Climate @ FOSS4G 2009

I found the keynote by climate scientist Andy Pitman at FOSS4G very interesting, on a couple levels.

Firstly on the climate level, he started off with a graph of some of the predictions from 1990, when it was becoming clear that climate change was something that policy makers needed to Do Something About. At that time, the scientists put together a range of scenarios, places we would be based on different policy responses, ranging from radical changes in energy production and efficiency to doing SFA. And amazingly, we have managed to do worse than the worst-case scenario envisioned in 1990. With the polar ice on the way out, and glacial (hah hah) progress in getting policy change China and the USA (the only two that matter, if they lead the world will follow), it was very sobering to see just how poorly we are doing at averting the very predictable end of our civilization.

Secondly on the open source level, he was very clear that open source technology (C, Java, etc) and open source programmers (knowing nothing about climate science) probably couldn’t be directly useful to the modelling effort. But he did think that the modellers should aspire to a more open source ethic in their science. Most of the models are closed source, and there is little of the open source ethic of communications going on. My main concern about an open source climate model is that the politicization of the whole discussion would destroy any efforts at community building. One of the things projects have to occasionally deal with is “poisonous people”, and an open climate model would have to deal with orders of magnitude more of those. It’s draining and distracting from the real business at hand.

I hope the climate modellers can figure out how to square the circle of more openness without poisonous people, but in my mind modelling is icing on the cake at this point. We know we need to de-carbonize, it’s obvious that changing the chemical balance of our environment, whether locally with things like PCBs or DDT or globally with CO2 is a dangerous crapshoot. At this point, we need the force of will to do it.

(BTW, I think we should be taxing carbon at the source, not taxing emissions (too many tailpipes) but extraction. It’s not carbon per se that is the problem, it’s extra carbon, the kind we dig and pump out of the ground, that is baking us. Fewer points of taxation and control, easier to enforce and manage, let’s tax oil and coal and natural gas at the point of production (or, if exporting jurisdictions refuse to do so, at our borders.)