Thursday, September 29, 2005

Bill Gray bets on cooling?

Bill Gray is Professor at Colorado State University. Today at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, he stated that he was willing to bet that global temperatures would drop over the coming few years (I'll try to transcribe the exact wording later, his comments can be found about 1h10m into this realaudio file which is listed on this page).

Gavin Schmidt and Michael Mann comment on this and other aspects of the hearing on Realclimate. I feel I should gently point out that they have rather missed the point in their suggestion that
This would appear to be a direct call to those "global warmers" (see also here, here and here) who are trying to get contrarians to put their money where their mouths are (with very limited success).
Bill Gray's comments are a challenge to all mainstream climate scientists who agree that the dominant cause of the recent warming is anthropogenic and ongoing. I might take up Gray's offer, but I'm really more interested in what the wider consensus is - I don't need to make bets to work out my viewpoint!

So, I'm probably going to sit back and wait for a while to see how many others are prepared to join the fray...

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Steve Sailer: The new "Bad Bet" service!

On the back of Tierney's publicity stunt over oil prices, Steve Sailer is offering to take up bad bets on any topic.

I only hope that he doesn't attract any climate septics. There are already several people lined up with offers on the table that should be attractive to any honest sceptic, and I'm sure they would happily accept odds more strongly in their favour should anyone really want to make a splash!

Thanks to Chris Masse for the tip.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Will the real Piers Corbyn please stand up?

Some time ago, maverick weather forecaster Piers Corbyn presented some, shall we say...unconventional...reseach concerning the supposed solar influence on climate, which, if valid, would indicate a substantial global cooling by 2040. At that time, I was still looking for an opponent to bet against. So, I tried to contact him and arrange a bet, but didn't get a response. Jim Giles, however, phoned him up while researching his Nature article, and did get him to produce the apparently unequivocal quote "I'm happy to bet loads of money".

Piers did eventually comment on my blog article (in the comments section here). I emailed him the reply which I posted below his comment, but have not heard from him again. Since he doesn't seem willing to communicate with me, I alerted William Connolley (WMC) to his offer to bet. WMC emailed him and did initially get a vague reply, which appeared to show interest, but did not address the specifics of a bet. WMC has emailed him several times over the past month, offering either to duplicate my existing bet with Bashkirtsev and Mashnich, or alternatively to negotiate something else along similar lines, but Piers has studiously avoided a direct response. He did refer to my blog article as "deceitful" and "libellous", but as far as I can see, all I have done is accuse him of ducking the challenge, and this seems to be a fair summary of the current state of play. Of course I'll be happy to help publicise any bet if only he would agree to one.

I remind all sceptics that there are offers on the table of up to 3:1 odds, depending on details such as the duration of the bet. That bookends the "market consensus" at between 2% and 25% (the lower figure referring to Lindzen's 50:1 offer). That's still quite a range (and I hope it will narrow further), but the important point, which underlies the whole "betting market" concept, is that this estimate explicitly accounts for the opinions of the sceptics. If anyone wants to take up any of these offers, or make a better one, please let me and/or the bet originators know.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Fame at last

I see that someone has created a wikipedia page about me. So, if you want to find out about my brilliant career, you know where to click. I suppose I should be flattered that someone thought it worthwhile trying to disparage the betting idea.

In case it gets changed, the version I'm referring to is the one archived here. No, I'm not going to bother adding to or editing it - pages about me and my work are already available from the links at the RHS of this page. And anyway, it's not far from the truth :-)

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Shocking police behaviour

This has apparently just come into the public domain after the police tried to cover it up for about 6 years. On the video, you can see two plainclothed policemen, one on foot and one in a car, chasing after a suspect (who, as it happens, was innocent). The car driver deliberately knocks the cyclist off and then, as he tries to run away, runs him down a second time, driving right over him. The driver was convicted of the trivial offence of "careless driving".

It should give pause for thought for all those trying to excuse the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes. "Just one of these things" or a pattern of violent disregard for minimally acceptable standards of human behaviour, especially when the victim is black?

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

A betting update

There are no new bets to report, but there has been some behind-the-scenes effort in trying to set them up.

Most of the chasing has been done by William Connolley and Brian Schmidt. In the aftermath of my bet being announced, various pundits boldly claimed that they would be willing to take the "cold" side of a bet on the same terms or similar. Chris Randles quickly took one of them on for 500 pounds, which I reported here. However, subsequent attempts to chase down the others have so far proved fruitless.

Brian Schmidt tried here, with no response so far.

William Connolley has tried to get something out of "I'm happy to bet loads of money" Piers Corbyn, but nothing's been arranged yet. He's also emailed Tim Haab and I wait to see what, if anything, transpires.

Lubos Motl made a rather childish offer that he would accept odds of 8:1 in his favour on a 10 year bet, but only so long as it used only a single year of data at each end. Of course, this makes the temperature change very noisy due to interannual variability, as you can see on the graph below:
Here I've plotted the NASA GISTEMP annual temperature anomalies, and a 5-year smoothed version (both offset by 1C). The decadal temperature changes are shown below that, with the zero line indicated. As you can see, there have been two occasions in recent decades (three if you go back as far as 1976-1966) when the 10-year change has been briefly negative even during a period which has seen strong warming. William Connolley gets a similar result using a different data set. So Motl's 8:1 offer is roughly a fair bet even under conditions of continued strong warming - hardly a sceptical viewpoint. With a 5-year smoothing filter, the cooling peaks are eliminated, but he wasn't prepared to negotiate on such a bet.

An analytical look at the data gives a similar result. The annual temperatures have a variability of about 0.09C about the trend, which means that a straight decadal difference has a variability of 1.41*0.09C = 0.13C. The trend itself is about 0.17C, which implies that under the assumption of continued warming, the overall decadal temperature change is (roughly) a sample from the Gaussian distribution N(0.17,0.13) which has a 10% chance of being negative. Smoothing substantially reduces the variability - under the (perhaps slightly questionable) assumption that the temperature anomalies of consecutive years are independent, the distribution would be close to N(0.17,0.06) which has less than 1% chance of being negative.

So, no new bets yet. But both Brian and William have now offered significantly better odds than I had to, in the hope that this might tempt some of the sceptics who merely claim that future temperature change is no more likely to be up than down, as opposed to my opponents (and Piers Corbyn) who confidently predicted that cooling was imminent. William has offered 7:3 for an unsmoothed decadal difference. Brian has offered 2:1 on decadal bet, and 3:1 over 20 years. Until and unless they find any opponents, it seems reasonable to conclude that whatever the market rate is, it is higher than those offers on the table.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

IPCC WG1 available

Looks like the first public draft of the WG1 report from IPCC AR4 is available for "expert review".

English Nature SSSI awards

The annual "Green Oscars" are handed out today for a handful of those who help maintain Sites of Special Scientific Interest in England. And this year, my sister is among the winners!

From the English Nature Press release:
Phil Webster and Helen Annan became unofficial wardens of the nature reserve next door to the youth hostel they manage and their infectious enthusiasm helped found a Friends group. This year hundreds of natterjack toadlets emerged – an enormous success for a vital species.
Their hostel, in Millom, Cumbria, is right on the edge of the Lake District, surrounded by a mix of stunning coastal and mountain scenery, and with a number of significant nature reserves nearby. You can listen to the rare natterjack toad on their website.

It's not over 'til the fat bowler spins

And spin he did yesterday, perhaps for the last time in a Test match in England.

As all Brits and Aussies will have worked out (and probably no-one else), this is a post about cricket, which has always been my favourite sport (probably because it's the only one I was any good at when I was at school). After an epic battle between the two best sides in world cricket (which you can read all about here), England have won the Ashes for the first time in 16 years. The past two months have seen a gripping contest between the long-time champions of Australia, and a resurgent England team who have swept all before them over the past couple of years. And I've spent many long evenings listening to the commentary on TMS. After losing the first Test match to go 0-1 down, England fought back brilliantly to a 2-1 lead (including one of the best test matches ever), and so were left only needing a draw in the final Test. For the past 5 days they have been doing their best to withstand everthing the Aussies could throw at them, and eventually the whole summer rested on the final day's play. Nervously at first, then with increasing confidence and finally with exuberance (Kevin Pietersen's 7 sixes being the most in an innings in any Ashes Test), they weathered the storm and battled to safety and the series win.

Most of the Australian team looked a bit past their best, and their two star bowlers (including the fat spinner featured in the title, Shane Warne) are in the twilight of their careers. England, on the other hand, are young and several of them should have their best years yet to come. It would be foolish to predict a decade of world domination, but they certainly have no-one to fear.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Global Warming Lawsuit Gets Go-Ahead

Interesting news snippet here. Friends of the Earth has been given the go-ahead to sue two US government agencies. From my reading of it, the main point does not appear to be a claim of actual damage from greenhouse gas emissions, but they instead assert that the agencies have not complied with environmental protection legislation, as they did not consider the likely future harm from the GHG emissions of major development projects that they are funding. Interesting...

No matter who you vote for...

...the government always gets in. Nowhere is this truer than Japan, where we have a general election today. Koizumi's Liberal Democatic Party has been in power non-stop for the past 50 years, save for a brief aberration in the early 90s, and his victory, if not its precise magnitude, is a forgone conclusion. He'll either gain an outright victory, or lead a coalition.

Of course, one-party rule is usually associated with communism, dictatorships, and the "Axis of Evil" rather than economically-advanced "western-style" liberal democracies. If Japan was not such a strong ally of the USA, we can be sure that the LDP's long-term monopoly of power would be a subject of serious criticism (cf Saudi Arabia etc). But Japan has a way of turning western preconceptions upside down. While it could certainly be argued that I, as a well-off white professional, do not see the soft underbelly of the Japanese system, it is also clear that society here just works in a way that the West sometimes doesn't. Sure, there is corruption, waste, crime, etc etc. But the trains run on time, the health care system is pretty good, and people don't riot at the drop of a hat. Walking through the small village of homeless outside Shinjuku station is a completely non-threatening experience - they sit outside playing shogi by day, and take their shoes off and leave them lined up outside their cardboard boxes at night.

The price one pays for this social cohesion is "freedom" and "individuality". Coming from a western perspective, it often seems like a strange life, but not a bad one.

PS have a listen/read here :-)

Update 12 Sept
Well, the government did win. Easily. According to the BBC, "Japan's general election on 11 September is likely to be the most exciting one for decades". I can only wonder what a boring one is like...

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Skill of futures markets

Steve Bloom asked some time ago: "Also, how good are futures markets generally at accurately forecasting future prices, and especially peak prices, while at a peak?"

In order to begin to address this, I'd better start with the "Efficient Market Hypothesis". The most widely-quoted version of the EMH basically states that the current market price reflects all current information (there are also "strong" and "weak" versions which handle technical nuances).

Time for an economics joke. Two economists are walking down the road, and one says to the other "Hey, do you see that? It looks like a 10 pound note in the gutter over there. I'm going over to get it". The second replies "Don't bother, if it really was a tenner someone would already have picked it up". The point is that in a truly efficient market, there would be no point in doing any analysis. But the market price does not exist in a vacuum, and it can only reflect current information if analysts put in the effort to work out the implications of this information, which they would not do if there was no chance of a return! The solution to this paradox is to accept that the market is probably not always absolutely perfect, but it is usually pretty good (very few analysts can reliably beat the market over the long term). EMH is not axiomatically or inevitably true, but is instead a reasonable approximation to what is observed.

The very act of taking advantage of mispriced markets will move the price to reduce the error. So as soon as an inefficiency is spotted, it is liable to be eliminated. However, if the (real or perceived) entry barriers are high enough, and the reward insufficient, it is quite possible that errors will remain over the longer term. For example, the longstanding differential in returns between stocks and bonds takes some explaining. There are also obviously mispriced claims in the FX market - coupons with a guaranteed but distant $1 pay-off trade at a modest but significant discount to that value (which also means that people are paying non-zero prices for coupons with a guaranteed long-term zero pay-off - this can only be because they hope to sell to a "greater fool" within the time frame of the investment). This long-term discounting due to speculation makes it difficult to assess what the market really "thinks" about claims like Slv1 - is its high price really the market players' consensus estimate of the chance of a catastrophe, or just a long-term speculative discount of a claim that is virtually equivalent to "False in 2030"? It seems to be an open question (ie, I don't know) as to how far ahead a futures market can be expected to provide useful information, due to this speculative noise. But over a few months or years in the oil market, I would expect that it shouldn't be a huge problem.

However, even in the case that the market is truly efficient, it still cannot predict an uncertain future, but can only reflect the consensus likelihood of different possible outcomes. If all the players are badly informed, the market will not correct them. Its function is to act as an efficient and credible mechanism for aggregating the opinions of many, and perhaps the real question should not be "is the market accurate" but "is there a better mechanism for prediction"?

Anyway, what about oil prices? All the market traders can do is try to take account of their estimates of the likelihood of various future price-changing events - they have no crystal ball to actually predict the future accurately. The market might well account for the possibility of some disuption to supply in hurricane season, but could not in advance have priced Katrina into the forecasts. Although I would never claim that the market is always right, it is not likely to be far wrong for a long time, and is especially unlikely to be regularly wrong in the same manner. Such a failure would be spotted by traders who would be able to make a profit every time this situation occurred. With hindsight, the market is proven wrong time after time. But at any time, the current prices should simply reflect current expectations. Anyone who thinks otherwise is welcome to re-mortgage their house and make a killing...

Bush: One of the worst disasters to hit the US

Found on Snopes

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Japanese response to Katrina, and media coverage

The Japanese offer of $0.5 million in aid to the USA following Katrina seems surprisingly small (eg Australia has offered $8 million, the UK has already sent $5 million-worth of emergency rations alone).

I get most of my news coverage from the BBC web site and radio. Over the past couple of weeks it's been pretty much wall-to-wall coverage, which is hardly surprising given the scale of the disaster. In Japan, however, it has hardly rated a mention. A search for "katrina" in the Japan Times yields about a dozen relevant hits (as of this posting date), of which most are either editorialising about the political impact, or talking about the effect on oil prices (leaving a mere 3 bona-fide disaster-related news stories, but none that really go into much detail). The UK's Guardian newspaper, on the other hand, throws up about 160 related articles, and the rest of the UK press is similar.

I asked a colleague at lunch whether they had heard much about it, and they said that yes, it had been on the Japanese news, but she did not seem to think it was that important a story. She was astonished when I described that a whole city had vanished and that the humanitarian and financial cost now looks likely to be worse than the Kobe earthquake.

The only explanation I can offer for this is that Japan gets plenty of typhoons itself, and indeed has one passing over right now. Typhoon Nabi has killed about 20 and temporarily displaced over 100,000. There are some typical pictures of floods and storm damage in this BBC news story on it. Also, parts of Tokyo were hit by a flash flood when over 100mm of rain fell in an hour. But that will pass, and things will get back to normal. Storms and floods are news, but not big news.

So, I don't think it's that the Japanese are stingy or's just that no-one has actually bothered to tell them, so there is no public pressure to do more.

Tall grasses set to power Europe

Some encouraging news from the BAAS meeting in Dublin this week: Tall grasses set to power Europe. Apparently, some very high yields of miscanthus grass have been reported from trials in Illinois. Their figure of up to 60 tonnes/hectare is at least double the yields previously reported, and at this level it could make a significant contribution to renewable energy generation. I'm always a little suspicious of small-scale field trials - the crop is probably looked after rather better than it could be on an industrial scale, and also the roots can draw moisture and nutrients from the "halo" around the plot. However, even at a production level of 30t/ha, it could be well worthwhile.

Miscanthus has the particular advantages of being a perennial, and not needing much fertiliser, both of which reduce the energy inputs required (some "biofuel" crops require about as much energy input, as you get out at harvest time). It also has a long (and flexible) harvesting season over the winter when farm machinery (and perhaps farmers themselves) are largely idle.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Katrina vs Kobe

It is interesting (to me, at least) to compare the recent disaster in New Orleans to that caused by the earthquake in Kobe 10 years ago. For starters, it looks like both disasters are going to end up with similar human and financial costs (Kobe: 6400 deaths, 300,000 homeless, $100bn losses).

For the background to Kobe, it should be noted that although Japan is a hotbed of seismic activity, this particular area was not considered at risk from earthquakes. Also, following the large-scale damage of the 1994 Los Angeles quake, it was (perhaps rather smugly) claimed by the authorities in Japan that such damage "could not happen here" due to better building standards and preparation. So, when the Great Hanshin Earthquake destroyed a large part of the city at 5:46am on a January morning, the authorities were rather taken by surprise.

The initial response by the government was widely criticised as tardy. According to this article, it was 2 hours before the Prime minister was briefed, and it took the Governor of the region 4 hours (!) to ask for the Self-Defence Force. Wow. 4 whole hours, for a large-scale disaster that was completely unexpected (at least in this area). While not perfect, it certainly puts recent events in context...

It did take a day or so for the authorities to swing into action. These articlesdescribe how over subsequent days there were also bureacratic barrriers to foreign attempts at aid, such as sniffer dogs stuck in quarantine, and foreign medecines considered unsuitable for the unique Japanese consitution. So far, this seems eerily similar in character to the events after New Orleans flooded, although with a significantly more compressed time scale. However, during the initial power vacuum of the official response, private rescue and aid efforts by individuals, NGOs and the yakuza (!) started immediately, and had a substantial impact. It's likely that the Japanese media would have downplayed stories of looting, whereas the US media has probably exaggerated the unrest in New Orleans, but it still seems very clear that there was a major difference between the way the public reacted during the two events.

For obvious reasons, I'm particularly interested in racism and the treatment of foreigners in emergencies. I doubt whether any country with an immigrant population can honestly claim to be free of racism, and Japan is no exception.

[Now for a small digression: although it eventually signed up to the UN convention on racism, Japan has (uniquely in the developed world?) never actually enacted any legislation outlawing such behaviour, which continues to raise its ugly head on occasion. Victims of racial discrimination can in theory seek redress through the civil courts: after several years of legal battles, they may win compensation, but the authorities do nothing. After the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, many foreigners were murdered by mobs - some say with the collusion of the authorities - and the issue of the treatment of foreigners was raised again recently by the Citizen's Protection Law which outlines the response to major emergencies. By referring exclusively to "citizens" (kokumin), foreigners are specifically excluded from its protection.]

Following the Kobe quake, it seems that foreigners didn't fare too badly (certainly in comparison to 1923). There were complaints about a lack of information and some discrimination, but that is pretty much par for the course anyway. Some of the stories coming out of the USA seem just as bad if not worse - I'm not even talking about the way that the poor (who are mostly black) were abandoned in the first place, but the reports in the UK media (eg here) about British and other foreign visitors being deliberately ignored by the rescue efforts.

On balance, it seems clear to me that Japan, although not perfect, comes out well ahead in this comparison. Their quake was unexpected - not only to the government (locally at least), but also to the scientists. The official response was certainly a little slow, but got going within a few days. Most importantly, the people volunteered to help out, and there was very little trouble. In New Orleans, not only had this disaster scenario been known for years (make that decades) beforehand, but the storm itself was forecast a few days in advance. Despite this, there appears to have been essentially no plan, it took several days before any significant rescue operation was mounted, and within this time there was widespread looting and a complete breakdown of law and order.

One overwhelming impression I get from these and other major catastrophes is that any governnment response is liable to be slow and ineffective at first. I'm sure that "lessons will be learnt", but they will also be forgotten. For the first few days, it would be foolish to rely on an efficient governmental response. In Japan, disaster preparation is fairly well ingrained in society, even though there is certainly too much complacency. We are fortunately situated: being right on the edge of town, we have no gas mains supply, which at a stroke both eliminates the major source of post-quake fires, and also means we have a tank of LPG for cooking, heating, and sterilising water. With a stream running off the hillside close to our house, and a bag of rice in the cupboard, we'll be fine holed up at home for a week or so, assuming the house doesn't actually fall down and we are not seriously hurt in the quake. Following the recent Tokyo quake, "disaster maps" are on sale in the shops. I think that the main point of these is simply to show people how to walk home - the vast majority only know of locations with reference to train stations. For those who live too far away, convenience stores have agreed to provide basic ovvernight services in the event of transport shutdown, but there's a limit to how effective that could be in the event of a really massive quake. I'm happy to rely on the humble bicycle.

The rebuilding effort in Kobe has progressed in a haphazard and piecemeal fashion, and people were living in shelters for a long time. This is one opportunity for the USA to do better. Nevertheless, I suspect that many of of those displaced from New Orleans have a long haul ahead of them.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Hurricane Katrina

There's been plenty said elsewhere. But here are a few of my thoughts.

Firstly, it's not got much to do with global warming, and it's especially not about Kyoto or other emission controls. Even if GW has made hurricanes worse, the effect so far is pretty small, and anyway no realistic emission controls would make a substantial difference to the future risks in the short-term. New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen, and as I said before, the important point about natural hazards is to recognise and plan for them, so as to prevent the consequential human disaster rather than the natural event itself.

(USAToday cartoon)

Living in a zone highly affected by both typhoons (local term for hurricane - the meteorological phenomenon is the same) and earthquakes, I'm not going to throw stones about how silly it is to build a city in such a location. The big problem with New Orleans has been in the planning and response. Everyone knew that a coastal city in hurricane alley, well below sea level and surrounded by water on three sides, was vulnerable: it was only ever a question of when, not if, the existing (decaying and subsiding) defences would be breached if they were not improved.

When the decision was made to evacuate the city, the media was awash with pictures of bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeways. But what about those with no car (about 30% of the poorest households nationally, which must mean a lot of people in city as poor as NO)? The sick, or elderly?

Once the scale of the flooding was known, I'm astonished that the army was not sent in immediately and on a substantial scale to pull people out ASAP. What did they think was going to happen as food and water ran out? Of course, the Great American Public was never going to loot and riot, was it? At least the whites haven't been...

As far as "finding" food and essentials, of course, I should make it clear that I don't blame them. Such a desperate situation calls for desperate measures. It sure is a good thing that so many citizens have guns and are forming "well regulated militia" :-)

Someone needs to answer some serious questions about why this much-predicted scenario was allowed to develop in such a disastrous fashion. From the erosion of natural wetland protection, through inadequate funding of the levees, to the tardy and inadequate response, it's been cock-up after cock-up. The hurricane may have been natural, but the disaster has been largely man-made. Of course it isn't all the fault of this one man, but he is where the buck stops:

As for rebuilding the city....yeah, right. All of the tertiary industry will already have relocated, or at least be in the process of doing so as the evacuees get back on their feet. I doubt there's much business for banks, lawyers or hairdressers downtown right now. The problem isn't so much the total cost as the fact that the whole city will be uninhabitable for months. Of course all the port trade has to go somewhere, so I'm sure the city will regrow eventually in some form, but it's not going to be like the usual hurricane repair job.