Global Climate Snapshot: Fall 2013

Time to see what the planet is up to these days according to The Official Data.

Oceans And Ice

1. Arctic Sea Ice. After a record low last year, the arctic ice cap recovered with record growth that left it with only the 7th-lowest minimum ever. But that’s still historically low, so was it just an example of “two steps down, one step up”? Maybe, though the rebound was so high that it rivaled recent recovery years after the previous 2007 record low; in other words, it was more like “two steps down, two steps back up.” But the fall refreeze is stating to fall behind 2008, so we’ll have to see if the northern hemisphere can keep out of its new lower range or not. If not, then YES the arctic still looks like it’s melting.

2. Antarctic Sea Ice. Meanwhile, the southern ice cap continues to refuse to melt. Depending on which data you look at, this year’s maximum was either the highest or third-highest ever, the second year in a row of record or near-record ice levels. NO, the Antarctic sea ice still shows no evidence – indeed, the exact opposite – of a warming planet.

3. Sea Level Rise. The data is still tracking at 3.2mm per year. 2013 is on track for another record sea level, but there is still zero sign of acceleration since the 1990’s.


4. US Heat. The United States is on track to have its 28th warmest year ever – up from 40th through June. That still doesn’t sound very scary, although after last year’s record high it’s still pretty high for a low year, and if you draw a line across the high years from the 1980’s and the low years from the 1980’s they both look like they’re going up. YES the US looks like a warming country.

5. World Heat. The global data, however, remains ambiguous. The year 2013 has bumped up from seventh-warmest in June to sixth-warmest through September, but I’m still seeing a pretty straight line since the late 1990’s, or NO rise in global temperatures for 15+ years.

Weather Disasters

6. Drought. US drought has improved further since the summer, especially in the more extreme categories. 2013 still looks like a pretty bad year, though, continuing the trend of the last 2-3 years, though I’m pretty sure we are still nowhere near the extreme historical drought years of the 1930’s.

Three months ago, the “West” region was on track for a record dry year and the “Upper Midwest” was on track for a record wet year, possibly suggesting an increase in extremes. Since then, however, the regions have fallen to second-dryest and eleventh-wettest, respectively, possibly suggesting that the shorter trends were just noise in a mass of data.

7. Tornadoes. US tornadoes appear to be on track for a record low year, which is remarkable considering the likely poorer detection of such events in the past. As you might expect, the statistics on the stronger F3+ tornadoes show no increase, either. NO things are not getting worse with tornadoes.

8. Wildfires. Despite the headlines, US 2013 wildfire data is little changed since the summer, with the year still on pace for the lowest number of wildfires and second-lowest number of acres in the last 10 years. With the season winding down we are likely on pace for a pretty uneventful year; we’ll look at the long-term data in January.

9. Atlantic Hurricane Season. This year is turning out to be quite a dud, with only 2 named hurricanes so far, neither of them major, and only a month or so of declining activity left to go.

10. Pacific Hurricane Season. The Pacific has had quite a bit more action, with eight hurricanes and and eleven typhoons. I’m not as familiar with this side of the planet yet, but it doesn’t look like we’re breaking any records this year, though I’m not sure yet about long-term trends.


So far in 2013, the Arctic and Antarctic ice levels both look very good, though the long-term trend in the Arctic is still very bad. Things still do not seem to be getting worse with global temperatures, US tornadoes, or hurricanes in the oceans. In January we’ll look at the entire year of 2013 and give an update to the highly anticipated Global Alarm Bell (GAB) Index!

The Coming Dominance Of Electric Cars (And the Death of Ethanol?)

Electric cars continue to rise. I still see conservatives hating on them, and as I said a few months ago, I still think that hate is increasingly misplaced.

I still see conservatives hating on electric cars for the government subsidies being poured into them. As I said before, that’s a very good reason to hate on them; the arbitrary favor means we’ll never know what better innovations we might be forfeiting. But I was recently reminded of a similar subsidy for good ol’ oil-and-gas cars that doesn’t tend to generate as much outrage: ETHANOL.

The government’s terribly excessive ethanol subsidies and mandates arguably cause far more damage, and – in the classic spirit of overactive government programs contradicting themsleves – every subsidized electric car reduces the demand for subsidized ethanol. Since ethanol is just so terrible, I find that hard not to celebrate.

I still see conservatives hating on electric cars for the energy it takes to charge the batteries, but it still requires comparing the most energy-efficient oil-and-gas cars to the least energy-efficient electricity sources, which is still an increasingly losing argument.

But there’s one losing argument that might be officially lost. I used to see conservatives hating on electric cars for how poorly they were selling (here’s a random diatribe from April). This was a reasonable argument while the facts supported it; the government was spending a lot of money to stimulate demand for these things and the public still didn’t seem to really want it.

But we may be turning a corner. It appears that the public may really want these things after all.

Electric vehicles barely existed in 2010. Last year’s sales tripled from the year before, and this year’s is on pace to double to somewhere around 100,000. Range anxiety? What range anxiety? Remember the alleged chicken-and-egg problem of not enough demand for electric cars to sustain electric charging stations to sustain demand for electric cars? Well somewhere between the market and the subsidies that seems to be solving itself too:

If these trends continue, the old conservative mocking of such-and-such brand only selling so many hundred models in such-and-such quarter will increasingly look like petty tribal banter. It seems like every week now we hear about a new car manufacturer working on adding an electric vehicle to their lineup; apparently it’s not just Elon Musk that’s onto something with Tesla – which, by the way, is getting ready to release its electric SUV.

Does all this mean the government subsidies were worth it? Of course not. But I said it before and I’ll say it again: Conservatives need to stop arguing we should stop subsidizing electric cars because they’re so bad that they don’t do any good, and start arguing we should stop subsidizing electric cars because they’re getting so good that they don’t need the subsidies anyway. And while we’re at it, let’s cut the cord on ethanol. Although, if we don’t, I’m starting to think electric cars might just do it for us.

Too Big To Govern

In the wake of the latest United States government shutdown, the punditry is letting loose with all manner of pet theories regarding why our politics seem so dysfunctional these days. Some blame the rise of the Internet and/or ideological media for inducing “epistemological closure,” (i.e. being able to only get news that reinforces your existing biases). Predictably, conservatives blame socialistic Obama policies for undermining the longstanding fabric of our country and liberals blame obstructionist white Tea Partiers for refusing to let go of the control they think they’ve always had.

One interesting theory comes from George Friedman, who blames the decline of corrupt party bosses for the rise in ideological candidates. My own pet theory is that the United States is simply becoming – if I may uncleverly adapt an overused meme – Too Big To Govern.

Friedman thinks Presidents from the Wilson to Kennedy era were more “impressive” than the Carter to Obama era. I think his piece has a bit of “narrative fallacy” (see Taleb’s Black Swan and then Silver’s The Signal And The Noise), which means looking for tidy, simple explanations of complex events, though he may well be explaining an important and overlooked factor.

I wonder, though, if the common thread between all the Presidents listed is that they all pretty much oversaw a century of growth in both government power and, within that, a growth in consolidated power under the executive branch. I wonder how that effects the ideological interests of different yet increasingly larger groups who increasingly have more at stake (or at least think they have more at stake) in what the government does.

People will invariably bring up European countries which often have the appearance of similar levels of “big government,” but they are generally done at smaller scales with populations more equivalent in size to US states – and often more homogenous too. The United States may be unique in trying to increasingly manage the interests of 300 million people through one centralized and increasingly powerful yet also democratic government. Is it any wonder things are starting to get a bit touchy?

Of course, I could simply be wrong. Can you point to any examples of a larger population managed democratically (technically democratic republic yeah yeah blah blah), and by so active a government? The Soviet Union was certainly a “Bigger” government, but it had no democracy. And modern China doesn’t have one yet. The European Union has about 500 million people, but its political influence is neither as broad or deep as the US government’s upon its own citizens. What if we’re in uncharted territory here? What if democracy simply can’t handle this much activity at this large a scale?

Even if only one-third of America is truly against Obamacare, that’s still about one hundred million people having severe disagreements with another one or two hundred million people. Presumably one-third of our leaders have always had the political ability to, say, shut down the government like this… why is it only becoming so apparent now?

As populations grow and as government does more, what if we now have unprecedented levels of disagreement about what the government does? As Friedman notes, we’re nowhere near Civil-War-level acrimony, so maybe things aren’t so unprecedented after all, but one can’t help but wonder if we’re at least taking tiny steps in that direction. (I’m at least updating my Bayesian priors on expecting somebody to attempt secession from, say, 1% to 2%.)

Overall, this is a pessimistic view that I don’t want to hold, and I welcome any rebuttals. I still believe democracy is “the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried,” and I want to believe it’s quite a bit better than the others, too.

It’s easy to say that we could make it work if it just wasn’t for those other guys (i.e. Tea Party obstructionists), but of course you can always make democracy work if you eliminate the people who don’t think like you. The United States has more or less successfully handled diverse viewpoints for a couple hundred years, and the question is whether or not it can continue to do so. Maybe reforms like Congressional term limits, campaign finance limits, or proportional representation can smooth things along for a couple hundred more million citizens. Maybe it can only keep working at this level if the government doesn’t try to do so much. Maybe the current levels of dysfunction and polarization aren’t really so historically unprecedented. Maybe it will keep working anyway. But maybe we’re simply becoming Too Big To Govern.

I’m Sick of Fake Republicans Fake Worshipping Their Fake Little Constitution

Ted Cruz stole the show at last weekend’s Value Voters Summit. His speech was littered with small-government rhetoric about the virtues of “freedom” and “liberty” and “free market values” and the “Constitution” and how Obama is destroying “this great nation” with all his “big government.”

I liked Cruz when I first heard about him. He seemed like he might be a smart, articulate libertarian-ish Republican defender of Constitutional principles and legitimate small government. But the more I heard from him, the more uneasy I became. He seemed too populist, too partisan, too eager to blame Obama for every possible problem in the world, but I haven’t put my finger on what really bothered me about him until now.

I’m sick of fake Republicans talking a big talk about how much they hate “big government” while only ever talking about a small part of it. I know, it’s nothing new, but it really bugs me when I hear it, especially from the Tea Party heroes who are supposed to be better than the establishment leaders.

Don’t talk to me about how much you hate Obamacare. Talk to me about how you want to get the federal government out of Medicare. Don’t talk to me about how much you hate food stamps. Talk to me about how you want to get the federal government out of farm subsidies. Don’t talk to me about gun control. Talk to me about how you want to get the federal government out of corrupt defense contracts and military bases and drone strikes and surveillance (to his credit, Cruz briefly mentioned the last two in the midst of his multiple “Obamacare” tirades).

Talk to me about how you want to get the federal government out of the War on Drugs, out of excessive disability benefits, out of ethanol subsidies and indefinite detention and militarized policing and patent extensions and anything the federal government does that gives even a little bit of help to farmers or seniors or veterans or CEOs or anybody else that looks just a little bit Republican.

Until then, don’t be shocked when leading progressives say things like, “This whole dispute is about the Republican Party fighting to make sure the working poor don’t have access to affordable health care.” You and I both know that’s an outrageous lie; if we really didn’t want the poor to access affordable health care we would support Obamacare full throttle because we think it’s terrible for the poor and everyone else! But until you start speaking out against the parts of Big Government that benefit you, don’t expect them to believe you.

I’ve always preferred to admit a general bias towards small government while allowing for reasonable arguments for various general regulations and interventions. I’ve always thought that was more humble and more likely to find truth than adamantly declaring all government as evil. But what’s far worse than really believing that is to say you believe it and then completely ignore all the parts of government that benefit you and your tribe. When you do that, it’s no wonder your poll numbers are hitting record lows.

Yes, The Obamacare Website Really Is Really Bad

The new Obamacare website,, officially opened on October 1, when it was immediately greeted by an onslaught on visitors that rendered the site unusable. Liberals trumpeted the millions of visitors as proof of Obamacare’s success (nevermind how many actually signed up or picked plans, as that was probably in the single digits). They attributed the early hiccups to the standard effects of really high traffic that would eventually be resolved.

But the Affordable Care Act site’s troubles run much deeper than just being coded too poorly to prevent empty drop-down menus or including too many javascript files on every page. My experience with the site so far indicates an embarrassingly rushed and incomplete product that I’m hesitant to trust with my personal information.

Only the government would decide to handle heavy traffic levels with a virtual waiting line! Though to be fair, an automatic queueing system is actually a fairly complex and impressive functionality for a website, and though I encountered it every time I visited it usually seemed to update to a log-in screen after a few minutes. But again, heavy traffic is the least of their problems.

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