Quantifying Biological Complexity

23 January, 2017

Next week I’m going to this workshop:

Biological Complexity: Can It Be Quantified?, 1-3 February 2017, Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, Arizona State University, Tempe Arizona. Organized by Paul Davies.

I haven’t heard that any of it will be made publicly available, but I’ll see if there’s something I can show you. Here’s the schedule:

Wednesday February 1st

9:00 – 9:30 am Paul Davies

Brief welcome address, outline of the subject and aims of the meeting

Session 1. Life: do we know it when we see it?

9:30 – 10:15 am: Chris McKay, “Mission to Enceladus”

10:15 – 10:45 am: Discussion

10:45– 11:15 am: Tea/coffee break

11:15 – 12:00 pm: Kate Adamala, “Alive but not life”

12:00 – 12:30 pm: Discussion

12:30 – 2:00 pm: Lunch

Session 2. Quantifying life

2:00 – 2:45 pm: Lee Cronin, “The living and the dead: molecular signatures of life”

2:45 – 3:30 pm: Sara Walker, “Can we build a life meter?”

3:30 – 4:00 pm: Discussion

4:00 – 4:30 pm: Tea/coffee break

4:30 – 5:15 pm: Manfred Laubichler, “Complexity is smaller than you think”

5:15 – 5:30 pm: Discussion

The Beyond Annual Lecture

7:00 – 8:30 pm: Sean Carroll, “Our place in the universe”

Thursday February 2nd

Session 3: Life, information and the second law of thermodynamics

9:00 – 9:45 am: James Crutchfield, “Vital bits: the fuel of life”

9:45 – 10:00 am: Discussion

10:00 – 10:45 pm: John Baez, “Information and entropy in biology”

10:45 – 11:00 am: Discussion

11:00 – 11:30 pm: Tea/coffee break

11:30 – 12:15 pm: Chris Adami, “What is biological information?”

12:15 – 12:30 pm: Discussion

12:30 – 2:00 pm: Lunch

Session 4: The emergence of agency

2:00 – 2:45 pm: Olaf Khang Witkowski, “When do autonomous agents act collectively?”

2:45 – 3:00 pm: Discussion

3:00 – 3:45 pm: William Marshall, “When macro beats micro”

3:45 – 4:00 pm: Discussion

4:00 – 4:30 am: Tea/coffee break

4:30 – 5:15pm: Alexander Boyd, “Biology’s demons”

5:15 – 5:30 pm: Discussion

Friday February 3rd

Session 5: New physics?

9:00 – 9:45 am: Sean Carroll, “Laws of complexity, laws of life?”

9:45 – 10:00 am: Discussion

10:00 – 10:45 am: Andreas Wagner, “The arrival of the fittest”

10:45 – 11:00 am: Discussion

11:00 – 11:30 am: Tea/coffee break

11:30 – 12:30 pm: George Ellis, “Top-down causation demands new laws”

12:30 – 2:00 pm: Lunch


Azimuth Backup Project (Part 3)

22 January, 2017


azimuth_logo

Along with the bad news there is some good news:

• Over 380 people have pledged over $14,000 to the Azimuth Backup Project on Kickstarter, greatly surpassing our conservative initial goal of $5,000.

• Given our budget, we currently aim at backing up 40 terabytes of data, and we are well on our way to this goal. You can see what we’ve done at Our Progress, and what we’re still doing at the Issue Tracker.

• I have gotten a commitment from Danna Gianforte, the head of Computing and Communications at U. C. Riverside, that eventually the university will maintain a copy of our data. (This commitment is based on my earlier estimate that we’d have 20 terabytes of data, so I need to see if 40 is okay.)

• I have gotten two offers from other people, saying they too can hold our data.

I’m hoping that the data at U. C. Riverside will be made publicly available through a server. The other offers may involve it being held ‘secretly’ until such time as it became needed; that has its own complementary advantages.

However, the interesting problem that confronts us now is: how to spend our money?

You can see how we’re currently spending it on our Budget and Spending page. Basically, we’re paying a firm called Hetzner for servers and storage boxes.

We could simply continue to do this until our money runs out. I hope that long before then, U. C. Riverside will have taken over some responsibilities. If so, there would be a long period where our money would largely pay for a redundant backup. Redundancy is good, but perhaps there is something better.

Two members of our team, Sakari Maaranen and Greg Kochanski, have thoughts on this matter which I’d like to share. Sakari posted his thoughts on Google+, while Greg posted his in an email which he’s letting me share here.

Please read these and offer us your thoughts! Maybe you can help us decide on the best strategy!

Sakari Maaranen

For the record, my views on our strategy of using the budget that the Azimuth Climate Data Backup Project now has.

People have contributed it to this effort specifically.

Some non-government entities have offered “free hosting”. Of course the project should take any and all free offers to host our data. Those would not be spending our budget however. And they are still paying for it, even if they offered it to us “for free”.

As far as it comes to spending, I think we should think in terms of 1) terabytemonths, and 2) sufficient redundancy, and do that as cost-efficiently as possible. We should not just dump the money to any takers, but think of the best bang for the buck. We owe that to the people who have contributed now.

For example, if we burn the cash quick to expensive storage, I would consider that a failure. Instead, we must plan for the best use of the budget towards our mission.

What we have promised to the people is that we back up and serve these data sets, by the money they have given to us. Let’s do exactly that.

We are currently serving the mission at approximately €0.006 per gigabytemonth at least for as long as we have volunteers to work for free. The cost could be slightly higher if we paid for professional maintenance, which should be a reasonable assumption if we plan for long term service. Volunteer work cannot be guaranteed forever, even if it works temporarily.

This is one view and the question is open to public discussion.

Greg Kochanski

Some misc thoughts.

1) As I see it, we have made some promise of serving the data (“create a better interface for getting it”) which can be an expensive thing.

UI coding isn’t all that easy, and takes some time.

Beyond that, we’ve promised to back up the data, and once you say “backup”, you’ve also made an implicit promise to make the data available.

2) I agree that if we have a backup, it is a logical extension to take continuous backups, but I wouldn’t say it’s necessary.

Perhaps the way to think about it is to ask the question, “what do our donors likely want”?

3) Clearly they want to preserve the data, in case it disappears from the Federal sites. So, that’s job 1. And, if it does disappear, we need to make it available.

3a) Making it available will require some serving CPU, disk, and network. We may need to worry about DDOS attacks, thought perhaps we could get free coverage from Akamai or Google Project Shield.

3b) Making it available may imply paying some students to write Javascript and HTML to put up a front-end to allow people to access the data we are collecting.

Not all the data we’re collecting is in strictly servable form. Some of the databases, for example aren’t usefully servable in the form we collect, and we know some links will be broken because of missing pages, or because of wget’s design flaw.*

[* Wget stores http://a/b/c as a file, a/b/c, where a/b is a directory. Wget stores http://a/b as a file a/b, where a/b is a file.

Therefore, both cannot exist simultaneously on disk. If they do, wget drops one.]

Points 3 & 3a imply that we need to keep some money in the bank until either the websites are taken down, or we decide that the threat has abated. So, we need to figure out how much money to keep as a serving reserve. It doesn’t sound like UCR has committed to serve the data, though you could perhaps ask.

Beyond the serving reserve, I think we are free to do better backups (i.e. more than one data collection), and change detection.


Saving Climate Data (Part 4)

21 January, 2017

At noon today in Washington DC, while Trump was being inaugurated, all mentions of “climate change” and “global warming” were eliminated from the White House website.

Well, not all. The word “climate” still shows up here:

President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan….

There are also reports that all mentions of climate change will be scrubbed from the website of the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA.

From Motherboard

Let me quote from this article:

• Jason Koebler, All references to climate change have been deleted from the White House website, Motherboard, 20 January 2017.

Scientists and professors around the country had been rushing to download and rehost as much government science as was possible before the transition, based on a fear that Trump’s administration would neglect or outright delete government information, databases, and web applications about science. Last week, the Radio Motherboard podcast recorded an episode about these efforts, which you can listen to below, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

The Internet Archive, too, has been keeping a close watch on the White House website; President Obama’s climate change page had been archived every single day in January.

So far, nothing on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website has changed under Trump, but a report earlier this week from Inside EPA, a newsletter and website that reports on the agency, suggested that pages about climate are destined to be cut within the first few weeks of his presidency.

Scientists I’ve spoken to who are archiving websites say they expect scientific data on the NASA, NOAA, Department of Energy, and EPA websites to be neglected or deleted eventually. They say they don’t expect agency sites to be updated immediately, but expect it to play out over the course of months. This sort of low-key data destruction might not be the type of censorship people typically think about, but scientists are treating it as such.

From Technology Review

Greg Egan pointed out another good article, on MIT’s magazine:

• James Temple, Climate data preservation efforts mount as Trump takes office, Technology Review, 20 January 2010.

Quoting from that:

Dozens of computer science students at the University of California, Los Angeles, will mark Inauguration Day by downloading federal climate databases they fear could vanish under the Trump Administration.

Friday’s hackathon follows a series of grassroots data preservation efforts in recent weeks, amid increasing concerns the new administration is filling agencies with climate deniers likely eager to cut off access to scientific data that undermine their policy views. Those worries only grew earlier this week, when Inside EPA reported website that the Environmental Protection Agency transition team plans to scrub climate data from the agency’s website, citing a source familiar with the team.

Earlier federal data hackathons include the “Guerrilla Archiving” event at the University of Toronto last month, the Internet Archive’s Gov Data Hackathon in San Francisco at the beginning of January, and the DataRescue Philly event at the University of Pennsylvania last week.

Much of the collected data is being stored in the servers of the End of Term Web Archive, a collaborative effort to preserve government websites at the conclusion of presidential terms. The University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Program in Environmental Humanities launched the separate DataRefuge project, in part to back up environmental data sets that standard Web crawling tools can’t collect.

Many of the groups are working off a master list of crucial data sets from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, and other agencies. Meteorologist and climate journalist Eric Holthaus helped prompt the creation of that crowdsourced list with a tweet early last month.

Other key developments driving the archival initiatives included reports that the transition team had asked Energy Department officials for a list of staff who attended climate change meetings in recent years, and public statements from senior campaign policy advisors arguing that NASA should get out of the business of “politically correct environmental monitoring.”

“The transition team has given us no reason to believe that they will respect scientific data, particularly when it’s inconvenient,” says Gretchen Goldman, research director in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. These historical databases are crucial to ongoing climate change research in the United States and abroad, she says.

To be clear, the Trump camp hasn’t publicly declared plans to erase or eliminate access to the databases. But there is certainly precedent for state and federal governments editing, removing, or downplaying scientific information that doesn’t conform to their political views.

Late last year, it emerged that text on Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources website was substantially rewritten to remove references to climate change. In addition, an extensive Congressional investigation concluded in a 2007 report that the Bush Administration “engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming.”

In fact these Bush Administration efforts were masterminded by Myron Ebell, who Trump chose to lead his EPA transition team!

Continuing:

In fact, there are wide-ranging changes to federal websites with every change in administration for a variety of reasons. The Internet Archive, which collaborated on the End of Term project in 2008 and 2012 as well, notes that more than 80 percent of PDFs on .gov sites disappeared during that four-year period.

The organization has seen a surge of interest in backing up sites and data this year across all government agencies, but particularly for climate information. In the end, they expect to collect well more than 100 terabytes of data, close to triple the amount in previous years, says Jefferson Bailey, director of Web archiving.

In fact the Azimuth Backup Project alone may gather about 40 terabytes!

From Inside EPA

And then there’s this view from inside the Environmental Protection Agency:

• Dawn Reeves, Trump transition preparing to scrub some climate data from EPA Website, Inside EPA, January 17, 2017

The incoming Trump administration’s EPA transition team intends to remove non-regulatory climate data from the agency’s website, including references to President Barack Obama’s June 2013 Climate Action Plan, the strategies for 2014 and 2015 to cut methane and other data, according to a source familiar with the transition team.

Additionally, Obama’s 2013 memo ordering EPA to establish its power sector carbon pollution standards “will not survive the first day,” the source says, a step that rule opponents say is integral to the incoming administration’s pledge to roll back the Clean Power Plan and new source power plant rules.

The Climate Action Plan has been the Obama administration’s government-wide blueprint for addressing climate change and includes information on cutting domestic greenhouse gas (GHG)emissions, including both regulatory and voluntary approaches; information on preparing for the impacts of climate change; and information on leading international efforts.

The removal of such information from EPA’s website — as well as likely removal of references to such programs that link to the White House and other agency websites — is being prepped now.

The transition team’s preparations fortify concerns from agency staff, environmentalists and many scientists that the Trump administration is going to destroy reams of EPA and other agencies’ climate data. Scientists have been preparing for this possibility for months, with many working to preserve key data on private websites.

Environmentalists are also stepping up their efforts to preserve the data. The Sierra Club Jan. 13 filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking reams of climate-related data from EPA and the Department of Energy (DOE), including power plant GHG data. Even if the request is denied, the group said it should buy them some time.

“We’re interested in trying to download and preserve the information, but it’s going to take some time,” Andrea Issod, a senior attorney with the Sierra Club, told Bloomberg. “We hope our request will be a counterweight to the coming assault on this critical pollution and climate data.”

While Trump has pledged to take a host of steps to roll back Obama EPA climate and other high-profile actions actions on his first day in office, transition and other officials say the date may slip.

“In truth, it might not [happen] on the first day, it might be a week,” the source close to the transition says of the removal of climate information from EPA’s website. The source adds that in addition to EPA, the transition team is also looking at such information on the websites of DOE and the Interior Department.

Additionally, incoming Trump press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Jan. 17 that not much may happen on Inauguration Day itself, but to expect major developments the following Monday, Jan. 23. “I think on [Jan. 23] you’re going to see a big flurry of activity” that is expected to include the disappearance of at least some EPA climate references.

Until Trump is inaugurated on Jan. 20, the transition team cannot tell agency staff what to do, and the source familiar with the transition team’s work is unaware of any communications requiring language removal or beta testing of websites happening now, though it appears that some of this work is occurring.

“We can only ask for information at this point until we are in charge. On [Jan. 20] at about 2 o’clock, then they can ask [staff] to” take actions, the source adds.

Scope & Breadth

The scope and breadth of the information to be removed is unclear. While it is likely to include executive actions on climate, it does not appear that the reams of climate science information, including models, tools and databases on the EPA Office of Research & Development’s (ORD) website will be impacted, at least not immediately.

ORD also has published climate, air and energy strategic research action plans, including one for 2016-2019 that includes research to assess impacts; prevent and reduce emissions; and prepare for and respond to changes in climate and air quality.

But other EPA information maintained on its websites including its climate change page and its “What is EPA doing about climate change” page that references the Climate Action Plan, the 2014 methane strategy and a 2015 oil and gas methane reduction strategy are expected targets.

Another possible target is new information EPA just compiled—and hosted a Jan. 17 webinar to discuss—on climate change impacts to vulnerable communities.

One former EPA official who has experience with transitions says it is unlikely that any top Obama EPA official is on board with this. “I would think they would be violently against this. . . I would think that the last thing [EPA Administrator] Gina McCarthy would want to do would to be complicit in Trump’s effort to purge the website” of climate-related work, and that if she knew she would “go ballistic.”

But the former official, the source close to the transition team and others note that EPA career staff is fearful and may be undertaking such prep work “as a defensive maneuver to avoid getting targeted,” the official says, adding that any directive would likely be coming from mid-level managers rather than political appointees or senior level officials.

But while the former official was surprised that such work might be happening now, the fact that it is only said to be targeting voluntary efforts “has a certain ring of truth to it. Someone who is knowledgeable would draw that distinction.”

Additionally, one science advocate says, “The people who are running the EPA transition have a long history of sowing misunderstanding about climate change and they tend to believe in a vast conspiracy in the scientific community to lie to the public. If they think the information is truly fraudulent, it would make sense they would try to scrub it. . . . But the role of the agency is to inform the public . . . [and not to satisfy] the musings of a band of conspiracy theorists.”

The source was referring to EPA transition team leader Myron Ebell, a long-time climate skeptic at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, along with David Schnare, another opponent of climate action, who is at the Energy & Environment Legal Institute.

And while “a new administration has the right to change information about policy, what they don’t have the right to do is change the scientific information about policies they wish to put forward and that includes removing resources on science that serve the public.”

The advocate adds that many state and local governments rely on EPA climate information.

EPA Concern

But there has been plenty of concern that such a move would take place, especially after transition team officials last month sought the names of DOE employees who worked on climate change, raising alarms and cries of a “political witch hunt” along with a Dec. 13 letter from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) that prompted the transition team to disavow the memo.

Since then, scientists have been scrambling to preserve government data.

On Jan. 10, High Country News reported that on a Saturday last month, 150 technology specialists, hackers, scholars and activists assembled in Toronto for the “Guerrilla Archiving Event: Saving Environmental Data from Trump” where the group combed the internet for key climate and environmental data from EPA’s website.

“A giant computer program would then copy the information onto an independent server, where it will remain publicly accessible—and safe from potential government interference.”

The organizer of the event, Henry Warwick, said, “Say Trump firewalls the EPA,” pulling reams of information from public access. “No one will have access to the data in these papers” unless the archiving took place.

Additionally, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a Jan. 17 report, “Preserving Scientific Integrity in Federal Policy Making,” urging the Trump administration to retain scientific integrity. It wrote in a related blog post, “So how will government science fare under Trump? Scientists are not just going to wait and see. More than 5,500 scientists have now signed onto a letter asking the president-elect to uphold scientific integrity in his administration. . . . We know what’s at stake. We’ve come too far with scientific integrity to see it unraveled by an anti-science president. It’s worth fighting for.”


The Irreversible Momentum of Clean Energy

17 January, 2017

The president of the US recently came out with an article in Science. It’s about climate change and clean energy:

• Barack Obama, The irreversible momentum of clean energy, Science, 13 January 2017.

Since it’s open-access, I’m going to take the liberty of quoting the whole thing, minus the references, which provide support for a lot of his facts and figures.

The irreversible momentum of clean energy

The release of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) due to human activity is increasing global average surface air temperatures, disrupting weather patterns, and acidifying the ocean. Left unchecked, the continued growth of GHG emissions could cause global average temperatures to increase by another 4°C or more by 2100 and by 1.5 to 2 times as much in many midcontinent and far northern locations. Although our understanding of the impacts of climate change is increasingly and disturbingly clear, there is still debate about the proper course for U.S. policy — a debate that is very much on display during the current presidential transition. But putting near-term politics aside, the mounting economic and scientific evidence leave me confident that trends toward a clean-energy economy that have emerged during my presidency will continue and that the economic opportunity for our country to harness that trend will only grow. This Policy Forum will focus on the four reasons I believe the trend toward clean energy is irreversible.

ECONOMIES GROW, EMISSIONS FALL

The United States is showing that GHG mitigation need not conflict with economic growth. Rather, it can boost efficiency, productivity, and innovation. Since 2008, the United States has experienced the first sustained period of rapid GHG emissions reductions and simultaneous economic growth on record. Specifically, CO2 emissions from the energy sector fell by 9.5% from 2008 to 2015, while the economy grew by more than 10%. In this same period, the amount of energy consumed per dollar of real gross domestic product (GDP) fell by almost 11%, the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of energy consumed declined by 8%, and CO2 emitted per dollar of GDP declined by 18%.

The importance of this trend cannot be overstated. This “decoupling” of energy sector emissions and economic growth should put to rest the argument that combatting climate change requires accepting lower growth or a lower standard of living. In fact, although this decoupling is most pronounced in the United States, evidence that economies can grow while emissions do not is emerging around the world. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) preliminary estimate of energy related CO2 emissions in 2015 reveals that emissions stayed flat compared with the year before, whereas the global economy grew. The IEA noted that “There have been only four periods in the past 40 years in which CO2 emission levels were flat or fell compared with the previous year, with three of those — the early 1980s, 1992, and 2009 — being associated with global economic weakness. By contrast, the recent halt in emissions growth comes in a period of economic growth.”

At the same time, evidence is mounting that any economic strategy that ignores carbon pollution will impose tremendous costs to the global economy and will result in fewer jobs and less economic growth over the long term. Estimates of the economic damages from warming of 4°C over preindustrial levels range from 1% to 5% of global GDP each year by 2100. One of the most frequently cited economic models pins the estimate of annual damages from warming of 4°C at ~4% of global GDP, which could lead to lost U.S. federal revenue of roughly $340 billion to $690 billion annually.

Moreover, these estimates do not include the possibility of GHG increases triggering catastrophic events, such as the accelerated shrinkage of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, drastic changes in ocean currents, or sizable releases of GHGs from previously frozen soils and sediments that rapidly accelerate warming. In addition, these estimates factor in economic damages but do not address the critical question of whether the underlying rate of economic growth (rather than just the level of GDP) is affected by climate change, so these studies could substantially understate the potential damage of climate change on the global macroeconomy.

As a result, it is becoming increasingly clear that, regardless of the inherent uncertainties in predicting future climate and weather patterns, the investments needed to reduce emissions — and to increase resilience and preparedness for the changes in climate that can no longer be avoided — will be modest in comparison with the benefits from avoided climate-change damages. This means, in the coming years, states, localities, and businesses will need to continue making these critical investments, in addition to taking common-sense steps to disclose climate risk to taxpayers, homeowners, shareholders, and customers. Global insurance and reinsurance businesses are already taking such steps as their analytical models reveal growing climate risk.

PRIVATE-SECTOR EMISSIONS REDUCTIONS

Beyond the macroeconomic case, businesses are coming to the conclusion that reducing emissions is not just good for the environment — it can also boost bottom lines, cut costs for consumers, and deliver returns for shareholders.

Perhaps the most compelling example is energy efficiency. Government has played a role in encouraging this kind of investment and innovation. My Administration has put in place (i) fuel economy standards that are net beneficial and are projected to cut more than 8 billion tons of carbon pollution over the lifetime of new vehicles sold between 2012 and 2029 and (ii) 44 appliance standards and new building codes that are projected to cut 2.4 billion tons of carbon pollution and save $550 billion for consumers by 2030.

But ultimately, these investments are being made by firms that decide to cut their energy waste in order to save money and invest in other areas of their businesses. For example, Alcoa has set a goal of reducing its GHG intensity 30% by 2020 from its 2005 baseline, and General Motors is working to reduce its energy intensity from facilities by 20% from its 2011 baseline over the same timeframe. Investments like these are contributing to what we are seeing take place across the economy: Total energy consumption in 2015 was 2.5% lower than it was in 2008, whereas the economy was 10% larger.

This kind of corporate decision-making can save money, but it also has the potential to create jobs that pay well. A U.S. Department of Energy report released this week found that ~2.2 million Americans are currently employed in the design, installation, and manufacture of energy-efficiency products and services. This compares with the roughly 1.1 million Americans who are employed in the production of fossil fuels and their use for electric power generation. Policies that continue to encourage businesses to save money by cutting energy waste could pay a major employment dividend and are based on stronger economic logic than continuing the nearly $5 billion per year in federal fossil-fuel subsidies, a market distortion that should be corrected on its own or in the context of corporate tax reform.

MARKET FORCES IN THE POWER SECTOR

The American electric-power sector — the largest source of GHG emissions in our economy — is being transformed, in large part, because of market dynamics. In 2008, natural gas made up ~21% of U.S. electricity generation. Today, it makes up ~33%, an increase due almost entirely to the shift from higher-emitting coal to lower-emitting natural gas, brought about primarily by the increased availability of low-cost gas due to new production techniques. Because the cost of new electricity generation using natural gas is projected to remain low relative to coal, it is unlikely that utilities will change course and choose to build coal-fired power plants, which would be more expensive than natural gas plants, regardless of any near-term changes in federal policy. Although methane emissions from natural gas production are a serious concern, firms have an economic incentive over the long term to put in place waste-reducing measures consistent with standards my Administration has put in place, and states will continue making important progress toward addressing this issue, irrespective of near-term federal policy.

Renewable electricity costs also fell dramatically between 2008 and 2015: the cost of electricity fell 41% for wind, 54% for rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) installations, and 64% for utility-scale PV. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, 2015 was a record year for clean energy investment, with those energy sources attracting twice as much global capital as fossil fuels.

Public policy — ranging from Recovery Act investments to recent tax credit extensions — has played a crucial role, but technology advances and market forces will continue to drive renewable deployment. The levelized cost of electricity from new renewables like wind and solar in some parts of the United States is already lower than that for new coal generation, without counting subsidies for renewables.

That is why American businesses are making the move toward renewable energy sources. Google, for example, announced last month that, in 2017, it plans to power 100% of its operations using renewable energy — in large part through large-scale, long-term contracts to buy renewable energy directly. Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, has set a goal of getting 100% of its energy from renewables in the coming years. And economy-wide, solar and wind firms now employ more than 360,000 Americans, compared with around 160,000 Americans who work in coal electric generation and support.

Beyond market forces, state-level policy will continue to drive clean-energy momentum. States representing 40% of the U.S. population are continuing to move ahead with clean-energy plans, and even outside of those states, clean energy is expanding. For example, wind power alone made up 12% of Texas’s electricity production in 2015 and, at certain points in 2015, that number was >40%, and wind provided 32% of Iowa’s total electricity generation in 2015, up from 8% in 2008 (a higher fraction than in any other state).

GLOBAL MOMENTUM

Outside the United States, countries and their businesses are moving forward, seeking to reap benefits for their countries by being at the front of the clean-energy race. This has not always been the case. A short time ago, many believed that only a small number of advanced economies should be responsible for reducing GHG emissions and contributing to the fight against climate change. But nations agreed in Paris that all countries should put forward increasingly ambitious climate policies and be subject to consistent transparency and accountability requirements. This was a fundamental shift in the diplomatic landscape, which has already yielded substantial dividends. The Paris Agreement entered into force in less than a year, and, at the follow-up meeting this fall in Marrakesh, countries agreed that, with more than 110 countries representing more than 75% of global emissions having already joined the Paris Agreement, climate action “momentum is irreversible”. Although substantive action over decades will be required to realize the vision of Paris, analysis of countries’ individual contributions suggests that meeting mediumterm respective targets and increasing their ambition in the years ahead — coupled with scaled-up investment in clean-energy technologies — could increase the international community’s probability of limiting warming to 2°C by as much as 50%.

Were the United States to step away from Paris, it would lose its seat at the table to hold other countries to their commitments, demand transparency, and encourage ambition. This does not mean the next Administration needs to follow identical domestic policies to my Administration’s. There are multiple paths and mechanisms by which this country can achieve — efficiently and economically — the targets we embraced in the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement itself is based on a nationally determined structure whereby each country sets and updates its own commitments. Regardless of U.S. domestic policies, it would undermine our economic interests to walk away from the opportunity to hold countries representing two-thirds of global emissions — including China, India, Mexico, European Union members, and others — accountable. This should not be a partisan issue. It is good business and good economics to lead a technological revolution and define market trends. And it is smart planning to set long term emission-reduction targets and give American companies, entrepreneurs, and investors certainty so they can invest and manufacture the emission-reducing technologies that we can use domestically and export to the rest of the world. That is why hundreds of major companies — including energy-related companies from ExxonMobil and Shell, to DuPont and Rio Tinto, to Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Calpine, and Pacific Gas and Electric Company — have supported the Paris process, and leading investors have committed $1 billion in patient, private capital to support clean-energy breakthroughs that could make even greater climate ambition possible.

CONCLUSION

We have long known, on the basis of a massive scientific record, that the urgency of acting to mitigate climate change is real and cannot be ignored. In recent years, we have also seen that the economic case for action — and against inaction — is just as clear, the business case for clean energy is growing, and the trend toward a cleaner power sector can be sustained regardless of near-term federal policies.

Despite the policy uncertainty that we face, I remain convinced that no country is better suited to confront the climate challenge and reap the economic benefits of a low-carbon future than the United States and that continued participation in the Paris process will yield great benefit for the American people, as well as the international community. Prudent U.S. policy over the next several decades would prioritize, among other actions, decarbonizing the U.S. energy system, storing carbon and reducing emissions within U.S. lands, and reducing non-CO2 emissions.

Of course, one of the great advantages of our system of government is that each president is able to chart his or her own policy course. And President-elect Donald Trump will have the opportunity to do so. The latest science and economics provide a helpful guide for what the future may bring, in many cases independent of near-term policy choices, when it comes to combatting climate change and transitioning to a clean energy economy.


Solar Irradiance Measurements

14 January, 2017

guest post by Nadja Kutz

This blog post is based on a thread in the Azimuth Forum.

The current theories about the Sun’s life-time indicate that the Sun will turn into a red giant in about 5 billion years. How and when this process is going to be destructive to the Earth is still debated. Apparently, according to more or less current theories, there has been a quasilinear increase in luminosity. On page 3 of

• K.-P. Schröder and Robert Connon Smith, Distant future of the Sun and Earth revisited, 2008.

we read:

The present Sun is increasing its average luminosity at a rate of 1% in every 110 million years, or 10% over the next billion years.

Unfortunately I feel a bit doubtful about this, in particular after I looked at some irradiation measurements. But let’s recap a bit.

In the Azimuth Forum I asked for information about solar irradiance measurements . Why I was originally interested in how bright the Sun is shining is a longer story, which includes discussions about the global warming potential of methane. For this post I prefer to omit this lengthy historical survey about my original motivations (maybe I’ll come back to this later). Meanwhile there is an also a newer reason why I am interested in solar irradiance measurements, which I want to talk about here.

Strictly speaking I was not only interested in knowing more about how bright the sun is shining, but how bright each of its ‘components’ is shining. That is, I wanted to see spectrally resolved solar irradiance measurements—and in particular, measurements in the range between the wavelengths of roughly 650 and 950 nanometers.

This led me to the the Sorce mission, which is a NASA sponsored satellite mission, whose website is located at the University of Colorado. The website very nicely provides an interactive interface including a fairly clear and intuitive LISIRD interactive app with which the spectral measurements of the Sun can be studied.

As a side remark I should mention that this NASA mission belongs to the NASA Earth Science mission, which is currently threatened to be scrapped.

By using this app, I found in the 650–950 nanometer range a very strange rise in radiation between 2003 and 2016, which happened mainly in the last 2-3 years. You can see this rise here (click to enlarge):

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spectral line 774.5nm from day 132 to 5073, day 132 starting Jan 24 in 2003, day 5073 is end of 2016

Now, fluctuations within certain spectral ranges within the Sun’s spectrum are not news. Here, however, it looked as if a rather stable range suddenly started to change rather “dramatically”.

I put the word “dramatically” in quotes for a couple of reasons.

Spectral measurements are complicated and prone to measurement errors. Subtle issues of dirty lenses and the like are already enough to suggest that this is no easy feat, so that this strange rise might easily be due to a measurement failure. Moreover, as I said, it looked as this was a fairly stable range over the course of ten years. But maybe this new rise in irradiation is part of the 11 years solar cycle, i.e., a common phenomenon. In addition, although the rise looks big, it may overall still be rather subtle.

So: how subtle or non-subtle is it then?

In order to assess that, I made a quick estimate (see the Forum discussion) and found that if all the additional radiation would reach the ground (which of course it doesn’t due to absorption), then on 1000 square meters you could easily power a lawn mower with that subtle change! I.e., my estimate was 1200 watts for that patch of lawn. Whoa!

That was disconcerting enough to download the data and linearly interpolate it and calculate the power of that change. I wrote a program in Javascript to do that. The computer calculations revealed an answer of 1000 watts, i.e., my estimate was fairly close. Whoa again!

How does this translate to overall changes in solar irradiance? Some increase had already been noticed. NASA wrote 2003 on its webpage:

Although the inferred increase of solar irradiance in 24 years, about 0.1 percent, is not enough to cause notable climate change, the trend would be important if maintained for a century or more.

That was 13 years ago.

I now used my program to calculate the irradiance for one day in 2016 between the wavelengths of 180.5 nm and 1797.62 nm, a quite big part of the solar spectrum, and got the value 627 W/m2. I computed the difference between this and one day in 2003, approximately one solar cycle earlier. I got 0.61 W/m2, which is 0.1% in 13 years, rather then 24 years. Of course this is not an average value, and not really well adjusted to the sun cycle, and fluctuations play a big role in some parts of the spectrum, but well—this might indicate that the overall rate of rise in solar radiation may have doubled. Likewise concerning the question of the sun’s luminosity: for assessing luminosity one would need to take the concrete satellite-earth orbit at the day of measurement into account, as the distance to the sun varies. But still, on a first glance this all appears disconcerting.

Given that this spectral range has for example an overlap with the absorption of water (clouds!), this should at least be discussed.

See how the spectrum splits into a purple and dark red line in the lower circle? (Click to enlarge.)

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Difference in spectrum between day 132 and 5073

The upper circle displays another rise, which is discussed in the forum.

So concluding, all this looks as if this needs to be monitored a bit more closely. It is important to see whether these rises in irradiance are also displayed in other measurements, so I asked in the Azimuth Forum, but so far have gotten no answer.

The Russian Wikipedia site about solar irradiance unfortunately contains no links to Russian satellite missions (if I haven’t overlooked something), and there exists no Chinese or Indian Wikipedia about solar irradiance. I also couldn’t find any publicly accessible spectral irradiance measurements on the ESA website (although they have some satellites out there). In December I wrote an email to the head of the section solar radiometry of the World Radiation Center (WRC) Wolfgang Finsterle, but I’ve had no answer yet.

In short: if you know about publicly available solar spectral irradiance measurements other than the LISIRD ones, then please let me know.


Information Processing in Chemical Networks

4 January, 2017

There’s a workshop this summer:

Dynamics, Thermodynamics and Information Processing in Chemical Networks, 13-16 June 2017, Complex Systems and Statistical Mechanics Group, University of Luxembourg. Organized by Massimiliano Esposito and Matteo Polettini.

They write, “The idea of the workshop is to bring in contact a small number of high-profile research groups working at the frontier between physics and biochemistry, with particular emphasis on the role of Chemical Networks.”

The speakers include John Baez, Sophie de Buyl, Massimiliano Esposito, Arren Bar-Even, Christoff Flamm, Ronan Fleming, Christian Gaspard, Daniel Merkle, Philippe Nge, Thomas Ouldridge, Luca Peliti, Matteo Polettini, Hong Qian, Stefan Schuster, Alexander Skupin, Pieter Rein ten Wolde. I believe attendance is by invitation only, so I’ll endeavor to make some of the ideas presented available here at this blog.

Some of the people involved

I’m looking forward to this, in part because there will be a mix of speakers I’ve met, speakers I know but haven’t met, and speakers I don’t know yet. I feel like reminiscing a bit, and I hope you’ll forgive me these reminiscences, since if you try the links you’ll get an introduction to the interface between computation and chemical reaction networks.

In part 25 of the network theory series here, I imagined an arbitrary chemical reaction network and said:

We could try to use these reactions to build a ‘chemical computer’. But how powerful can such a computer be? I don’t know the answer.

Luca Cardelli answered my question in part 26. This was just my first introduction to the wonderful world of chemical computing. Erik Winfree has a DNA and Natural Algorithms Group at Caltech, practically next door to Riverside, and the people there do a lot of great work on this subject. David Soloveichik, now at U. T. Austin, is an alumnus of this group.

In 2014 I met all three of these folks, and many other cool people working on these theme, at a workshop I tried to summarize here:

Programming with chemical reaction networks, Azimuth, 23 March 2014.

The computational power of chemical reaction networks, 10 June 2014.

Chemical reaction network talks, 26 June 2014.

I met Matteo Polettini about a year later, at a really big workshop on chemical reaction networks run by Elisenda Feliu and Carsten Wiuf:

Trends in reaction network theory (part 1), Azimuth, 27 January 2015.

Trends in reaction network theory (part 2), Azimuth, 1 July 2015.

Polettini has his own blog, very much worth visiting. For example, you can see his view of the same workshop here:

• Matteo Polettini, Mathematical trends in reaction network theory: part 1 and part 2, Out of Equilibrium, 1 July 2015.

Finally, I met Massimiliano Esposito and Christoph Flamm recently at the Santa Fe Institute, at a workshop summarized here:

Information processing and biology, Azimuth, 7 November 2016.

So, I’ve gradually become educated in this area, and I hope that by June I’ll be ready to say something interesting about the semantics of chemical reaction networks. Blake Pollard and I are writing a paper about this now.


Give the Earth a Present: Help Us Save Climate Data

28 December, 2016

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We’ve been busy backing up climate data before Trump becomes President. Now you can help too, with some money to pay for servers and storage space. Please give what you can at our Kickstarter campaign here:

Azimuth Climate Data Backup Project.

If we get $5000 by the end of January, we can save this data until we convince bigger organizations to take over. If we don’t get that much, we get nothing. That’s how Kickstarter works. Also, if you donate now, you won’t be billed until January 31st.

So, please help! It’s urgent.

I will make public how we spend this money. And if we get more than $5000, I’ll make sure it’s put to good use. There’s a lot of work we could do to make sure the data is authenticated, made easily accessible, and so on.

The idea

The safety of US government climate data is at risk. Trump plans to have climate change deniers running every agency concerned with climate change. So, scientists are rushing to back up the many climate databases held by US government agencies before he takes office.

We hope he won’t be rash enough to delete these precious records. But: better safe than sorry!

The Azimuth Climate Data Backup Project is part of this effort. So far our volunteers have backed up nearly 1 terabyte of climate data from NASA and other agencies. We’ll do a lot more! We just need some funds to pay for storage space and a server until larger institutions take over this task.

The team

Jan Galkowski is a statistician with a strong interest in climate science. He works at Akamai Technologies, a company responsible for serving at least 15% of all web traffic. He began downloading climate data on the 11th of December.

• Shortly thereafter John Baez, a mathematician and science blogger at U. C. Riverside, joined in to publicize the project. He’d already founded an organization called the Azimuth Project, which helps scientists and engineers cooperate on environmental issues.

• When Jan started running out of storage space, Scott Maxwell jumped in. He used to work for NASA—driving a Mars rover among other things—and now he works for Google. He set up a 10-terabyte account on Google Drive and started backing up data himself.

• A couple of days later Sakari Maaranen joined the team. He’s a systems architect at Ubisecure, a Finnish firm, with access to a high-bandwidth connection. He set up a server, he’s downloading lots of data, he showed us how to authenticate it with SHA-256 hashes, and he’s managing many other technical aspects of this project.

There are other people involved too. You can watch the nitty-gritty details of our progress here:

Azimuth Backup Project – Issue Tracker.

and you can learn more here:

Azimuth Climate Data Backup Project.