After The Gold Rush

Long post warning: This is a long post.

I have used the title of Neil Young’s song several times during my research career. The first time was as a journalist was back in 1993, when writing for the Italian supplement to the International Herald Tribune. I was writing about the demographic tidal wave about to hit Europe overall and Italy in particular, saying that a combination of immigration and improved total factor productivity were just about their only option for dealing with negative population growth. Exciting stuff, perhaps one reason why I no longer write for them. I have since used the title over articles and reports about the withdrawal of subsidies for solar power in Europe, the slowing of innovation in Silicon Valley and other subjects.

It’s a great song and the title lends itself to a number of uses.

However, today I’m using it because Michael Tobis and I are involved in a lengthy exchange, dueling blog posts as it were. He has been guest posting over at And Then There’s Physics and is promoting a new paradigm for discussing climate change impacts.

In his first post, Tobis quoted Kevin Trenberth, who may end up being more famous for calling for RICO prosecution of climate dissenters than for his contributions to climate science. Trenberth had written “The climate is changing: we have a new normal. The environment in which all weather events occur is not what it used to be. All storms, without exception, are different. Even if most of them look just like the ones we used to have, they are not the same. ”

Tobis then added, “Trenberth is however responding to an overvaluing of the formal attribution question that has plagued climate change conversation from the beginning.”

This struck me as bizarre. A scientist writing that attribution is over-valued? And I wrote in response that it was similar to a district attorney saying evidence was over-valued.

Tobis then replied that he wasn’t arguing against attribution, but the way that we had been going about it. Because his argument strikes me as important, I’ll leave the ‘he said, she said’ stuff aside, along with my long history of bad blood with Tobis and focus on what comes next.

Here’s Tobis:  “What we should care most about is the prognosis for the future climate that is dramatically much more altered than the one we face today. To inform that, we should not look at individual events, even the most extremely destructive ones, without taking a historical perspective and seeking comparable disasters in the past. ”

He elaborated on the subject in his second post, titled ‘Thinking About What A Friend Had Said, I Was Hoping It Was A Lie.” That’s a lyric from the Neil Young song, which partially explains the title of my post here. Not completely–you’ll have to suffer through to the end of the post to find out why.

There he writes, “I certainly don’t advocate that “analysis of extreme weather events starts with the built in assumption that climate change has made it worse” as has been alleged. Quite to the contrary, I am suggesting we approach the Disaster Tango afresh, in such a way as to engage skeptics and consensus supporters alike, provided they are reasonable and rational about it.” 

This is a constructive beginning, as long as Tobis isn’t the arbiter of who is labeled reasonable or rational. His coterie of blog friends includes many who are neither. But onwards…

Tobis then lists a 9-point program that, stripped to its essentials, argues for looking at extreme weather events primarily in a historical context, rather than just imputing human-caused climate change automatically when there is a flood in Pakistan, a drought in California or a flood in South Carolina. Specifically, Tobis wants to focus on recurrence times for events. Are they happening more frequently than in the past?

As Tobis notes, this takes climate models out of the equation, as far as attribution goes, and this seems positive to me, as climate models are not designed to bring much light to bear on the subject and past attempts to force them to contribute to the discussion have been not helpful.

And I think it’s a great idea. We don’t even have to start from scratch–some members of the consensus as well as skeptics and lukewarmers have been working along these lines for some time. It should be fairly quick and easy to adapt their findings to show recurrence times for events.

As I noted in a previous post, ”

“The annual time series of globally averaged % drought indicates a mean value of 66%, a range of about 4%, and no long-term trend (−0.2% per 100 years, non-statistically significant). This rather unambiguous statement comes from a recently published paper “Variability and Trends in Global Drought,” published in the journal Earth and Space Science.”

As the U.S. Geological Survey wrote yesterday with regard to recent precipitation in South Carolina, “While this certainly was a catastrophic flood with lots of damage and tragic loss of life, USGS provisional data and preliminary analysis show NO indication that a 1000-year flood discharge occurred at any USGS stream gauges. However, based on that analysis, it does appear that the USGS streamgage on the Black River at Kingstree, SC and the one on the Smith Branch at Columbia, SC both measured peak floods in the neighborhood of a 500-year flood. Currently, there appear to be a few more stream gauges experiencing a 25-year to 50-year flood, but the majority of USGS stream gauges had flood peaks that were less than 10-year floods.”

As most of the climate action is occurring way up North, I think special efforts should be made to provide historical context for what is clearly a changed climate regime in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. I suspect such work would find clear evidence of a changed climate that might be of more value to understanding our role in climate change and would also probably produce storylines that Tobis and his compadres find more pleasing.

One potentially fruitful area would be a continuation of the examination of Himalayan glaciers. Although there has been a lot of horribly wrong things written about them, they are well worth studying and the studying has already begun.

As I write in my recently published book which you all should acquire speedily, “As the planet warms, many of the world’s 200,000 glaciers are retreating—some are even disappearing. However, the process is not simple. Many retreating glaciers started retreating long before humans started affecting the climate. Some glaciers are growing in size—including some located very near retreating glaciers.

“Thus a study has been carried out to find the change in the extent of Himalayan glaciers during the last decade using IRS LISS III images of 2000/01/ 02 and 2010/11. Two thousand and eighteen glaciers representing climatically diverse terrains in the Himalaya were mapped and monitored. It includes glaciers of Karakoram, Himachal, Zanskar, Uttarakhand, Nepal and Sikkim regions. Among these, 1752 glaciers (86.8%) were observed having stable fronts (no change in the snout position and area of ablation zone), 248 (12.3%) exhibited retreat and 18 (0.9%) of them exhibited advancement of snout. The net loss in 10,250.68 sq. km area of the 2018 glaciers put together was found to be 20.94 sq. km or 0.2% (02.5% of 20.94 sq. km).”

More work like that should be funded on an ongoing basis. Closer to home, putting the current California drought into context is important. California is very aware of climate change and has done far more than most to move towards lower emissions and a greener fuel portfolio.

For this they seem to be being punished by a harsh drought, which some are attributing to climate change. Tobis’ initiative would be very helpful in putting the California drought into historical (and pre-historical) context.


So I welcome Tobis’ new initiative. It could run well alongside my own new offering, the RAMA initiative I introduced over the summer, where I call for renewed efforts to explain and reach agreement on Recognition, Attribution, Mitigation and Adaptation.

It would be better than previous efforts to mandate consensus on climate change, something perhaps best characterized by the last line in Neil Young’s ‘After the Gold Rush,’ a line that seems to capture the entire mainstream fuzzy attitude towards the environment and eschews any quantitative analysis of the phenomenon:

Riding Mother Nature’s silver steed to her new home in the sun.

3 responses to “After The Gold Rush

  1.”s blurb on Pielke Jr.’s book about disasters and climate change.

    “In recent years the media, politicians, and activists have popularized the notion that climate change has made disasters worse. But what does the science actually say? Roger Pielke, Jr. takes a close look at the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the underlying scientific research, and the data to give you the latest science on disasters and climate change. What he finds may surprise you and raise questions about the role of science in political debates.”

    The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change

  2. The underlying issue is that long term climate “forecasts” are in essence Malthusian in nature: short term benefits get very nasty in the long run. Alarmists tend to overemphasise this nasty bit. The crossover point from beneficial to nasty is mostly 30 years away (eg Ehrlich) so it is not testable. So we need testable forecasts for the next 10 years, however, given the “pause” debate that is unlikely to materialse.

  3. When I first saw the title, After the Gold Rush, I assumed you were referencing Shukla’s Gold.

    Alas, the end of that gold digging is not in sight.

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