Friday, October 30, 2009

What do Superfreaks and Calvin & Hobbes have in common?

The sequel to Freakonomics is creating quite a stir in climate science communities - specifically, its poorly-researched chapter on global warming. Besides regurgitating a number of well-debunked climate skeptic myths, the chapter's more insidious suggestion is that there's no need to do the hard work of reducing emissions because there's a cheap, easy fix: injecting billions of tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to reflect heat from the sun, or "geoengineering."

Hmmm. Two laymen who have no idea what they're doing think they have an easy solution to a problem they know nothing about? What could possibly go wrong? I think these cartoons say it all:

Hacksaw? How about just hacks.


How is Peyton Manning Like Global Warming?

The only thing you need to know about global warming

A lesson in denial: Rick Cantor videos, global warming deniers, and how to say something without saying anything

Obama speaks on global warming: What you need to know to be certain that global warming is real

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Blind support for global warming

A popular narrative among global warming skeptics is that climate scientists are so hopelessly biased that we just can't trust what they say. Has it been warming or cooling since 1998? Well, say skeptics, we have a bunch of temperature data points, but the trend you pull out of them depends on who you ask. All knowledge is political, and science is no different: climate scientists' predictions of doom, so the theory goes, are colored by their need to justify research grants, or by pressure to conform to the prevailing view.

Ok. Let's pretend that's the case, and that the issue of global warming has become so hopelessly politicized that whenever the subject is brought up, all sides' arguments ought to be mistrusted. Is there a way to objectively analyze the data?

To do so in a way that satisfies skeptics' criteria, the party interpreting the data would need to have no personal stake in the matter. (This of course raises the problem that you're relying on the opinions of non-experts, but remember: to skeptics, having studied an issue gives you a vested interest in it, so the more knowledgeable you are, the more biased, and therefore untrustworthy, are your opinions.) To be even more objective, you'd want to make it a blind study: show only the raw data points with no identifying characteristics.

That's exactly what the AP did (story courtesy of Joe Romm): they chose a group of statisticians (no vested interest in climate science) to analyze de-labeled temperature data. In other words, the statisticians had no idea they were looking at temperatures, and were simply trying to spot trends in a set of valueless numbers. It's the ultimate unbiased examination of temperature.

Much to the dismay of skeptics, the statisticians came to the same conclusion as scientists: the numbers represented an undeniable upward trend, no matter whether you start from 1880, 1979, 1998, or 2005. Only then were they told that the numbers represented temperatures, at which point "upward trend" means "warming, not cooling." Here's the AP story:

The Associated Press sought independent statistical analyses of global temperatures to determine if there is a true cooling of Earth's climate.

The AP contacted University of South Carolina statistics professor John Grego, a longtime reliable statistics source. In addition, the American Statistical Association sent an e-mail request from the AP seeking statisticians willing to examine certain sets of numbers and look for trends without being told what those numbers represented.

Three professors of statistics agreed: David Peterson, retired from Duke University; Mack Shelley, director of public policy and administration at Iowa State University; and Edward Melnick from New York University.

Each was given two spreadsheets, neither of which had any indication they were temperature data.

One spreadsheet was year-by-year global temperature changes from 1880 to 2009, adjusted through most of this year from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's ground measurements. The other was year-to-year temperature changes from 1979-2009 gathered by scientists at the University of Alabama in Huntsville from atmospheric measurements by satellite.

None of the experts detected a downward, or cooling, trend in the numbers. All saw a distinct upward trend.

This type of blind test is a valid way of seeking statistical help by trying to keep the statisticians' personal beliefs out of any analysis, said Alan Karr, director of the National Institute of Statistical Sciences. But there is a downside from keeping statisticians in the dark because it ties their hands a bit and may make it difficult to determine trends from variation, he said.

After their analysis, all the statisticians were told that the numbers represented temperature changes. All stuck by their assessments.

So if you distrust climate scientists, you don't have to take their word for it: ask a blind statistician.


The only thing you need to know about global warming

A lesson in denial: Rick Cantor videos, global warming deniers, and how to say something without saying anything

Obama speaks on global warming: What you need to know to be certain that global warming is real

I love Calvin & Hobbes

Calvin and Hobbes

What do Superfreaks and Calvin & Hobbes have in common?

Friday, October 23, 2009

The cold logic of hockey sticks

It's fitting that so much of the "debate" over global warming concerns a sport played on

ice: hockey sticks, to be precise. For the non-initiated, "hockey stick" in climate-speak means any temperature reconstruction that shows relatively steady temperatures for 1000 years, followed by rapid warming in the last 100 (the "blade" of the hockey stick). We've been over this before, but global warming deniers just can't criticize hockey sticks enough.

The most recent spat comes from TV weatherman Anthony Watts, who claims that a recent study by some Canadian scientists, Rolland et al, proves all hockey sticks wrong. Watts asserts that according to the study, which uses insects called "midges" as proxies for temperature in a small region of Canada, we had more global warming between about 1100 and 1400 AD than we do today. Here's the temperature graph he shows:

If you just glance at the graph, it appears that the hockey stick is broken, and temperatures have been higher in the geologically recent past than today. Look a little closer though, and you realize the study says no such thing, as it refers only to summer temperatures in a single island in Canada, not global climate change. The study's conclusion states:

The paleolimnological study of this northern Southampton Island lake provides information and extends the spatial understanding of Northern Hemisphere climatic events(Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age) in the Foxe Basin region. Both chironomid-based August air temperature inferences and sedimentological assemblages suggest that Southampton Island was affected by a regional warming between cal yr AD 1160–1360 and a regional cooling between cal yr AD 1360–1700. These results compare well with both archaeological studies made on Southampton Island and paleoclimatic studies. (More about the medieval warm period can be found here.)

So the paper makes no claims about *global* climate. Rather, it was testing how accurately a certain method of analysis could estimate past temperatures. It was already well-understood that there was *regional* warming in parts of the northern hemisphere during the time period in question, and the authors' midge analysis confirmed previous findings. For Watts to wave it around triumphantly as if it's the "latest" crack in global warming is misleading.

In fact, if Watts had read the study, he would have seen this in the very first paragraph:

Evidence of rapid climate change at northern latitudes has focussed research efforts on arctic environments. Due to possible feedback mechanisms, such as snowand sea ice extent (albedo), these regions are believed to be particularly sensitive to global warming... Many studies have already shown that some arctic areas have undergone major modifications of their annual thermal budget during the second half of the last century. They specifically showed an increase of surface air temperatures during summer, and a drastic reduction of winter sea ice cover thickness and summer extent (Johannessen et al.,1995,1999; Dickson, 1999; Rothrock et al., 1999; Comiso, 2002). On the other hand, regions surrounding the Foxe Basin, the Hudson Bay, and the Hudson Strait are so far only slightly affected by such global warming effects.

In other words, the authors acknowledge the reality of "rapid" global warming, with the potential for large feedbacks, and were trying to understand why one region in the arctic might be anomalous to this trend. To infer from the study that the medieval warm period was a global warming trend equivalent to today's is to commit several errors of logic.

But for the moment, let's assume that Watts' assertion was true, and temperatures today are similar to the "medieval warm period." Would it matter?

The reason the "medieval warm period" is important to Watts and his ilk is that in their interpretation, it shows that today’s temperatures are not out of the ordinary. If temperatures were just as high in the past as they are today, what do we need to worry about?

But there's a fallacy in that reasoning – what matters is not how high today's temperatures are compared with the past, but rather how high they’ll be 50-100 years from now. It's not where we are; it's where we're going.

We know that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere warms the climate (check here for the best explanation out there). We also know that CO2 is already at a higher concentration than during the medieval warm period - indeed, than at any point in the last 400,000 years, and likely the last 15 million; since it takes a few decades for temperatures to catch up with CO2 levels, we've still got a few degrees of warming in the pipeline even if we stopped emitting CO2 today. And if we keep going like we are, it won't stop there: we'll double the preindustrial level of CO2 by 2050, and triple it by 2090. In fact, the last time CO2 levels were as high as they were today, the earth was 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter, sea level was 75 to 120 feet higher, and there was no permanent ice cap in the Arctic and very little ice on Antarctica and Greenland. And we're poised to triple that level.

So even if Watts proved that the earth was as warm 700 years ago as it is today, it is completely irrelevant, because we're about to get a whole lot hotter if we don't act now. Any time you hear someone "debunk" the hockey stick, just remember, it doesn't matter.

Medieval warm period debunking global warming? The only thing that's medieval is Anthony Watts's grasp of logic and science.


The only thing you need to know about global warming

A lesson in denial: Rick Cantor videos, global warming deniers, and how to say something without saying anything

Obama speaks on global warming: What you need to know to be certain that global warming is real

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Global warming skeptic gets destroyed

I don't have time to write a real post, so I figured I'd let someone else do the talking. Below, I've copied-and-pasted a thoroughly entertaining and enlightening comment from the climate blog A Few Things Ill Considered, in which the commenter utterly devastates a litany of typical skeptic talking points (denier claims courtesy of a frequent poster who goes by the screen name "Crakar"). It's Comment #110 on this thread.

I really suggest you read it in its entirety, because it's about the best job I've seen eviscerating the "science is politicized and therefore untrustworthy" argument. Reminds me of Salviati vs. Simplicio in Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. In the block quote below, the skeptic's arguments are italicized.

I would be prepared to bet all the tea in China that every study I produce that supports my views would be rejected by you in an attempt to support your own views of AGW.

If you keep citing weak, partisan crap like Inhoffe and Singer (see below), you will probably get to keep your tea, especially since your demonstrated history is to cite things you clearly have not even read.
And of course you couldn’t cover that bet, Cracker, which is why you make it so glibly. But that’s ok; I’m American and drinking little tea is part of our legacy of rebellion against the Crown. You Commonwealth folks prize it more than we do.

Note: some of the following text has been copied from an article, an article which expresses my views on the IPCC.
From the very beginning, the IPCC was a political rather than scientific entity, with its leading scientists reflecting the positions of their governments or seeking to induce their governments to adopt the IPCC position. In particular, a small group of activists wrote the all-important Summary for Policymakers (SPM) for each of the four IPCC reports [McKitrick et al. 2007].

You of course lifted this from one of Fred Singer’s reports (he copied and pasted from one to the other so I don’t know which.) The absurdity of this source is manifest. He cites the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine survey (let me know if you want to debate the validity of that joke), includes as a contributor Zbigniew Jaworowski (Lawrence Solomon’s “ice core man”, a quack who has been debunked into orbit), and your good mate Christopher Monckton. Not exactly an all star list of first rate intellects or scientific credentials. (I can’t speak to the others, to be fair.) I am also aware that some claim that Singer’s book, *Unstoppable Global Warming . . .*, has been shredded, but since I have not read either his book or these critiques I would have to take a wait-and-see approach to that. It might have been discussed on the “medieval warm period” thread. You tell me, Craker; I honestly don’t know.

While we are often told about the thousands of scientists on whose work the Assessment reports are based, the vast majority of these scientists have no direct influence on the conclusions expressed by the IPCC.

False. Their *research* is the underpinning of the summaries.

Those [reports] are produced by an inner core of scientists, and the SPMs are revised and agreed to, line-by-line, by representatives of member governments. This obviously is not how real scientific research is reviewed and published.

We’ve been through this. The IPCC report is not “research”. It’s a *research summary*, the essential conclusions of which are *agreed* to by an overwhelming majority of scientists who specialize in climate science and many of whom contributed to the report. If you understand the process of collaboration and co-authorship you would understand that a small number of report writers is a *practicality*, not a cover-up.

The IPCC’s FAR 1990 reported without much analysis claimed that temp changes were “broadly consistent” with GH models, it arrived at a climate sensitivity of 1.5 to 4.5C
The IPCC’s SAR 1996, Its SPM contained the memorable conclusion, “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” The SAR was heavily criticized,

Of course. Some people don’t want to believe it.

point 2 was supposed to highlight the hypocrisy of Al Gore. We had a prime minister some years back that owned shares in a pig farm, this particular pig farm benefitted from a change in gov policy and the PM was forced to sell his shares or resign. If PM Rudd stood ready to earn squillions from CO2 taxes via personal interests he would be drummed out of office because he would have a conflict of interest. As Al Gore stands to earn squillions from the very threat that he warns us about, people may be excused for thinking he has an ulterior motive. As per point 1 Skip you can disagree if that is your want but it does mean you are right and I am wrong.

Narratives at full throttle: “One of ‘your’ guys is bad. This (somehow) proves I’m right.” I don’t actively agree or disagree. I am indifferent. If Al Gore snorts cocaine while listening to death metal and engaging in sexual congress with barnyard animals it *has no bearing on our disagreement*. This is a total red herring, Craker.

In regards to unintended consequences, if you believe wholeheartedly in the IPCC and its associated apocalyptic scenarios

I don’t “believe” in them as certainties, Craker, and neither does the IPCC. They are prospective *threats*--possibilities, risks against which we should prudently hedge, especially since the supposed “costs” associated with said hedging are also associated with collateral benefits. I’ve said this again and again; you just ignore me (see below).
\ then maybe you will accept the case for drastic times calls for drastic measures, I on the other hand are not like you.

Set up a straw man and start torching, Craker. Translation of the above: “Now that I’ve established that you believe something ridiculous ‘wholeheartedly’, allow me to contrast my practical minded self with your silliness.” Its extremely important for you to believe that I support cloud seeding (or that my position requires me to, were I only clever enough to see it), isn’t it Craker? Keep that narrative cranking, baby. I’ve told you I really don’t know enough about it (I’ve only read a couple of articles and they focused on the politics and philosophy of it) and that my proposals for acting on climate change are far simpler (tweak the incentives to reward reduced use and investment in alternatives—but this is for another thread.)

I have seen the results of poorly planned and thought out actions of well meaning scientific bodies (cane toads etc) I am sure you can share some examples from your country

[and so on about the folly of environmental tinkering].
Granted. But this is the same lame guilt-by-association. And you’re off on a soliloquy launched by nothing but your repeated refusal to accept what I say at face value: *I’m not supporting proactive environmental manipulation.* In fact, I’m supporting the reverse.

To wit:
. . . [after listing off several examples of human’s dicking up the environment through ill considered efforts at conscious manipulation] So we now have a ticking time bomb in our midst’s, unintended consequences Skip.

I agree that’s both very possible and very bad. And *human carbon emissions* might *also* be one of those, Craker! The only difference between the human activity of raising the CO2 levels in the atmosphere and these failed experiments you mention is that our emissions were never intended for any environmental or other benefit. They were strictly for our convenience. If you can see the folly of unintended consequences for these other programs (which were localized), how is it that AGW—a potential worldwide phenomenon—escapes the same scrutiny for potential damage? Its because of narratives, Craker. You don’t *want* to see it (my attribution).

3, Consensus, what is it? Well it is a group of people that agree with each other. Nothing more nothing less, if there is a consensus does this mean we automatically assume they are right? Of course not, science is not done by a show of hands is it. History is littered with incorrect consensus, so lets not confuse scientific fact with appeal to authority ok.

When you travel on aircraft, drive a car, live in a code-approved home, or accept modern medical care, you are taking your chances with a scientific, peer reviewed consensus. And that’s what I’m doing, Craker, when I say we need to hedge against risk and act to prevent the potential long term damage of AGW. This is a recurring theme in my experience with debating deniers: Any element of uncertainty (which is unavoidable in science) is interpreted as an excuse for inaction. Your above logic amounts to, “We can’t be sure AGW fears are founded [and I agree we can’t, strictly speaking], so we should assume they are *not*. Fire up the Hummer.”

Also you asked for quotes and I gave them, now you say they are no good. Toll says IPCC alarmism is preposterous and a small warming would be OK (less deaths in Germany etc).But this is no good now, now you change the rules,

Wrong. You were claiming that your link proved your outrageous claim that, “"one by one self respecting scientists are turning away from the AGW theory and declaring themselves as sceptics."

I showed simply that it does nothing of the sort. The ham-handed quote of Tol (who does *not* support Inhofe’s position on the AGW position or how policy should handle it) was an example of this. It is you who has changed the goalposts, now changing your claim about the link to it contains experts “who all spoke poorly of the IPCC.” (whatever exactly that means, and in any event its not the same thing, Craker. Beating me to the punch on the *accusation* of goal moving does not change the fact that it was you who sucked it in closer to yourself when I caught you red-handed "dogma propping" (more on this below.

you ridicule meteorologists in post # 77
Not with regards to meteorology, but I question their relative credibility in commenting on climate issues, yes.
but in post #42 you use them to prop up your own views.

Wrong. I only pointed out the survey results for their field because in my experience deniers lean heavily on sources from that specialty. They are not mentioned to support *my* views, but only to show that on average they do *not* support yours. The 97 percent figure for climate scientists was the money finding.

I do find it hard to follow your train of thought sometimes Skip.

You would have a fun conversation with my wife.

I counted 28 IPCC employed scientists that spoke poorly of the IPCC, 10 from Never A Straight Answer and 4 from NOAA plus a host of other scientists etc who all spoke poorly of the IPCC. No, someone did not use the exact phrase “AGW is a crock of shit”

Nor had anyone who has studied climate science from that list " turn[ed] away from the AGW theory and declar[ed] themselves as [a] sceptic . . ."

you were looking for, granted but I believe my point is made.

The new or the old one?

By the way there is no such thing as a Climate scientist,

I think we’re getting closer to the key issue here. Convince yourself of this and you can believe (or disbelieve) just about anything, I can imagine. Its like saying there are no “medical researchers”, “aerospace engineers”, “design engineers”, or anything else where we have a vested interest in learning about the biological and physical worlds because, after all, all of them, like climate studies, “cover many fields and there is not one person in the world that could profess to be a master of them all.”

Also you may have got a little confused (my fault) “Also i would like to add, this link as a demonstration to both you and Eric that the masses are made to accept the AGW propoganda, a statement which you have both have lambasted me for making.—Craker”
This was referenced to the link showing Antarctic sea ice. I wanted your thoughts as to why the masses are only told about melting ice and not freezing ice.

I confess not to understand the science of this at a technical level. However, a sophisticated understanding of AGW recognizes that its effects are non-linear. If increased precipitation from AGW causes increases in Antarctic ice, then that’s the way it is. This is no more impressive than pointing out that some glaciers are increasing their ice mass, because you would not expect such glacial declines to be linear. But save this for another thread; I’m not your man on this issue, I admit. But your use of this as a silver bullet looks like blatant cherry picking of anything that comforts your narrative.

To finish off (did I cover everything Skip?)

See below.

So in summary, You believe in the IPCC conclusions.

Well, I think we should act on them, yes.

whereas I reject some aspects of it.

Which aspects do you not reject?

You believe in the computer model predictions out to 2100 whereas I reject it due to our lack of understanding of the climatic processes.

I am willing to act on those models to hedge against risk.

You believe and take refuge in the comfort of the consensus

We’re homing in on the core of this narrative interpretation on which you appear to lean so heavily. I have repeatedly explained in a manner that continues to apparently confound you that I do *not* take comfort in the consensus. It seems very, very difficult, Craker, for you to conceive of someone being convinced of something for reasons other than they *want* it to be true. I have a fairly strong hunch as to why.

I will repeat my real “narrative” for you benefit:

“*Based on the results of a scientific process and its *overwhelming* consensus, we believe that AGW is real, and very possibly dangerous enough to merit actions that are socially and economically tolerable--and undeniably beneficial in other ways.*”

Only one of three things could be going on here, Craker:

(1) I’m lying about my narrative. I’m just *pretending* to be worried about long term AGW, and really the thought of AGW destruction and/or socialistic oppression to address it gives me a big, fat Woodrow, and this conditions me to ignore excellent evidence that it is wrong, or

(2) I’m telling the truth about myself but I’m *deceived*. I’m an automaton who just dumbly “accept[s] the AGW propaganda” and who “believe[s] [my] politicians past and present will to the best of their ability make decisions with [my] best interests at heart regardless of their conflict of interests . . .” Along with the other drones, I do this to the detriment of prosperity, freedom, etc., or

(3) I’m telling the truth about myself—AGW and deniers’ apparent obstinacy about it is distressing to me, and thus I have *no reason* to block out information that would relieve me of this fear. As a result, when I reject the likes of Singer, Monckton, etc., it is because I think *they’re full of shit*, Craker. I would *rather* believe them, but I can’t. I have investigated the issue and I know the overwhelming reasons to fear AGW.

I understand that from halfway around the world you can’t know for sure, of course, which of these is true. But what makes more sense? Have you done *anything* even approaching what I have done to give the denier side a fair chance? Have you done anything like read three books picked by the other side and explained in detail why they are wrong? (My 46 page essay is at your disposal.) My guess, Craker, is that you have not. My perception is that you troll the net looking for things that you think confirm what you hope is true, regardless of their credibility, as this recent Inhofe debacle shows. You’re fishing for “proofs”—for confirmations of your narrative. I call the process “dogma propping”: “Here’s someone who says I’m right. Maybe I don’t really know what it says, but it proves me right.” And the by the way, this is in purist conformity to experiences I’ve had with other debates with deniers. The last guy once tried to send me a link with the *caveat* that he wasn’t even endorsing it. It’s a concession: “My proof is somewhere—maybe here; maybe not—I’m not saying either way. But read it just in case it proves me right.”

Whereas I realize a consensus means nothing when searching for scientific truth.

Then, to put WAG’s point another way: Give me an example of what means “something”. A key problem you must confront at some point, Craker, is that AGW is either true and dangerous or its not. When deciding whether to act on it, what do we have to go on *other* than the scientific consensus? You’ve got to take your chances with something, and I’ll throw my chips in with the IPCC. You prefer Monckton and Singer, and it looks like you prefer them simply because they say what you want to hear.

You believe your politicians past and present will to the best of their ability make decisions with your best interests at heart regardless of their conflict of interests whereas I reject this notion completely.

Straw man. You have every opportunity to ask me my opinion of the role of government and the potential pitfalls of engaging it (or not) to solve social/political/environmental problems, but you’re not interested in that. You want to *tell* me what I think. Why? It looks like you need to believe what you wrote above because, again *it fits your narrative*.

You believe in the AGW theory and are not prepared to consider any other option regardless of the implications

I just considered another option: The possibility that your link to Ihofe’s list was proof that, “"one by one self respecting scientists are turning away from the AGW theory and declaring themselves as sceptics." You were just blatantly fishing and hopoing at that point. Since you didn’t deliver, yes, I am still stuck for now with my trust in the scientific consensus.

whereas I reject the theory of AGW based on a lack of evidence, if such evidence does comes to light then I will reconsider my position.

What evidence would that be for a bloke who says “a consensus means nothing when searching for scientific truth”? What would it take, Craker—a lunar billboard with a sign from God? An epiphany a la Homer Simpson? (“Spider pig . . . Spider pig . . . does whatever a spider pig does . . p. )Forty days of fasting and prayer? You tell us you’re unimpressed with a consensus even as you tell us all you need is evidence. If it is true that climate studies “cover many fields and there is not one person in the world that could profess to be a master of them all,” then as laymen we have to rely on secondhand sources in formulating our view. If not a consensus of them, then what? What would it take, Craker?

Skip you can break all this down into a simple Freudian exercise if you want but the above facts will not change for you. I on the other hand not constrained by preconceived beliefs have the ability to change my point of view.

Borderline hilarious. I repeat my questions from above.

The best example that immediately springs to mind is the missing hot spot, the mere fact that the hot spot does not exist clearly falsifies the theory of AGW, if the hot spot suddenly appeared for all to see then I would seriously consider the theory of AGW to be very robust and highly plausible.

I don’t know what this issue is but if there’s a thread on AFTIC point it out to me.

You and all of the dart throwers here do not care that the hotspot is missing, you yawn and wave your hand nonchalantly and then point to Arctic sea ice, sea level rise or show photos of polar bears.
You reject studies that do not conform to your beliefs not by any scientific measure but by simply labeling the author as a nutjob and a liar, thus shielding your belief system from the real world because that’s where you feel most comfortable.

Or in your case, if the document does not support your claim.

And yes by all means if you ever come to Australia we will have a beer, by the way there is an ITC conference in Las Vegas soon and yes I am trying my hardest to be there, unfortunately it’s the really big bosses turn to go so maybe next time I can make it.

You’re nowhere near me and I hate Vegas, but have a safe trip and violate a copyright for me.


Its revealing that you see the debate simply in terms of who can sway the mob to their side. AGW is either true or it is not. Whether the BBC is doing an about-face has nothing to do with it.

As if that were not enough, over the weekend, the Sunday Times, hitherto a climate change cheerleader second only to the Guardian in its enthusiasm for carbon propaganda, devoted a whole section of the newspaper to a major analysis advising people that everything they have been told about global warming is wrong.



Posted by: skip | October 19, 2009 2:50 PM

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The only thing you need to know about global warming

For climate change Blog Action Day today, here is the only thing you need to know about global warming:

We’re doing something major to our planet. Something not done in at least 400,000 years – and likely not in the last 15 million. No matter what you think about global warming, you have to admit: it’s hard to believe that CO2 can reach these unprecedented levels without something big happening. I don’t want to find out what that is.

At the beginning of the above graph, humans were deciding whether to be homo erectus or homo sapiens. Today we’ve got another big decision to make about whether we will advance as a species.

Share this post with a friend using the buttons below, and call your Senators today to tell them to support climate change and clean energy legislation.


Obama speaks on global warming: What you need to know to be certain that global warming is real

How is Peyton Manning Like Global Warming?

Visualizing the "costs" of cap-and-trade

Bullish on the Baucus Bill: Why I won’t be bummed if we don't get a public option

Something happened the other day that made me reconsider the malaise I felt toward the Baucus Bill: I got a blood test.

Two days ago we heard the major news that the Senate Finance Committee had passed Max Baucus’s health care reform bill by a vote of 14-9, preparing the way for a vote on the House and Senate floors. There’s still work to be done, but make no mistake: this is a major achievement. At no time in our nation’s history have we ever been this close to such major health care reform.

Still, many progressives are disappointed in the bill, mainly over its lack of a public insurance option. Some see it as a worst-of-both-worlds compromise: a taxpayer giveaway to parasitic insurance companies that does nothing do control insurance costs. And until a few days ago I was one of them.

But then I got that blood test. And a flu shot. And a body mass index exam. And all of it was paid for by my insurance provider, United Health Care (UHC).

This was all part of a free flu shot clinic and wellness examination that UHC put on for everyone at my company, in our building’s cafeteria. I walked in at 4:00 for my flu shot, filled out my forms, and sat down to wait. I wasn’t officially scheduled for the wellness exam until 4:30, but when they noticed that line was shorter than the one for flu shots, they told me to go ahead to get it done faster. They pricked my finger, took my blood pressure, and sent me to have my body fat analyzed by a hand-held machine. And by the time that was done and I’d also had my flu shot, they’d completed blood glucose and cholesterol analyses on my blood sample – on site. My total cholesterol looked high, so they sat me down with a health coach, who explained that it was actually just my good cholesterol that was high, so I had nothing to worry about (thanks for the good genes Mom and Dad!). The health coach gave me some healthy eating tips and sent me on my way. I was back at my desk by 4:25 – five minutes before I was scheduled to have my checkup.

UHC has received much-deserved scorn for its practice of rescission, so what’s going on here? Why are they all of a sudden being so nice and giving me all this free health care?

Perhaps they knew that, as a powerful blogger, I could influence the 60 or so of you who will read this to like them more, and they hatched a nefarious plot to win me over. Somehow I doubt this.

Maybe they were just doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. But we already know that few corporations, especially health insurance companies, have hearts. The profit motive is their only motive.

And that's the reason UHC provided an in-office health care clinic at my company: it has a profit motive to keep its customers healthy. On the revenue side, companies will pay a premium for health benefits providers that keep their employees healthy and productive. At the very least, the clinics are a branding and PR exercise. On the cost side, simple preventive steps like cholesterol readings can identify risk factors early on, enabling people to change their behaviors or get treatments before more costly procedures become necessary. UHC doesn’t want me to develop diabetes and cost them thousands of dollars each year, so they have an interest in making sure I eat right.

Of course, as always, there’s a caveat: I have group insurance. UHC doesn’t ask me about preexisting conditions, and they can’t rescind my coverage if I get sick (as long as I stay in my current job). My company employs 2,000 people, so we have leverage; if one person starts costing UHC money, it’s not worth it to drop the entire company's benefit and lose the other 1,999, or to hike rates and risk losing my company’s business to another benefits provider. Thus, it’s in UHC’s interest to reduce the risk of costly benefits payouts by investing in preventive care. In my case, the profit motive works in my favor.

If on the other hand, you get your insurance on the individual market or through a small business, you’re not so lucky; in past posts where I've argued about the danger of leaving health care to the profit motive, this is what I was referring to. On the individual market, insurance companies simply refuse to cover anyone they deem as risky, or else charge unaffordable premiums – ensuring that the people most likely to need health care can’t afford it. In the small business market where the employee risk pool is small, one sick employee jeopardizes the profitability of the risk pool for the insurance company - and with it the insurance coverage of all the other employees. When this happens, insurance companies will often jack up premiums for the entire business to cover the one sick employee's cost, in many cases forcing the small business to drop its health benefit. The small business has no leverage.

If you don’t have group coverage, it’s simply more profitable for the insurance company to exclude or drop you if you become sick, so they have no interest in keeping you well. There’s just no money selling health insurance to sick people.

There's another problem with the market. You would expect that insurance companies, faced with escalating health care costs, would pressure hospitals to run more efficiently and medical device makers to invent cheaper devices, but they haven't done so. This is a mystery to me. I'm not an expert, but I imagine that the reason is a combination of two factors: consumer preferences and lack of competition. Consumers confuse health care with health outcomes, assuming that more treatment is always better. As a result, they demand that insurance companies pay for any and all treatments. Similarly, unions and benefits managers like providing their employees with generous health benefits - after all, complex benefits are what justify their jobs; witness their opposition to taxation of "Cadillac" health plans. At the same time, the relative lack of competition between insurance companies dilutes the incentive to find ways to provide the same benefit at lower cost - without rivals willing to undercut their prices, they can simply pass through the higher costs in the form of higher premiums. [Can anyone enlighten me on this paragraph? If you have some expertise, please explain in the comments section.]

Clearly, the health care market is broken. It’s up to the government to fix the market so it works in the People’s best interests. Give insurance companies a stake in their customers’ health, and they will find ways to keep them healthy at the lowest possible cost.

For this to happen, reform must do two things. First, it must make sure insurance companies actually have to pay for your health care when you get sick. Second, it must prevent insurance companies from simply passing these costs through to customers as higher premiums; this can be accomplished either by fostering competition or through legislative fiat.

The Baucus bill actually does a pretty good job on both fronts. It bans rescission. It requires insurers to sell you coverage regardless of preexisting conditions. It places limits on the premiums insurance companies can charge, and restricts the criteria for which companies can charge higher premiums (age, tobacco use, and family size - I would argue that obesity should be a criteria as well). And it creates competition: by creating insurance exchanges where people can shop around for policies, and by allowing the purchase of insurance across state lines starting in 2015. Creating a public option would probably the best and simplest means of fostering competition, but I'm certainly not wedded to it as the ONLY way.

When insurance companies can no longer just drop customers when they need expensive health care, and can't cover expenses simply by raising premiums ad infinitum, all of a sudden there's a powerful incentive to make sure their customers never need those expensive treatments - and that the treatments they do need don't cost the company a fortune. Essentially, what you're doing is telling insurance companies they must keep their patients healthy - and that they have limited dollars to do so.

This sounds like a tough, even unfair, spot to be in. How could insurance companies ever accomplish this? Conventional wisdom holds that all the money we throw at health care is what drives America's health care innovation machine.

But in fact, history suggests that reducing available funds can have a similar effect on innovation; when faced with a limited number of health care dollars to compete for, businesses can and will innovate low-cost treatments. Just as agriculture was invented in the desert, businesses are most inventive in the face of necessity.

Need proof? Check out what GE Healthcare is doing in India. Conventional wisdom holds that with a per capital GDP only 5% that of the United States', India would be a poor market for a company that makes million-dollar imaging machines, but that's exactly where GE Healthcare decided to invest. And the risk paid off. The need to serve people without much money to spend on health care has produced a $1,000 electrocardiogram device and a $15,000 PC-based ultrasound machine - roughly 15% the price of the top-end devices sold in the US. And costs keep falling. In fact, today GE is finding markets in the United States for these "50% solutions at 15% prices":

Consider GE’s health-care business in the United States. It used to make most of its money on premium computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance (MR) imaging machines. But to succeed in the era of broader access and reduced reimbursement that President Obama hopes to bring about, the business will probably need to increase by 50% the number of products it offers at lower price points. And that doesn’t mean just cheaper versions of high-tech products like imaging machines. The company also must create more offerings like the heated bassinet it developed for India, which has great potential in US inner cities, where infant deaths related to the cold remain high. And let’s not forget that technology often can be improved until it satisfies more demanding customers. The compact ultrasound, which can now handle imaging applications that previously required a conventional machine, is one example.

Anticipating the effects of health care reform, GE recently announced a plan to invest $3 billion to invent 100 more low-cost medical solutions in the US. Reading the article, I can scarcely contain my optimism over companies' abilities to innovate if given the right carrots (or sticks).

There may be other, less obvious benefits. According to some estimates, 30% of health care costs are due to obesity. Sticking insurance companies with the bill would give them a powerful reason to do everything they can to make sure Americans eat better. Indeed, as Prof. Michael Pollan of Berkeley argues, health care reform could pit insurance lobbyists against Big Food, fighting to end government subsidies for the foods that make us unhealthy:

As for the insurers, you would think preventing chronic diseases would be good business, but, at least under the current rules, it’s much better business simply to keep patients at risk for chronic disease out of your pool of customers, whether through lifetime caps on coverage or rules against pre-existing conditions or by figuring out ways to toss patients overboard when they become ill.

But these rules may well be about to change — and, when it comes to reforming the American diet and food system, that step alone could be a game changer. Even under the weaker versions of health care reform now on offer, health insurers would be required to take everyone at the same rates, provide a standard level of coverage and keep people on their rolls regardless of their health. Terms like “pre-existing conditions” and “underwriting” would vanish from the health insurance rulebook — and, when they do, the relationship between the health insurance industry and the food industry will undergo a sea change. Read the full article" style="color: rgb(85, 26, 139); ">-->Read the full article

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Through all of this, I think the public option is less important than its been made out to be. My guess is that all the hoopla is driven more by psychological attachment (or opposition) to it as a specific means rather than its efficacy in driving a desired outcome. For example, the GOP argument against the public option is that it would drive private insurers out of business and lead to a government takeover of health care. But this is illogical - if you believe in free markets, private companies would go out of business only if the public plan provided better health care at lower cost. It's a catch-22. Unless Republicans are against lower costs and better care, the only reason for opposing the public option is ideological opposition to anything done by government.

But by the same token, it's important for progressives to remember that the public option is a means to an end, not the end itself. I'm not saying we should not have a public option - far from it, I think it's the simplest way to foster competition, and we should continue calling our Senators to advocate for it. Nor am I questioning the earnestness of progressives' desire for it; I want a public option too. But I do know that it's human nature to attach ourselves to the thing that's most tangible; it's easier to rally in support of a specific policy than to think open-endedly about different ways to achieve a desired goal. That's especially true when the policy we've proposed gets attacked as viciously as the public option has – the attack makes it personal. Psychologically, we react by digging in, further cementing the policy as part of our identity and making it harder to consider other options. If you need some consolation over the probable loss of a public option, check out Nate Silver's post on insurance company share prices. I don't think the Baucus bill will be as big of an insurance company giveaway as everyone thinks it will.

I work in the world of sales and marketing consulting, and we've got a saying, "Oil companies don't need drills - they need holes." And Americans don't need better access to treatment - we need to be healthier. A public option is still desirable, but I'm optimistic that the Baucus bill actually does a lot better than many give it credit for.