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Uncertain Path (book review)

William Tweed’s Uncertain Path is essential reading for anybody interested in the national parks, wilderness areas, or the challenges of ecological change. Tweed, in framing his story around a backpack in 2006 along the John Muir and High Sierra trails, finds ample motivation for uncovering the many different facets of the twin jewels of parks and wilderness. 

The book is a curious combination of travelogue, mea culpa, history and ecology. Tweed’s background working in the parks for decades, including a stint as chief planner for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, means he has skin in this game. In addition to the insights such familiarity provides, this also provides a driving motivation. 

The mea culpa aspect is most interesting. Tweed left the park service in part because he felt key challenges were papered over by the promise of the organic act for the park service, a promise he had vocalized on many occasions: that the parks would be preserved unimpaired for future generations. No longer finding that promise possible, he left the parks to help steer them from the outside. It is clear that recognition haunts him still. 

His hike leads yields observation after observation, some of small note (the presence of hot showers and a passing military jet) and others that build up (forest fires along the route lead to the revelation that climate change has increased fires even in remote wildernesses). As he passes features named for Muir and Pinchot, he reminds us of the rift between extractive and preservational uses of the land. Seeing horse parties and trail runners, he wonders about the changing mix and number of users.  Seeing shrinking glaciers and ghost forests leads to worries about ongoing climate changes. Crossing from parks to forest wilderness and back leads to consideration of the difference between preserving for future generations and providing a “wild” experience. 

At bottom, he argues that twenty-first century problems require a renegotiation with the American public. Parks solved the 19th century problem of resource development, and they could address internal problems in the 20th century like overuse. But climate change, fragmented habitats, pollution and invasive species demand a thoughtful change in management on how to accommodate change. The biologist would argue for a kind of interventionist  approach, actively transplanting species to newly favorable climates, for instance. Were the author a biologist, this might end the book. 

But Tweed was a ranger and planner; all those observations about human visitors and their desires comes into play. He is no Wilderness purist: Tweed argues that parks and wilderness will only survive as long as people will defend them and demanding purity can decrease the circle of defenders. Thus he worries about those using these lands as an outdoor gym, noting that the special protections for parks and wilderness are not necessary for such activities. But traditional users are declining. And so he argues that the parks also have to build support for any changes-and so he suspects the ideal ecological response is politically unwise. 

His hike in 2006 preceded publication in 2010. Some of his worries have materialized: his notes on the poor health of the mixed conifer forest anticipated the massive die-offs the last few years from insects. Others have not: after a few years of flat attendance, numbers at Yosemite have skyrocketed-and backcountry use has grown rapidly as well. Does this mean nature has reacquired favor? Or is the glut of throughhikers really marking the victory of the outdoor gym rat?  The answer is critical for plotting a path forward; we can hope for an updated edition someday. 

The book is an easy read, flowing nicely despite the frequent diversions. For those of us familiar with these trails, his descriptions, while not memorably poetic, evoke these places clearly (hard for GG to say if non-visitors would be similarly charmed). An experienced backcountry traveller, Tweed doesn’t have the stories of grotesque overpacking, blisters, neophyte behaviors and calamity that fill many other backcountry accounts. Although Tweed does tend toward a solution of sorts to his worries, it is his struggle with history and science that makes the book far more than a policy polemic. Many backpackers will recognize moments and thoughts Tweed shares, though he then integrates them and shows a broader theme at work than most would discern. In a way, this is the complement to Wild-an intellectual reflection on wilderness instead of the emotional journey of the hiker. Highly recommended. 

People’s Power

For those of us concerned about increasing CO2 values in the atmosphere (yes, we are about to crash 410 ppm), the recent decision of the Trump administration to back out of the Paris accord is disheartening. But it is worth looking at what has been going on for awhile to see that there is progress, much of which owes less to government action than to the power of the marketplace.

Let’s start with a recent milestone: 10% of electricity produced in the US in March was from wind + solar energy. That’s produced, not capacity.  Now wind in particular is seasonal, so we’ll drop back down from that high, but compare that to the high from 2007, ten years ago, when it was only 1%.


U.S. Energy Administration, June 2017 “Today in Energy”

This is excluding other non-CO2 sources of electrical power, such as nuclear energy, hydropower, and geothermal.  Of the 97.4 quadrillion BTUs (or peta-BTUS, or PBTUs; equal to 2850 GWh) of primary energy consumed in 2016 (so not just electricity), 18.5 (or just a hair under 20%) came from all carbon-neutral sources of energy.

Going a decade back on primary energy consumed reveals some interesting changes–and lack of change.  Total energy consumption was actually higher at 99.4 PBTUs, but carbon neutral was only 14.9 PBTUs (nearly all nuclear, biomass and hydroelectric, in decreasing order). One of the great accomplishments that goes unnoticed is that GDP in the US in constant 2009 dollars went from $14.5 trillion in Q1 2006 to $16.9 trillion in Q1 2017: a 17% increase while energy consumption overall dropped by 2%. That is huge, because if energy tracked GDP, the increase in renewables would have not even filled in the hole in increased consumption of energy. U.S. energy consumption has been flat or gently declining since 2000.


May 2017 Monthly Energy Review, US Energy Information Administration

Of course you might say that the low-hanging fruit is picked, and there is reason to think that.  Hydropower isn’t going anywhere forward in a big way, and decreased flow in important hydropower rivers like the Colorado bodes ill for the future. Nuclear remains stalled, and the impending retirement of a number of plants suggests the share of power from this source will decline. But there are optimistic trends, too.

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Is Science Science?

P.S. 5/8/17: From a New York Times article on this (five members of the scientific review board have now been let go): “A spokesman for the E.P.A. administrator, Scott Pruitt, said he would consider replacing the academic scientists with representatives from industries whose pollution the agency is supposed to regulate, as part of the wide net it plans to cast.” While that might make sense for a policy-determining arm of the agency (a very debatable assertion), this is a scientific review board.  The assertion that industry scientists are necessary to provide balance indicates ignorance on the part of the new administrator about how science should work.

When campaigning for the Presidency, Donald Trump responded to the question from the Science Debate 2016 site about scientific integrity, he (or his campaign) responded:

Science is science and facts are facts.  My administration will ensure that there will be total transparency and accountability without political bias.  The American people deserve this and I will make sure this is the culture of my administration.

When asked about regulation, he (or his campaign) said “Science will inform our decisions on what regulations to keep, rescind or add.”

Recent actions from the administration suggests this might not be the way science is used in determining policy. Right now the action is in the Environmental Protection Agency, where first, the budgets for the science advisory panels were nearly eliminated. Then, just before the March for Climate, the EPA’s webpages on climate science were taken down with a notice that the pages were down to be updated to for the new administration’s policy. Most of these webpages are in fact science pages, so their removal seems to reflect a political bias more than a policy update. Then, in the past couple of days, the science advisory boards that review the internal science within the EPA have seen many members fired despite an earlier communication that they were to continue.

When considered along with the HONEST act, this seems to go well beyond a policy change and suggests a desire to silence any external scientific input at the same time as internal scientific experts are replaced with more industry-compliant views. Maybe yo like that, maybe you don’t.  Feel free to let your senator or representative know how you feel.

Asymmetric certainty [updates]

The initial column from the New York Times’s newest columnist, Bret Stephens, makes the case that advocates for doing something about climate change are expressing too much certainty about what will happen.  In making his case, Stephens makes two logical mistakes.

First, he says that anybody who expresses certainty about the future is a conceited fool. OK, so GG will risk this one: the sun will rise tomorrow.  Summer will come and the days will get longer. Want more specific? OK; there will be a solar eclipse August 21st at 11:42 am in Casper, Wyoming.

Well, you say, this is silly; after all, these things are really well understood.  Yes, all true–and why? Because of careful observation and development of theory–you know, science. So ridiculing certainty as a general principle is, um, foolish.

Second mistake? By suggesting that skepticism is warranted, he implies that the unstated uncertainty would reduce the risks, that it is one-sided. Unfortunately, until recently the climate science community has been rather conservative about what is going on in the Arctic (for instance, only the last IPCC report tried to deal with melting ice), and now you have a report suggesting that things in the Arctic are worse than have been assumed. Yes, what will happen is uncertain–but it can be worse than is being forecast just as it could be better. So if you are going to be skeptical, allow that the forecast might be too optimistic.

[Arguably there is a third mistake in misrepresenting his opening quote, which applies to all the predictions a person might make, versus the confidence a community might have in a single prediction.]

Now, GG does agree that climate change advocates all too often place too much faith in their models, and he would tend to agree that oftentimes things are presented as more certain than they are, but he has pointed out that the basic relationship of carbon dioxide to global temperature is robust from a geologic perspective. If your decision to spend money on combating climate change hinges on, say, the size of the snowpack in the Wind River Mountains in the last half of this century, yeah, the uncertainties are huge. But if all it depends on are ocean acidification, which goes directly with atmospheric CO2, or sea level rise, or more intense droughts and heat waves, well, the uncertainties get relatively small. And Stephens does seem to recognize that the predictions are really probabilities and that the risks are real. So Mr. Stephens, how about taking the next step and working with expectations and risk minimization rather than simply criticizing the strategy of some of the players? Its fun to second guess a coach or manager; its a lot harder to get in the game.

P.S. A story at CNN claims lots of people are cancelling subscriptions to the NY Times over this column.  A sillier response is hard to imagine; while the column has problems as noted above, it is at least material one can engage with, and the news side of the Times operation is really pretty good on climate change. You aren’t going to hone your arguments by only listening to those you agree with (and if you think this guy is a waste of space, you could just not read his contributions).

P.P.S. A Vox story goes into far greater detail of why many people are unhappy with this columnist, much of which predates this column, but also notes how these kinds of “we don’t know enough” arguments are really irrelevant.


Although there has been a lot of focus on actions in the executive branch, a rather curious piece of legislation is working its way through Congress.  HR 1430, called the HONEST act, might just be the legislative proof of how the ideal can be the enemy of the good.

At first blush, the act’s requirement that the EPA base its analyses and rules on publicly available science sounds fine. But it appears that the bill’s main purpose is to shut away most of the available science from the EPA by preventing, for instance, “non-reproducible” science such as the analysis of multi-year health surveys or analysis of one-off events. All data must be “publicly available online in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.”

In an ideal world, this might well exist. But we don’t live in that world; a considerable amount of peer-reviewed science is in journals with paywalls. And some studies rely on industry data that industry might not be willing to share in full, especially if they recognize the opportunity to kill information that might work against them. And then a host of older studies probably are not in a form that can be placed online “in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis” (a phrase that, for instance, precludes putting pdf versions of old papers online but probably requires the creation of usable spreadsheets). One wonders what might be an acceptable form of decades of climatological data. Maybe these problems could be overcome with an army of people to convert old papers and datasets, but the bill authorizes (wait for it)… ONE…MILLION…DOLLARS.

That’s probably not enough to buy out enough of Elsevier’s stranglehold on much of the scientific literature, let alone deal with formatting issues.

If there was any doubt about the intentions behind the bill, many will recall some earlier actions of its author, Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, who helpfully reminded everyone about his belief that the entire scientific establishment is dishonest with the statement shortly before the bill left his committee that “much of climate science today appears to be based more on exaggerations, personal agendas and questionable predictions than on the scientific method”.

Public Science, Private Profit

As some of the new administration’s scientific plans start to emerge, one can see a pattern.  Proposed changes to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) budget include a 26% ($126M) cut to the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric research, elimination of the SeaGrant program, and a 22% cut in the satellite data division, all of which smacks of anger that scientists supported under some of these programs failed to confirm some climate denialists’ claims of global cooling. In addition there appears to be a general sense that NOAA needs to operate more like a business. Even the National Weather Service is to be cut under this plan. (Payback for the rain on Inauguration Day?)

In essence, this is an evaluation that climate research must be scaled back. It is a classic head in the sand move, one profoundly unwise in many areas.  First, an awful lot of that research has nothing to do with anthropogenic climate change, so even if you think that research is inappropriate, you are killing a lot of innocent bystanders as a result.  It includes work on understanding some of the various atmospheric oscillations and how they can affect extreme weather events. It includes work on means of improving long-term weather forecasts and monthly climatic forecasts. It includes observations of how temperatures in the oceans and atmosphere are changing–observations, mind you, not interpretations of why such changes are happening, but necessary observations for all the other forecasting activities going on. Previous NOAA heads from the last two administrations have called these cuts unwise. For a country that regularly suffers billion dollar losses in multiple weather events each year, cutting back on research and observation is profoundly misguided.

While part of this is motivated by a change in priorities by the new administration toward military growth, and part may well reflect unhappiness with scientific observations and inferences by some members of the administration, part of this too reflects a long time Republican feeling that government can be replaced by business. For instance, the GOP wanted to kill off the distribution of topographic maps by the USGS during the Reagan Administration. In fact, they wanted the Survey’s data to be freely available to corporations that would then print off their own maps, free of any competition from the USGS maps. One claim, for instance seen in a 1988 National Review article, was that private companies could make better, cheaper maps than the USGS. It is worth tearing this apart just to illustrate why there are some things the government does well, which actually benefits private interests as well as advancing public ones.

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Seeing opinions

Quick note–CNN has done a nice job laying out the mapping of opinions related to climate change in a Yale study, which itself has a very elegant map interface. Lets you see where people know about climate change, and what aspects they know about (it is amazing to see the disconnect between the large number of Americans aware of climate change and the dramatically smaller number aware of the consensus of the climate community).  Worth taking a look at.