The world seems to be heading for tough times. From a recent New York Times article:
Over the next 100 years, many scientists predict, 20 percent to 30 percent of species could be lost if the temperature rises 3.6 degrees to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit. If the most extreme warming predictions are realized, the loss could be over 50 percent, according to the United Nations climate change panel.
But when the going gets tough, the tough get going! The idea of the Azimuth Project is create a place where scientists and engineers can meet and work together to help save the planet from global warming and other environmental threats. The first step was to develop a procedure for collecting reliable information and explaining it clearly. That means: not just a wiki, but a wiki with good procedures and a discussion forum to help us criticize and correct the articles.
That seems like ages ago. For months a small band of us worked hard to get things started. With the beginning of the new year, we seem to be entering a phase transition: we’re getting a lot of new members. So, it’s time to give you an update!
There’s a lot going on now. If you’ve been reading this blogs and clicking some of the links, you’ve probably seen some of our pages on sea level rise, coral reefs, El Niño, biochar, photovoltaic solar power, peak oil, energy return on energy invested, and dozens of other topics. If you haven’t, check them out!
But that’s just the start of it. If you haven’t been reading the Azimuth Forum, you probably don’t know most of what’s going on. Let me tell you what we’re doing.
I’ll also tell you some things you can do to help.
Azimuth Project Pages
By far the easiest thing is to go to any Azimuth Project page, think of some information or reference that it’s missing, and add it! Go to the home page, click on a category, find an interesting article in that category and give it a try. Or, if you want to start a new page, do that. We desperately need more help from people in the life sciences, to build up our collection of pages on biodiversity.
If you need help, start here:
Plans of Action
We’re working through various plans for dealing with peak oil, global warming, and various environmental problems. You can see our progress here:
• Plans of action, Azimuth Project.
So far it goes like this. First we write summaries of these plans. Then I blog about them. Then Frederik De Roo is distilling your criticisms and comments and adding them to the Azimuth Project. The idea is to build up a thorough comparison of many different plans.
We’re the furthest along when it comes to Pacala and Socolow’s plan:
• Stabilization wedges, Azimuth Project.
You don’t need to be an expert on any particular discipline to help here! You just need to be able to read plans of action and write crisp precise summaries, as above. We also need help finding the most important plans of action.
In addition to plans of action, we’re also summarizing various ‘reports’. The idea is that a report presents facts, while a plan of action advocates a course of action. See:
• Reports, Azimuth Project.
In practice the borderline between plans of action and reports is a bit fuzzy, but that’s okay.
Analyzing plans of action is just the first step in a more ambitious project: we’d like to start formulating our own plans. Our nickname for this project is Plan C.
Why Plan C? Many other plans, like Lester Brown’s Plan B, are too optimistic. They assume that most people will change their behavior in dramatic ways before problems become very serious. We want a plan that works with actual humans.
In other words: while optimism is a crucial part of any successful endeavor, we also need plans that assume plausibly suboptimal behavior on the part of the human race. It would be best if we did everything right in the first place. It would be second best to catch problems before they get very bad — that’s the idea of Plan B. But realistically, we’ll be lucky if we do the third best thing: muddle through when things get bad.
Azimuth Code Project
Some people on the Amazon Project, most notably Tim van Beek, are writing software that illustrates ideas from climate physics and quantitative ecology. Full-fledged climate models are big and tough to develop; it’s a lot easier to start with simple models, which are good for educational purposes. I’m starting to use these in This Week’s Finds.
If you have a background in programming, we need your help! We have people writing programs in R and Sage… but Tim is writing code in Java for a systematic effort he calls the Azimuth Code Project. The idea is that over time, the results will become a repository of open-source modelling software. As a side effect, he’ll try to show that clean, simple, open-source, well-managed and up-to-date code handling is possible at a low cost — and he’ll explain how it can be done.
So far most of our software is connected to stochastic differential equations:
• Software for investigating the Hopf bifurcation and its stochastic version: see week308 of This Week’s Finds.
• Software for studying predator-prey models, including stochastic versions: see the page on quantitative ecology. Ultimately it would be nice to have some software to simulate quite general stochastic Petri nets.
• Software for studying stochastic resonance: see the page on stochastic resonance. We need a lot more on this, leading up to software that takes publicly available data on Milankovitch cycles — cyclic changes in the Earth’s orbit — and uses it to make predictions of the glacial cycles. It’s not clear how good these predictions will be — the graphs I’ve seen so far don’t look terribly convincing — but the Milankovitch cycle theory of the ice ages is pretty popular, so it’ll be fun to see.
Graham Jones has proposed some more challenging projects:
• An open source version of FESA, the Future Energy Scenario Assessment. FESA, put out by Orion Innovations, is proprietary software that models energy systems scenarios, including meteorological data, economic analysis and technology performance.
• An automated species-identification system. See the article Time to automate identification in the journal Nature. The authors say that taxonomists should work with specialists in pattern recognition, machine learning and artificial intelligence to increase accuracy and reduce drudgery.
David Tweed, who is writing a lot of our pages on the economics of energy, has suggested some others:
• Modeling advanced strategies for an electrical smart grid.
• Modeling smartphone or website based car- or ride-sharing schemes.
• Modeling supply routing systems for supermarkets that attempt to reduce their ecological footprint.
All these more challenging projects will only take off if we find some energetic people and get access to good data.
This Week’s Finds
I’m interviewing people for This Week’s Finds: especially scientists who have switched from physics to environmental issues, and people with big ideas about how to save the planet. The goal here is to attract people, especially students, into working on these subjects.
Here’s my progress so far:
• Nathan Urban — climate change. Done.
• Tim Palmer — weather prediction. Done.
• Eliezer Yudkowsky — friendly AI. Interviewed.
• Thomas Fischbacher — sustainability. Interviewed.
• Gregory Benford — geoengineering. Underway.
• David Ellerman – helping people, economics. Underway.
• Eric Drexler — nanotechnology. Agreed to do it.
• Chris Lee — bioinformatics. Agreed to do it.
If you’re a scientist or engineer doing interesting things on the topics we’re interested in at the Azimuth Project, and you’d like me to interview you, let me know! Of course, your ego should be tough enough to handle it if I say no.
Alternatively: if you know somebody like this, and you’re good at interviewing people, this is another place you might help. You could either send them to me, or interview them yourself! I’m already trying to subcontract out one interview to a mathematician friend.
While I’ve been writing most of the articles on this blog so far, I don’t want it to stay that way. If you want to write articles, let me know! I might or might not agree… but if you read this blog, you know what I like, so you can guess ahead of time whether I’ll like your article or not.
There’s also a lot more you can do. For suggestions, try:
• Things to do, Azimuth Project.
• Open projects, Azimuth Project.