Saturday, January 18, 2020

Will the real Chancellor please stand up?

Britain is better off in. And that’s all because of the Single Market.
It’s a great invention, one that even Lady Thatcher campaigned enthusiastically to create.   
The world’s largest economic bloc, it gives every business in Britain access to 500 million customers with no barriers, no tariffs and no local legislation to worry about. It’s no surprise that nearly half of our exports go to other EU nations, exports that are linked to three million jobs here in the UK. 
And as an EU member we also have preferential access to more than 50 other international markets from Mexico to Montenegro, helping us to export £50 billion of goods and services to them every year. 
Even the most conservative estimates say it could take years to secure agreements with the EU and other countries. 
Having spent six years fighting to get British businesses back on their feet after Labour’s record-breaking recession, I’m not about to vote for a decade of stagnation and doubt.

The chancellor has warned manufacturers that "there will not be alignment" with the EU after Brexit and insists firms must "adjust" to new regulations. Mr Javid declined to specify which EU rules he wanted to drop. 
Speaking to the Financial Times, Sajid Javid admitted not all businesses would benefit from Brexit. "We're also talking about companies that have known since 2016 that we are leaving the EU. Admittedly, they didn't know the exact terms."

I'm old enough to remember a time when the Govt promised us the “exact same benefits ” as membership of the single market. Good to know that all those Brexit voters knew exactly what they were voting for. Shame they still haven't managed to share their vision with the rest of us.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Maths homework

For those who struggle with arithmetic, £130Bn is more than 14 times the annual contribution of £9Bn that the UK currently makes to the EU. The end-of-year £200Bn estimate is more than 22 times larger, and exceeds the totality of our contributions over the entire 47 years of our membership. It seems a hefty price to pay for a blue passport and a new 50p piece.

Of course the long-term damage is far greater than can be measured in purely economic terms. Students and the young in particular will be thrilled that the Govt has recently refused to commit to participating in the wildly popular and effective Erasmus exchange program. The rest of the EU members and associates will no doubt be devastated that they will only have 30 countries to choose from rather than 31.

In unrelated news, the racists who told Meghan Markle to f off back where she came from, are apparently upset that she has decided to do just that. Shrug. Some people just love to hate, I guess. The story even got a mention in the Guardian which has obviously gone down-market.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Review of the blogyear?

Nope, Can't be bothered. There's only a handful of posts for 2019, you can read them from the sidebar. Or just scroll down the page. I will be posting about real science quite soon though, once we have recovered from the insane 31 Dec IPCC deadline. Who thought that was a good idea? Bad enough to have that for our own paper, but then along came another couple that we were co-authors on, that required commenting and editing, and a project proposal for which there was really no reason at all for the same deadline to be picked, but back when we were first talking about it, it didn't seem to matter...

Anyway, all 4 things got done in time. Phew. Watch this space for further news.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Just when you thought you'd heard the last about brexit

Not that any of my readers would be deluded enough to think that this is going to go away any time soon, just because Johnson wants to pretend it will.

Brexit, in some form or other, is going to start actually happening at the end of the month. I'd call it a grotesque act of self-harm but of course a lot of those who are going to suffer will be those who have opposed it at every turn. In fact it is not so much self-harm as intergenerational conflict. 

Here is the horrific split of voting preference versus age in the 2019 general election:

Now I know what you're thinking, old people have always tended to vote tory. True to a small extent, nothing like what has happened recently. Here is the longer set of results from 1992 onwards:

The blue lines do trend modestly up to the right, and red ones down but it was only since the brexit referendum that age became such a sharp dividing line, with roughly a 3:1 split of old voters voting one way and 3:1 split of young voting the other in the recent election.

What we have now is nothing short of an ideological war being waged on the young by the old. Having had all the opportunities and benefits of EU membership for most of their adult lives, they are denying this to their own children and grandchildren based on their anti-EU obsession. This isn't just an accidental consequence of not thinking about things, when specifically asked about the possibility of family members losing jobs due to brexit, a majority of brexit voting pensioners actually said they didn't care, they wanted their precious brexit anyway.

And let's not forget that there are about 2.5 million voters who have never been allowed to vote on brexit because they were under-18 at the time. Well over a million brexit voters are already dead (that's just simple demographics) and yet their views are literally held in higher esteem than real live people who are going to suffer the consequences for decades to come. Even if not a single person had changed their mind (and I'd agree not many have) then we would have had a majority for remain for the past year. That pretty much agrees with all opinion polls now for the past year and more, not to mention the election result itself where the tories (and brexit party) totalled about 45% of the vote versus the 55% from parties who wanted at least another referendum on the details if not outright opposition. Nevertheless, that's the way our system "works" and the tories have the power to do whatever they want for the foreseeable future. They, and those who voted for them, own the consequences in their entirety, especially after they've spent the past few years yelling that they know exactly what they voted for. A bit odd that they never managed to agree what that exactly was (beyond a few trivial slogans), but never mind. I'll not bother predicting because there is not yet any clear picture of what they want to achieve.

Remember the heady days of 2016 when the brexiters told us that we held all the cards and our negotiation with the EU would be the easiest trade deal in history? Now there is no more talk of sunlit uplands, brexit is at best presented as a tedious, costly and difficult task we need to try to get through before the tories can start to undo the damage caused by whoever it was that happened to be pretending to govern the country over the past decade (don't anyone tell Johnson who was in the cabinet over the past few years....). In fact it's such a good idea that the govt is banning any mention of it from February, even though the fun will barely have started at that point.

Monday, December 23, 2019


At the start of the year I made some predictions. It's now time to see how I did.

In reverse order....

6. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere will increase (p=0.999).

Yup. I don't really need to wait for 1 Jan for that.

5. 2019 will be warmer than most years this century so far (p=0.75 - not the result of any real analysis).

As above, I know we've a few days to go but no need to wait for this one, which has been very clear for a good while now.

4. We will also submit a highly impactful paper in collaboration with many others (p=0.85).

Done, reviews back which look broadly ok, revision planned for early next year when we all have a bit of time (31 Dec is a stupid IPCC submission deadline for lots of other stuff).

3. Jules and I will finish off the rather delayed work with Thorsten and Bjorn (p=0.95).

Yes, the project is done, through the write-up continues. Actually we hope to submit a paper by 31 Dec but there will be more to do next year too.

2. I will run a time (just!) under 2:45 at Manchester marathon (p=0.6).

Nope, 2:47:15 this time. The prediction was made just a few days after I'd run a big PB in a 10k but even then I thought it was barely more likely than not, and it got less likely as the date approached. 

1. Brexit won't happen (p=0.95).

On re-reading the old post, I have to admit I cannot remember the precise intention I had when I wrote this. Given the annual time frame of the remainder of the bets, and the narrative of that time being that we were certainly going to leave on the 29th March (as repeated over 100 times by May - remember her? - and the rest of them) I do believe I must have been referring to leaving during 2019. After all, I could never hope to validate a bet of infinite duration. So yes, I'm going to give myself this one.

On the other hand, I did actually think that we would probably not be stupid enough to leave at all, and clearly I misunderestimated the electorate and also the dishonesty of the Conservative Party, or perhaps as it should be known, the English National Party.

I have learnt from that misjudgment and will not be offering any predictions as to where we end up at the end of next year. Which is sort of inconvenient, as we are trying to arrange a new contract with our European friends for work which could extend into 2021. Our options would seem to include: limiting the scope of the contract to what we can confidently complete strictly within 2020, which is far from ideal, or shifting everything to Estonia (incurring additional costs and inconvenience for us, though it may be the best option in the long term). Or just take a punt and cross our fingers that it all turns out ok, despite there being as yet no hint of a sketch of a plan as to how the sales of services into the EU will be regulated or taxed past 2020. It is quite possible that we'll just shut down the (very modest) operation and put our feet up. 

I'm still waiting for the brexiters to tell me how any of this is in the country's interests. But that's a rant for another day. Perhaps it's something to do with having enough of experts.

As for scoring my predictions: the idea of a “proper scoring rule” is to provide a useful measure of performance for probabilistic prediction. A natural choice is the logarithmic scoring rule L = log(p) where p is the probability assigned to the outcome, and with all of my predictions having a binary yes/no basis I'll use base 2 for the calculation. The aim is to maximise the score (ie minimise its negativity, as the log of numbers in the range 0 to 1 is negative). A certain prediction where we assign a probability of p=1 to something that comes out right scores a maximum 0, a coin toss is -1 whether right or wrong but if you predict something to only have a p=0.1 chance and it happens, then the score is log(0.1) which in base 2 is a whopping -3.3. Assigning a probability of 0 to the event that happens is a bad idea, the score is infinitely negative...oops.

My score is therefore:
0 - 0.42 - .23 - .07 -1.32 - .07 = 2.11

or about 0.35 per bet, which is equivalent to assigning p=0.78 to the correct outcome each time (which is just the geometric mean of the probabilities I did assign). Of course some were very easy, but that's why I gave them high p estimates which means high score (but a big risk if I'd got them wrong). I could have given a higher probability to the temperature prediction if I'd bothered thinking about it a bit more carefully. The running one was the only truly difficult prediction, because I was specifically calibrating the threshold to be close to the border of what I might achieve. It might have been better presented as a distribution for my finish time, where I would have had to judge the sharpness of the pdf as well as its location (ie mean).

Tuesday, December 17, 2019 Is the concept of ‘tipping point’ helpful for describing and communicating possible climate futures?

There’s a new book just out "Contemporary Climate Change Debates: A Student Primer" edited by Mike Hulme. I contributed a short essay arguing the negative side of the above question. It was originally intended to be "Will exceeding 2C of warming lock the world onto a 'Hothouse Earth' trajectory?" but no-one could be found to argue in favour of that (this was shortly after the publication of the Steffen nonsense) so we settled on something a bit more vague. Maybe I should summarise my compelling argument but don’t have time right now so you’ll have to take my word for it.

I haven’t had time to read the book but my complementary copy just arrived (hence the post) and the table of contents is quite interesting, so maybe it would make a good Christmas present for the person who is interested in climate change – or even for someone who isn’t!

Introduction: Why and how to debate climate change
Mike Hulme
1. Is climate change the most important challenge of our times?
Sarah Cornell and Aarti Gupta
PART I: What do we need to know?
2. Is the concept of 'tipping point' helpful for describing and communicating possible climate futures?
Michel Crucifix and James Annan
3. Should individual extreme weather events be attributed to human agency?
Friederike E.L. Otto and Greg Lusk
4. Does climate change drive violence, conflict and human migration?
David D. Zhang and Qing Pei; Christiane Fröhlich and Tobias Ide
5. Can the social cost of carbon be calculated?
Reyer Gerlagh and Roweno Heijmans; Kozo Torasan Mayumi
PART II: What should we do?
6. Are carbon markets the best way to address climate change?
Misato Sato and Timothy Laing; Mike Hulme
7. Should future investments in energy technology be limited exclusively to renewables?
Jennie C. Stephens and Gregory Nemet
8. Is it necessary to research solar climate engineering as a possible backstop technology?
Jane C.S. Long and Rose Cairns
PART III: On what grounds should we base our actions?
9. Is emphasising consensus in climate science helpful for policymaking?
John Cook and Warren Pearce
10. Do rich people rather than rich countries bear the greatest responsibility for climate change?
Paul G. Harris and Kenneth Shockley
11. Is climate change a human rights violation?
Catriona McKinnon and Marie-Catherine Petersmann
PART IV: Who should be the agents of change?
12. Does successful emissions reduction lie in the hands of non-state rather than state actors?
Liliana B. Andronova and Kim Coetzee
13. Is legal adjudication essential for enforcing ambitious climate change policies?
Eloise Scotford; Marjan Peeters and Ellen Vos
14. Does the 'Chinese model' of environmental governance demonstrate to the world how to govern the climate?
Tianbao Qin and Meng Zhang; Lei Liu and Pu Wang
15. Are social media making constructive climate policymaking harder?
Mike S. Schäfer and Peter North

Monday, November 11, 2019 Mina olen Eesti e-resident! 🇪🇪

I believe the title of the post proclaims me to be an Estonian e-resident. jules likewise. This marks the culmination of a very straightforward on-line process which was remarkably painless right up to the moment that we had to attend the Estonian Embassy in London to pick up our identity cards in person, at which point we had to brave Britain’s creaking rail network.

The point of establishing e-residency is to be able to set up a business there, which will enable Blue Skies Research to remain seamlessly in the EU in the event of the UK ever managing to leave. Not that the latter looks very likely, but in order to collaborate on any long-term project based on EU funding we need to be able to prove that there’s a plan in place to cover the theoretical possibility. This must be one of these “Brexit bonus” things that the tories have been promising us for the past few years. Though “bonus” would usually imply some sort of gain rather than added costs and bureaucracy, not to mention the losses in corporation tax which will henceforth be paid in Estonia rather than the UK. Even for our part-time hobby business, that is likely to be several thousands, perhaps up to ten thousand pounds, per year lost to the UK indefinitely into the future. Our combined share of EU membership fees is probably under a hundred quid per year. Even the bare cost of health insurance for when we visit our colleagues there will cost more than that when we lose the EHIC. But we will apparently get blue passports and we may eventually get a new 50p piece too when they have worked out the design. Apparently they had almost finalised that a while back, but hadn't worked out what to do about the border. Boom tish. Of course they still haven't, so Bonson is just lying through his teeth every time he opens his mouth, and the same old tory voters will just lap it up cos he's such a cheeky chappy with those clever latin bons mots.

We did managed to arrange another couple of things during the two-day trip, so it wasn’t a total waste of time. And it was cheaper than expected too, due to three of the four train trips being significantly delayed to such an extent we can reclaim half of the travel costs.

Saturday, November 09, 2019 Marty Weitzman: Dismally Wrong.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum and all that, but I realise I only wrote this down in a very abbreviated and perhaps unclear form many years ago, in fact prior to publication of the paper it concerns. I was sad to hear of his untimely death and especially by suicide when he surely had much to offer. But like all innovative researchers, he made mistakes too, and his Dismal Theorem was surely one of them. Since it’s been repeatedly brought up again recently, I thought I should explain why it’s wrong, or perhaps to be more precise, why it isn’t applicable or relevant to climate science in the way he presented it.

His basic claim in this famous paper was that a “fat tail” (which can be rigorously defined) on a pdf of climate sensitivity is inevitable, and leads to the possibility of catastrophic outcomes dominating any rational economic analysis. The error in his reasoning is, I believe, rather simple once you’ve seen it, but the number of people sufficiently well-versed in statistics, climate science and economics (and sufficiently well-motivated to carefully examine the basis of his claim) is approximately zero so as far as I’m aware no-one else ever spotted the problem, or at least I haven’t seen it mentioned elsewhere.

The basic paradigm that underpins his analysis is that if we try to estimate the parameters of a distribution by taking random draws from it, then our estimate of the distribution is going to naturally take the form of a t-distribution which is fat-tailed. And importantly, this remains true even when we know the distribution to be Gaussian (thin-tailed), but we don’t know the width and can only estimate it from the data. The presentation of this paradigm is hidden beyond several pages of verbiage and economics which you have to read through first, but it’s clear enough on page 7 onwards (starting with “The point of departure here”).

The simple point that I have to make is to observe that this paradigm is not relevant to how we generate estimates of the equilibrium climate sensitivity. We are not trying to estimate parameters of “the distribution of climate sensitivity”, in fact to even talk of such a thing would be to commit a category error. Climate sensitivity is an unknown parameter, it does not have a distribution. Furthermore, we do not generate an uncertainty estimate by comparing a handful of different observationally-based point estimates and building a distribution around them. (Amusingly, if we were to do this, we would actually end up with a much lower uncertainty than usually stated at the 1-sigma level, though in this case it could indeed end up being fat-tailed in the Weitzman sense.) Instead, we have independent uncertainty estimates attached to each observational analysis, which are based on analysis of how the observations are made and processed in each specific case. There is no fundamental reason why these uncertainty estimates should necessarily be either  fat- or thin-tailed, they just are what they are and in many cases the uncertainties we attach to them are a matter of judgment rather than detailed mathematical analysis. It is easy to create artificial toy scenarios (where we can control all structural errors and other “black swans”) where the correct posterior pdf arising from the analysis can be of either form.

Hence, or otherwise, things are not necessarily quite as dismal as they may have seemed.