous cliff;
And the dwellers in highway and alley
Gave pounds and gave pence, not to put up a fence,
But an ambulance down in the valley.

“For the cliff is all right, if you’re careful,” they said,
“And, if folks even slip and are dropping,
It isn’t the slipping that hurts them so much
As the shock down below when they’re stopping.”
So day after day, as these mishaps occurred,
Quick forth would those rescuers sally
To pick up the victims who fell off the cliff,
With their ambulance down in the valley.

Then an old sage remarked: “It’s a marvel to me
That people give far more attention
To repairing results than to stopping the cause,
When they’d much better aim at prevention.
Let us stop at its source all this mischief,” cried he,
“Come, neighbors and friends, let us rally;
If the cliff we will fence, we might almost dispense
With the ambulance down in the valley.”

“Oh he’s a fanatic,” the others rejoined,
“Dispense with the ambulance? Never!
He’d dispense with all charities, too, if he could;
No! No! We’ll support them forever.
Aren’t we picking up folks just as fast as they fall?
And shall this man dictate to us? Shall he?
Why should people of sense stop to put up a fence,
While the ambulance works in the valley?”

But the sensible few, who are practical too,
Will not bear with such nonsense much longer;
They believe that prevention is better than cure,
And their party will soon be the stronger.
Encourage them then, with your purse, voice, and pen,
And while other philanthropists dally,
They will scorn all pretense, and put up a stout fence
On the cliff that hangs over the valley.

Better guide well the young than reclaim them when old,
For the voice of true wisdom is calling.
“To rescue the fallen is good, but ’tis best
To prevent other people from falling.”
Better close up the source of temptation and crime
Than deliver from dungeon or galley;
Better put a strong fence ’round the top of the cliff
Than an ambulance down in the valley.

This only runs on Windows, so I’ll have to wait a while for the Mac version before I can try it myself, so maybe in the meantime someone else can play it and tell me what it’s like:

I’m particularly intrigued by the fact that Myles Allen (famous for climateprediction.net and the Trillionth Tonne study) was a consultant in the game design. Does this mean it brings on board some of the dynamics in the latest GCMs? The Guardian previewed the beta version of the game back in the fall, but they don’t appear to have actually played it. PC Gamer magazine did play it, and concludes that it really does succeed in it’s goal of making people thinks seriously about the issues.

Hmmm, almost makes me want to borrow a PC to try it…

01. March 2011 · 1 comment · Categories: politics

At the end of Garvey’s book on Climate Ethics that he concludes that direct action is necessary, and by his ethical standards, non-violent civil disobedience is appropriate. So I was inspired to read the story of Tim DeChristopher, who disrupted the auction of the oil rights for land in Utah around the spectacular Arches National Park. He pretended to be a bona fide bidder, and successfully bid for a $1.8 million of oil and gas leases, and pushed up the prices on others. Of course had no intention of buying them – the idea was to draw attention to the sale of these lands, and, as it turns out, to show that this auction, along with a whole bunch of other similar auctions, was illegal anyway. Despite the finding that the auctions were illegal, Tim is now up for trial, facing a penalty of ten years in jail.

His trial starts today, and there’s a huge campaign underway to protest at the trial, and to support Tim in his fight for justice. Having visited both Arches National Park and Salt Lake City back in December, I kinda wish I was there this week to show him some support.