February 17, 2008

Late, but still not alarmed

Sooo, you know how the year gets away, right from the very first of January, right? Well, that's my excuse. I'm a very busy woman, with many important and slothful goals to fulfill and random KPIs to live down to.

Either that, or I've already written about this and I've forgotten. In fact, I think I might have. In which case: I'm a very forgetful woman, with many important and slothful goals to fulfill and random KPIs to live down to, and this is a new depth, so I'll get a half year bonus come blog-performance-review time in June.

Either way, this is from The New York Times, published on January 01 (yeah, yeah, of this year). I thought it was good. I like the concept of availability entrepreneurs and availability cascades. Yes I do. Perhaps you will too.

"You’re in for very bad weather. In 2008, your television will bring you image after frightening image of natural havoc linked to global warming. You will be told that such bizarre weather must be a sign of dangerous climate change — and that these images are a mere preview of what’s in store unless we act quickly to cool the planet.

Unfortunately, I can’t be more specific. I don’t know if disaster will come by flood or drought, hurricane or blizzard, fire or ice. Nor do I have any idea how much the planet will warm this year or what that means for your local forecast. Long-term climate models cannot explain short-term weather.

But there’s bound to be some weird weather somewhere, and we will react like the sailors in the Book of Jonah. When a storm hit their ship, they didn’t ascribe it to a seasonal weather pattern. They quickly identified the cause (Jonah’s sinfulness) and agreed to an appropriate policy response (throw Jonah overboard).

Today’s interpreters of the weather are what social scientists call availability entrepreneurs: the activists, journalists and publicity-savvy scientists who selectively monitor the globe looking for newsworthy evidence of a new form of sinfulness, burning fossil fuels.

A year ago, British meteorologists made headlines predicting that the buildup of greenhouse gases would help make 2007 the hottest year on record. At year’s end, even though the British scientists reported the global temperature average was not a new record — it was actually lower than any year since 2001 the BBC confidently proclaimed, “2007 Data Confirms Warming Trend.”

When the Arctic sea ice last year hit the lowest level ever recorded by satellites, it was big news and heralded as a sign that the whole planet was warming. When the Antarctic sea ice last year reached the highest level ever recorded by satellites, it was pretty much ignored. A large part of Antarctica has been cooling recently, but most coverage of that continent has focused on one small part that has warmed.

The most charitable excuse for this bias in weather divination is that the entrepreneurs are trying to offset another bias.

When judging risks, we often go wrong by using what’s called the availability heuristic: we gauge a danger according to how many examples of it are readily available in our minds. Thus we overestimate the odds of dying in a terrorist attack or a plane crash because we’ve seen such dramatic deaths so often on television; we underestimate the risks of dying from a stroke because we don’t have so many vivid images readily available.

Slow warming doesn’t make for memorable images on television or in people’s minds, so activists, journalists and scientists have looked to hurricanes, wild fires and starving polar bears instead. They have used these images to start an “availability cascade,” a term coined by Timur Kuran, professor of economics and political science at Duke University, and Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

The availability cascade is a self-perpetuating process: the more attention a danger gets, the more worried people become, leading to more news coverage and more fear.

“Many people concerned about climate change,” Dr. Sunstein says, “want to create an availability cascade by fixing an incident in people’s minds. Hurricane Katrina is just an early example; there will be others. I don’t doubt that climate change is real and that it presents a serious threat, but there’s a danger that any ‘consensus’ on particular events or specific findings is, in part, a cascade.”

Once a cascade is under way, it becomes tough to sort out risks because experts become reluctant to dispute the popular wisdom, and are ignored if they do. Now that the melting Arctic has become the symbol of global warming, there’s not much interest in hearing other explanations of why the ice is melting — or why the globe’s other pole isn’t melting, too.

[A] paper in Nature concluded that global warming has a minimal effect on hurricanes. It was published in December — by coincidence, the same week that Mr. Gore received his Nobel Peace Prize.

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Gore didn’t dwell on the complexities of the hurricane debate. Nor, in his roundup of the 2007 weather, did he mention how calm the hurricane season had been. Instead, he alluded somewhat mysteriously to “stronger storms in the Atlantic and Pacific,” and focused on other kinds of disasters, like “massive droughts” and “massive flooding.”

“In the last few months,” Mr. Gore said, “it has been harder and harder to misinterpret the signs that our world is spinning out of kilter.”

But he was being too modest.

Thanks to availability entrepreneurs like him, misinterpreting the weather is getting easier and easier."

In 2008, 100% chance of alarm - The New York Times


  1. Surely, the hot air emanating from Gore and other global warming proponents will considerably increase our greenhouse gas emissions, Caz?

  2. Oh, and Caz!
    What about that maroon Wayne Swan's ignorance in parliament yesterday?
    Turnbull had him for breakfast.

    This is one Swan that's looking more and more like a dead duck!Won't be long before he quacks(or croaks) I reckon.

    Methinks a swan song is nigh.

  3. Anonymous7:34 PM

    Swan a dead duck, now I would like to see that one Friday.

    Ah... the cascade effect, well known to the Hindus. It's how meditation can work. Focus on something and the mind will throw up all things related.

    It's a quite normal mental process really, however being Tasmanian everthing is related to everyhing else anyway so we don't have to think much about that stuff.

  4. Turnball *did* Swan and I missed the entire thing?


    One newspaper article that I read today alluded to whatever it was that Turnball did in parliament, but then didn't tell me what, or how, or in which positions he gave it to Swan.

  5. I too missed it. Then again, I'm all over the shop at present. We decided to make me a national training and development manager. Cert IV training and assessment courses, training programmes....the thing has a life of its own.

    Melbourne next week to "develop" our Melbourne offices.

    You'll have to find something we can read or watch Kathy...or should that be you bitch.

    Oops, wrong place.

  6. Anonymous12:52 AM

    Tim Dumlop did a neat pirouette on the Turnbull-Swan thingy.

    So what if Swan doesn't know what the hell NAIRU is?

    (Do I? Do you? Does it really matter, aside from Swan's obvious discomfiture during Question Time?)

    Never mind Swan's ineptitude, says Dunlop, what about Costello's bigtime fuckup on his "first trip overseas as Treasurer. He met with Alan Greenspan and then came home and blurted out the contents of the confidential meeting..." (Gee, seems only yesterday...)

    As the Fin Review noted, "...insensitive to the fact that the slightest hint of Dr Greenspan’s intentions can move the markets."

    We can be sure anyway - can't we? - that Malcolm wouldn't have made either mistake...

  7. Anonymous12:57 AM

    Ooops, did I say Du M lop???

    Sorry, Tim...

  8. I can't wait for the man-made global warming crap to end. I'm sick of science being subverted for greed & politics.

  9. Anonymous9:42 PM

    "So what if Swan doesn't know what the hell NAIRU is?"

    Isn't that the place where we sent all those pesky terrorists who tried to attack us in there wooden boats - that sometimes sank.

    I wonder why Swan never knew that.

  10. I was thinking Naru House, top end of Collins Street, up near Spring Street.

    Hell, every knows where Naru House is, Turnball made a very sound point.

    Jeez, next Turnball will be screwing Swan over not knowing where the Hermes shop is ... down the street on the opposite side of Collins to Naru House.

  11. Anonymous11:34 PM

    Will you be training them in the art of elbow bending, Mike?
    With positive reinforcements such as a carton of Black beer?

    The Bitch..

  12. Absolutely you bitch!!

    First stop the Airport Hilton. One will overnight and over drink.

    Ooops, did I type that?

    Really, after such a long flight, one needs a short bridge walk to a bar.

    Bar, beer, "Burkell"....