10 February 2013

The Horsemeat in Your Lasagna

I just returned from the UK, where last week a scandal erupted involving horsemeat and lasagne. It turns out that packages of Findus lasagne labelled as beef turned out to contain from 60% to 100% horsemeat. As a result the product was pulled and tough questions are being asked about food safety. The scandal is spreading to other food products and other countries.

Some might say, so what? Meat is meat, right?

Well, there are two objections. One is a safety issue. It turns out that horsemeat may contain chemicals - such as phenylbutazone used to treat inflammation -- that are harmful to humans. Unlike with cattle, horse medication and diet are not regulated with an eye on human consumption.

A second objection might seem a bit more obvious -- it is just wrong to label a product as containing beef when it does not. Who can argue with that, right?

So what does this have to do with climate change, I am sure you are asking. The horsemeat scandal came to mind this morning when I was reading David Leonhardt's opinion piece in the New York Times. There is a lot to like in the piece about innovation and clean energy. But there is also horsemeat. (I'm picking on Leonhardt's piece, but it is by no means unique or the most egregious example.)

Leonhardt opens by citing the increasing costs of extreme weather as one of the reasons "for a major government response to climate change" and concludes with:
In the end, the strongest economic argument for an aggressive response to climate change is not the much trumpeted windfall of green jobs. It’s the fact that the economy won’t function very well in a world full of droughts, hurricanes and heat waves.
The extreme weather meme has taken off -- there is no doubt -- but advocates for action take some risk by arguing that the most important reason for action is future extreme weather. The reasons for this have been detailed at length on this blog and in The Climate Fix.

A common reaction to my critique of this argument is to invoke a ends-justify-the-means sort of logic. For instance, right after I commented on Leonhardt's piece on twitter, ASU professor and colleague Clark Miller responded via a Tweet:

This means/end debate has occurred too many times to count on this blog (and its predecessor), and my usual response is to be careful -- Dick Cheney used similar logic when linking 9/11 to Saddam Hussein. What did it matter, the argument went, if people wrongly associated 9/11 with Saddam? He was a bad guy, and if people supported getting rid of him for the wrongs reasons, so what?

Climate campaigners often adopt a similar logic. What does it matter if people wrongly associate recent extreme events and disaster costs with climate change? Responding to it is a good thing, and if people support mitigation action for the wrong reasons, so what?

There are three objections here.

First, an argument that mitigation of greenhouse gases makes sense in terms of decreasing the future costs of extreme events is not a strong one: Even under the assumptions of IPCC, Stern Review, etc. the future costs of extreme events under the most aggressive scenarios of climate change actually decrease as a proportion of GDP.

The second objection is that the discovery of a little horsemeat in lasagne ruins the entire product. You might cite the tasty (and safe) noodles and tomato sauce, but the presence of horsemeat in the product defeats your argument. The science is just not there to connect increasing costs of disasters to climate change, much less individual phenomena like drought, floods and storms. It is horsemeat -- and don't put it into your product lest you compromise the whole package.

The third reason should be obvious but often appears to escape the calculus of many campaigners and journalists. Telling people that their lasagne contains beef, when it actually contains horsemeat is just wrong.

31 comments:

  1. When did "journalistic ethics" become an oxymoron?

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  2. re: Mike Smith -- "Journalism ethics" is now a code phrase for "whatever helps the Democrats" - UT law prof Glenn Reynolds

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  3. Here is one photo you missed ;-)


    http://itsfaircomment.blogspot.co.uk/

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  4. Leo Hickman's recent questioning of a BBC documentary's claim of 3.5 deg C warming in Africa was criticized for the same reasons.

    www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2013/feb/08/bbc-global-warming-attenborough-africa

    My blog post gives some further background http://mygardenpond.wordpress.com/2013/02/10/the-power-of-a-tweet-two-examples

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  5. Let's see if I've got this straight: David Leonhardt, Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, is either woefully ignorant of the topic he opines on in The World's Greatest Newspaper, or he's making a fundamentally dishonest argument. ASU professor Clark Miller is just fundamentally (and proudly) dishonest.

    Why would anyone not get in lock step with such people? And please - there's no way - or no reason - to candy coat this. Euphemisms like 'disingenuous' subtract from clear meaning, and are not proper substitutes for plain English.

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  6. ===]]] Even under the assumptions of IPCC, Stern Review, etc. the future costs of extreme events under the most aggressive scenarios of climate change actually decrease as a proportion of GDP. [[[===

    Except that isn't the more important metric. A smaller increase in cost relative to GDP does not mean that there couldn't be a large increase in cost - an increase in cost that could, at least theoretically, be mitigated, and revenues that could be used in myriad better ways (consider the opportunity cost). If you want to argue that the increased cost couldn't be mitigated, have at it - but it is a different argument than the one you just made.

    ===]]] The science is just not there to connect increasing costs of disasters to climate change,..[[[===

    Wait - I thought that you have argued that with climate change will come more extreme weather. Are you now backing down from that argument, or did I get your argument wrong? Assuming increases in future costs based on increases in extreme weather is distinct from arguing that current costs have increased due to increased extreme weather attributable to climate change.

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  7. How about this in Leonhardt's column:

    "The continental United States endured its hottest year on record in 2012, and the planet’s 13 hottest years have all occurred since 1998."

    Note that 'on record' refers to c. 100 years or so of recent records out of over 4 billion years of the planet's geological history.

    So the first part of that sentence is deceptive and the second part is just nonsense.

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  8. Then, we have Bill Nye telling us the Northeast Blizzard came from Africa!
    http://meteorologicalmusings.blogspot.com/2013/02/worlds-stupidest-global-warming-answer.html

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  9. "Note that 'on record' refers to c. 100 years or so of recent records out of over 4 billion years of the planet's geological history. So the first part of that sentence is deceptive and the second part is just nonsense."


    What's deceptive is to claim that temperatures in the last decade or century are irrelevant because it ignores the last 4 billion years. This is the nonsense fallback argument skeptics use when they can't deny the warming trend.

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  10. There is a (metaphorical) back story to this. The horse meat came from Romania. Next year Romanians and Bulgarians will be allowed to work in Britain as Poles were before them. Polish is Britain's second language.

    This is where right meets left. The so called left wing broadsheets support mass immigration because it benefits the social class of its readership. Cheap labour.

    It is betrayal on a massive scale. Like America, the British working classes have ceased to exist.

    Here is a very dirty little piece associating opposition to immigration with anti Roma racism.


    The truth about Romania's gypsies: Not coming over here, not stealing our jobs

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/the-truth-about-romanias-gypsies-not-coming-over-here-not-stealing-our-jobs-8489097.html

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  11. As far as CLIMATE CHANGE is concerned. One can do no better than the intellectual insanity of Mike Hulme's post normal, post modern embedded values.

    While revealing his scepticism of the scientific case for AGW, Hulme falls back on the environmental values that infects the minds of so many of his colleagues. To be polite, I am going to refer to it as 'deep ecology'

    This is from an Amazon review, but I have confirmed the quotes from other sources.

    "The idea of climate change should be seen as an intellectual resource around which our collective and personal identities and projects can form and take shape. We need to ask not what we can do for climate change, but to ask what climate change can do for us.".


    Hulme then goes on to suggest that all climate change arguments should include at least one of the following four "myths" (being a motivational story).

    1. Lamenting Eden - To give the idea that the world was stable until man turned up. And we broke it.

    2. Presaging apocalypses - Where you should use phrases like "impending disaster" and "tipping point". This is despite having the knowledge of such predictions (as Hulme states) but should because it "capitalizes on the human inbuilt fear of the future."

    3. Reconstructing babel - Appealing to our fear of advancement and technology. As though anything modern is inherently bad.

    4. Celebrating Jubilee - Balancing the cosmic unfairness of the world where well off inherently make this worse for the poor and the balance should be readdressed every 25 years or so.

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  12. -9- DAK4Blizzard,

    I'm having a somewhat difficult time following you. Perhaps some examples?

    But anyways, what about when they look at the last 4,000 years and are glad that we're getting back to the good times of a warm period?

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  13. "Climate events have people thinking. Now maybe think mitigation. Social not natural causality. Whats not to like?"

    What's not to like is that if people are supporting action for the wrong reasons, that might imply that the action is not justified and not really a good idea after all. Why would you argue for something with wrong reasons if you had right reasons available. The support-climate-mitigation-for-any-reason-as-long-as-we-mitigate crowd risk undertaking bad and burdensome actions just to feel good about their ideological inclinations. That approach to policy is not rational and it does no one any good in the long run.

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  14. Great post, inspirational. http://www.bishop-hill.net/blog/2013/2/11/climate-change-fast-loose-food-josh-203.html#comments

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  15. @6. Joshua said...

    "A smaller increase in cost relative to GDP does not mean that there couldn't be a large increase in cost - an increase in cost that could, at least theoretically, be mitigated, and revenues that could be used in myriad better ways (consider the opportunity cost)."


    I am interested if you have in your head a specific opportunity cost trade off? And could say something about whether it is linear, concave, or convex? Or even what the *better ways* the *myriad* (ten thousands?) are?

    I admit I am somewhat naive and take most of my advice from RPJ here. I think GDP is going up and the relative (what units?) signal of any climate effect caused by human development will be less - if not swamped by the wealth to deal with it.

    Are you saying you are not willing to risk trading off anything against this trend continuing that we can see already? ;)

    You seem very conservative.

    It seems you *always* have no change of distribution in value allowed in your consideration.

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  16. -9- DAK4Blizzard

    The problem is that it's meaningless from a predictive standpoint. If we were to plunge into a full blown Ice Age next year, the statements would still be true.

    All the statement shows is that it is warmer than it was during the Little Ice Age, which is a no brainer. It doesn't provide any evidence as to cause at all, nor does it provide any predictive evidence as to how long it will remain warm.

    That is why we ignore it. It is brighter at 9 am than at any time in the preceeding 9 hours, but that won't tell you why it is bright or hoe long the bright will last.

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  17. TLITB -

    Point taken, I guess. Yes, it's complicated. And yes, I was not careful.

    Money invested to mitigate or adapt may or may not turn out to be cost effective. I shouldn't generalize so easily. But to the extent that any money so spent on mitigation or adaptation is cost effective, comparing any increased costs to GDP is basically, IMO, fairly pointless. And to the extent that it is cost effective, it could be put to good use, like spending on early childhood education that brings a significant positive return to our economy.

    If suppose I don't have your confidence that the growth in GDP will "swamp" any increased costs due to increases in extreme weather. And certainly, even if that were true for the US or certain other nations, it may not be true for all nations. Consider nations with low GDP growth. Consider nations with high GDP growth but little functional infrastructure to protect against extreme weather. (Take Bangladesh - a high GDP growth rate but a lot of exposure to the costs of increased extreme weather and not much protective infrastructure. And with GDP growth in a country like Bangladesh, so there is growth in infrastructure that will be put at risk - roads, transportation systems, water infrastructure that is providing water to more people, etc).

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  18. Joshua:

    Other people's money is always well spent. After all, it costs you nothing.

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  19. I have often wondered if the information age would put an end to the gullibility of populations. With each of us having almost the entire storehouse of human knowledge at our fingertips, how is it possible that entire populations can still be lied to with impunity? How is it possible that a lie, with no data to back it up, could become a cultural truth?

    The extreme weather meme reveals that it is still very possible to delude the majority of the people, despite the readily available falsifying information. Appeals to emotion still trump reality and rationality. If there is any trend in extreme weather, it is slightly downward, but not enough to be significant. Still most people will tell you that it is worse than ever, like most people in 1692 Salem would tell you that their town was overrun by witches.

    Historically, rationality wins out in the end, but sometimes it takes centuries, or even millennium, as we see in some cases of bigotry.

    Perhaps the information age will not cure us of our susceptibility to emotional contrivance, but we can hope that the duration of our foolishness will be shorter from here on out.

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  20. The reason people are susceptible to gullibility is that they are ruled by their emotions and can't remember what happened before the last episode of their favourite soap opera.

    That's what the whole sub tabloid 'denier', 'astroturfer', 'drowned babies in Bangladesh' Monbiot nonsense was about. Emotion to the exclusion of reason.

    As far as the army of corporate media truth deniers is concerned, I would quote Mr Townsend.

    The hypnotised never lie, do ya ?

    Pete, acoustic (2:56) Won't get fooled again.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5yymadwxj8

    Those hypnotised by the world are prepared to lie to get what they want.

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  21. A couple of observations. The ends can't ever justify the means, because corrupt actions produce a corrupt result. It all goes wrong in ways you can't predict. Second, convincing people to do the "right thing" (even if it is right) for the wrong reason can only work in the short term. People turn away when they learn they've been lied to, even in part. We've spent a century and a half becoming this dependent on fossil fuel, and moving to something else will be a many-decades task.

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  22. -12- Hi Matt,

    "What's deceptive is to claim that temperatures in the last decade or century are irrelevant because it ignores the last 4 billion years" -- what I mean is that claiming today's records are irrelevant because the geologic past may have seen greater records is unfairly comparing today's apples to the past's oranges. The records now take place in an environment that tends to differ greatly from the geologic past (the Sun, atmospheric composition, continental features/location, etc).

    From this comparison, deceptive arguments downplaying today's conditions can be made such as that CO2 levels used to be higher than now, the Sun used to be weaker than now, or the Arctic used be ice-free. I consider these deceptive because they claim that any environmental change, regardless of how quickly or strongly it may be occurring, is not so significant or dangerous because it's happened before. In other words, such a comparison encourages overlooking the magnitude of an environmental change within the context of today. Hope that helps explain what I meant.

    -16- Hi JohnB,

    It's a fair point that any record warm temperatures will probably stand out against the last 600 years or so. But I think they are important in the context of our potentially warming climate because their frequency in absolute terms and in comparison to record low temperatures is a helpful indicator of a warming or cooling climate for the given area. Of course, as you say, looking at these records alone cannot predict any sudden shift in climate, though it does predict how quickly the climate has been changing, which can be significant. This is why scientists are, in fact, not necessarily -- and should not necessarily -- ignore them.

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  23. -22- DAK4Blizzard,

    Thanks. Based on that, I guess your position is that it's less deceptive to ignore examples of similar conditions and instead extrapolate with imagination and computer modeling. It's about what I gathered from your original comment.

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  24. In addition to misrepresenting the science on extremes, Leonhardt ignores fundamental facts which obviate his thesis. I wonder how many of his readers know:

    1) The US only accounts for 16% of global CO2 emissions.
    2) US emissions have been declining and are now lower than they were in 1996.
    3) If the US were to reduce emissions by 100%, the increase in China alone would fully offset that redction in seven years at their current growth rate.

    Anyone commenting on policy should be aware that nothing the US does affecting only US activities will have any material influence on global emissions.

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  25. MattL,

    I am not in favor of ignoring examples of similar conditions and using imagination to predict where the temps may go. It seems that you are using your imagination to claim that past warming is similar to today's warming in both rate and cause. I challenge you to find me a time in recent geologic history when greenhouse gases -- the main contributor to today's rise in global temperature -- were rising at the rate they are today. (Good luck to you on your imaginative journey.)

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  26. -25 DAK4Blizzard,

    Why do you think rate and cause are different today than before? The current "consensus" is that they can't imagine anything else and also the computers say so. And there are still massive uncertainties in this giant nonlinear chaotic system.

    Sure, greenhouse gasses seem to be rising pretty quickly, but then the theory behind them being the cause just doesn't quite add up, like the missing hot spot. There are many other scientific (and not so scientific) theories that seemed obvious, had a massive consensus, but proved to be wrong.

    I also don't fetishize recent climate to the point that I've convinced myself that any deviation must be a catastrophe, though if the world cooled much more than it did during the Little Ice Age, it's hard to imagine how that would be good.

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  27. My point was that one shouldn't argue history will tell us what the climate will be (every time it's gone up, it's gone down) -- because the changing environment today is an unprecedented one.

    Because of the uncertainties in our complex Earth system, and the fact that natural variation still holds by far the most influence on our day-to-day weather, whether our forcing on climate will lead to a catastrophe is very debatable. But as long as it remains the dominant forcing on changing global temperatures, it should be of concern. The fact that we are observing responses that correlate to the warming (glacial retreat, warmer Arctic, and decreasing Arctic sea ice) supports this.

    The missing hot spot: http://www.skepticalscience.com/Dispelling-two-myths-about-the-tropospheric-hot-spot.html

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  28. -22- Hi DAK.

    I think you missed my point. Saying that the warmest 10 years were in the last 15 (or whatever), while true has no predictive value.

    Rereading my post I don't believe I made that clear. Someone in 1880 or 1942 could make exactly the same claim and it would have been true then too. Yet temps declined after both those periods.

    A child is taller each year but measuring the amount and rate of increase in height will not allow you to predict his/her height at age 30.

    This is why I said "warmest years" could be ignored as lacking predictive value.

    You can use past records as indicators for future values if you have accurate values for the things that caused the changes in the past and a reasonable prediction of those values into the future.

    There is also a lot of salesmanship going on "Hotter than any time in the last 600 years" sounds really impressive until you look at the data and realise that last 600 years was probably the coldest period in the last 10,000 years. Similarly worrying about the "Warming". Over any 50 year or more period the planetary temps will do 1 of 2 things. Warm or cool, the odds of "No change" is minor. And frankly we are far better off that temps are warmer now than in 1850, we'd be up the proverbial creek without means of locomotion if it were cooler.

    I'll also answer for MattL. You are putting two things together. Past warmings have been far greater and far faster than the minor warming of the last 150 years. But you then ask him to find a time when CO2 was rising as fast.

    I see this a lot and it stems from taking 2 statements and believing them to be one. The base idea is this "Temps are rising and CO2/man is the cause". This is used to take proof of an increase in temps as proof of cause. People point to ice caps and polar bears and glaciers as if that proves their point.

    It only proves that temps are rising, it offers no proof at all as to cause.

    Since the temps changed far more and far more rapidly under purely natural forcings, on what basis do you think that the current warming is in any way un-natural?

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  29. -27- DAK4Blizzard,

    Thanks, but I'd rather not beg the question about dominant forcings or confuse "statistically consistent" with correct.

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  30. -28- Hi again JohnB, here's the first part of my response.

    “Saying that the warmest 10 years were in the last 15 (or whatever), while true has no predictive value…A child is taller each year but measuring the amount and rate of increase in height will not allow you to predict his/her height at age 30."

    Let me first say that I was talking about using temperature records as indicators, not predictions. In other words, I meant that they could aid in predicting. In post 22, I said that they are a helpful indicator of a warming or cooling climate for a given area. The confusion may have come where I mistakenly wrote, “[temperature records do] predict how quickly the climate has been changing.” In this case, I meant to say “indicate,” not “predict.” My bad.

    The problem with the analogy stated that way is that we have knowledge of the climate and its forcings (the child’s genetics and other factors influencing his height), and therefore we can at least attempt to project temperatures (the child’s height). The temperature values can confirm or reject projections; they can be used as indicators of where the climate is going. How well the temps do this depends how far out the projections go, and on how well those temps are matching what’s predicted based on knowledge of current and future forcings. It won’t help as much if we’re predicting 100+ years out – it allows too much room for a potential climate shift or change in forcings, which a record of temperatures alone cannot help to predict. If the temps go significantly above or below an expected value, either it’s a statistical outlier (on short intervals) or the projection’s foundation is wrong or incomplete. Either way, the temperatures at least help us analyze our ability to predict.

    "Over any 50 year or more period the planetary temps will do 1 of 2 things. Warm or cool, the odds of "No change" is minor."

    The possibility that our planet warmed naturally in the past 50 years is quite small. If anything, I’d have bet it would cool slightly after the first half of the 20th century, during which time it probably did see some natural warming. (And in the second half of the 20th century, natural forcings such as the Sun did trend cooler; the lag in the associated cooling temps is taking a conspicuously long time.)

    "Past warmings have been far greater and far faster than the minor warming of the last 150 years."

    Far greater, yes. Far faster? Except for natural global catastrophes that are not occurring now (meteor impacts, super-volcanic eruptions, etc.), I'm not seeing sharp peaks and valleys on a scale of decades.

    “You are putting two things together. Past warmings have been far greater and far faster than the minor warming of the last 150 years. But you then ask him to find a time when CO2 was rising as fast.”

    I was challenging MattL to identify a time in geologic history when changing environmental conditions were similar to today. He implied there were, saying that I was ignoring those times and thus that today’s changing environment is precedented. So I asked him to identify a time when greenhouse gases rose at the same rate as today, as they are the main contributor to warming today. Except for natural global catastrophes, I'm not seeing sharp peaks and valleys on a scale of decades for leading gases such as CO2, either.

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  31. -28- Here's the second part.

    “The base idea is this: ‘Temps are rising and CO2/man is the cause.’ This is used to take proof of an increase in temps as proof of cause. People point to ice caps and polar bears and glaciers as if that proves their point.”

    I wasn’t arguing that we know CO2 is the primary forcing because of melting ice caps and glaciers. (For example, I recognize that aerosols are also influencing the Arctic. The jury is out on how polar bears would respond to more warming; for now they seem to be ok.) I was saying that our warming is cause for concern because of those melting events. Laboratory, satellite and surface measurements confirm the link between warming and CO2, not flawed logic.

    "Since the temps changed far more and far more rapidly under purely natural forcings, on what basis do you think that the current warming is in any way un-natural?"

    There are no clear signs today of natural forcings that are causing warming. The largest natural forcing, the Sun, has offered no support, and has temporarily gone in the opposite direction. Rising greenhouse gases, on the other hand, have been empirically linked to warming. I’ll throw the question back to you. On what basis do you think it is natural forcing causing the warming temperatures?

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