Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Book Review: The 2020 Comission Report into the North Korean Nuclear Attacks...

Book review: The 2020 Commission Report into the North Korean Nuclear Attacks against the United States
By Dr. Jeffrey Lewis

This book is a speculative fiction story about the use of North Korean nuclear weapons in the near future- specifically early 2020. Speculative fiction is nothing new. But unlike Harry Turtledove or John Birmingham, Jeffrey Lewis is, in addition to being an author, a world expert in nuclear proliferation and arms control. The book’s format, closely paralleling the 9/11 report down to the opening paragraph, plays to this strength. However, despite the author’s academic and think tank background, this book is a gripping page-turner, make all the more compelling by its fact-based and thoroughly researched nature.

The book describes a possible scenario in which poor communications and saber rattling result in the DPRK shooting down a commercial airliner en route from the Republic of Korea to Mongolia, and the subsequent escalation and miscommunication that leads the North to launch a pre-emptive tactical nuclear strike, under the mistaken impression that it is under attack. This then escalates to an all-out war, with the DPRK’s long range missiles striking several US cities, with millions of casualties.

The book is a page turner. I read it in a single sitting the day after I got back from Korea. However, because Dr. Lewis is an arms control expert, and not a novelist, it also comes with 20 pages of references for the 270 page novel. As such, it is as much a report in narrative form (much like the actual 9/11 report) as a story in its own right. Except, of course, this book is a report on a disaster that has not (yet) happened.

Overall, it was a good read, both entertaining and educational. Dr. Lewis is obviously knowledgeable on nuclear weapons, their effects on human health, and the havoc they wreak on civilian infrastructure. And he uses his expertise to great effect. While reasonable people can argue about in what areas historical records are pertinent and in which areas technological change has made them obsolete, his well referenced arguments are an excellent place to start any discussion, whither you agree with his points or not.

I found a few things disappointing. The main thesis of the book is that the DPRK, if it believed it was under conventional, regime-changing attack, could use nuclear weapons tactically, (or at least locally) to give itself a chance. This hypothesis was never really investigated in any detail, however, which makes to difficult to judge how rational such a counter strike would be.

My main complaint, however, is that Dr’ Lewis cannot refrain from taking cheap shots at President Trump, when describing the American response. He does have some reasonable criticisms around issues like the President’s lack of appreciation for communications security and the difficulty in responding to a crisis from his various private properties. But he also takes generic liberal cheap shots, which don’t build his case and are distracting from his well researched work. More ominously, they risk politicizing nuclear war, an outcome which everyone should be trying to avoid. We all know what a debacle the polliticization of Global Warming has been; imagine how much worse things could be if the same thing happened with Nuclear War. In fact, while he doesn’t specifically mention this possibility, there are hints at how hyperpartisanship could risk nuclear stability. But that is another topic for another day.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

IPCC 1.5 degrees of obfuscation

So, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released an important document today, allegedly demonstrating that 1.5 degrees of warming is preferable to 2 degrees, and that with an enormous about of effort, we might actually be able to achieve it. I, an Earth Scientist with a PhD and 17 years of professional experience, tried to read it, because it is important, and good scientist citizens ought to at least try to do the right thing.

Unfortunately, the report, as I found it on the IPCC website, is an incomprehensible tangle of bureaucratese and parenthetical rabbit holes. For example:

Warming greater than the global annual average is being experienced in many land regions  and seasons, including two to three times higher in the Arctic. Warming is generally higher over  land than over the ocean. ( high confidence) {1.2.1, 1.2.2, Figure 1.1, Figure 1.3, 3.3.1, 3.3.2}
Trends in intensity and frequency of some climate and weather extremes have been detected  over time spans during which about 0.5 ° C of global warming occurred (medium confidence). This  assessment is based on several lines of evidence, including attribution studies for changes in  extremes since 1950. {3.3.1, 3.3.2, 3.3.3}
A.2. Warming from anthropogenic emissions from the pre -industrial period to the present  will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in  the climate system, such as sea level rise, with associated impacts (high confidence), but these  emissions alone are  unlikely to cause global warming of 1.5°C (medium confidence ) {1.2, 3.3,
Figure 1.5, Figure SPM.1}
 It has all of the pitfalls the 9/11 report managed to avoid, in terms of failing to ensure accessability, readability, and currency to your average human being. In fact, it comes across as a fantasy edict beamed down by aliens, which is probably not too bad a description of Ivory Tower science these days. For example, It spends lots- perhaps most (I've pretty much glazed over a third of the way through the Summary for Policy Makers- you know, the part that should be clear and simple for non-specialists) of the time describing the benefits of aiming for a 1.5C warming target instead of a 2 degree target.

Of course, we aren't on course to hit a 2 degree target. We are on course for a 3 or 4 degree target. So the relevance of the report is completely at odds with the reality of the world we live in. Now, there are technical reasons why it is hard to write a report describing the difference between 4 degrees and 3.5 degrees. It has been tens of millions of years since the world was that warm, so reconstructing that climate is much more difficult than a 1 or 2 degree warmer world, which we had an order of magnitude more recently. So explaining where we are going is actually quite hard. But they don't even try, or acknowledge this. Instead they are off in this fantasy land where we all have ponies, and they want to sell us on the benefits of unicorn horns and sparkles in the manes.

However, this may be more of a dark fantasy than a rainbow pony fantasy. The "target" CO2 emission reductions curves (Figure SPM.3a) they show have no rollover or transition period, but drop precipitously from the present day at a rate comparable only with that seen in the collapse of the USSR. They don't explicitly talk about this, but there is a blathering world government waffling towards the end that goes:
Cooperation on strengthened accountable multilevel governance that includes non-
state actors such as industry, civil society and scientific institutions, coordinated sectoral and cross-
sectoral policies at various governance levels, gender-sensitive policies, finance including innovative
financing and cooperation on technology development and transfer can ensure participation,
transparency, capacity building, and learning among different players (high confidence). {2.5.2,
4.2.2, 4.4.1, 4.4.2, 4.4.3, 4.4.4, 4.5.3, Cross-Chapter Box 9 in Chapter 4, 5.3.1, 4.4.5, 5.5.3, Cross-Chapter Box 13 in Chapter 5, 5.6.1, 5.6.3}

In otherwords, the governments of the world, which are currently assassinating skeptical journalists,. locking up children, and dropping trillions of dollars of bombs in proxy wars which endanger millions of people,  all just have to join together and sing kum-by-yah while dismantling their transportation and industrial facilities, and we'll all be fine. Frankly, I suspect we're more likely to solve global warming with nuclear winter at this point, at the IPCC report gives me no hope that they have a more reasonable or concrete plan.

In summary, the world experts on climate got together and wrote an unreadable report.  If you piece the bits and pieces that might mean something together, it awkwardly hints that saving the planet is completely possible if the entirely of human nature and politics is magically transformed in the next year.

In other words we, every one of the 7.8 billion of us, is totally, completely, and thoroughly fucked.