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A Nobel Prize in Economics a Climate Change Denier Might Love

It has been a scary month in climate science. Hurricane Michael and a frightening report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlined the potential costs of human-caused global warming. Then to add insult to injury, William Nordhaus won the economics Nobel Prize. Nordhaus wa...

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WHAT IF THE CLIMATE SKEPTICS ARE RIGHT? THEN WE ARE REALLY IN TROUBLE!


Thursday November 23, 2006

Faced with overwhelming evidence that climate is changing at an accelerating rate, the naysayers seem to be regrouping around a new meme: yes earth is warming, but humanity is not the cause. One champion of this position is Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, current chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works. The logic of this strategic retrenchment seems to be that if changing climate is not our fault, then we needn’t worry about it. Whew! Hmm, on second thought, just one question: if we are already seeing alarming changes in climate, wouldn’t it be better if we knew that human-sourced emissions were the cause? If we started this round of climate change, then presumably we can stop it. If Inhofe is correct, however, we can’t do anything about it because we don’t know what is causing the changes. Either the effects greenhouse gas emissions have yet to be felt (a terrifying prospect given the startling shifts we are already seeing) or that the entire scientific community has been wrong about the role of carbon dioxide emissions. Imagine six billion people on a raft entering rapids without paddles or a rudder and with no knowledge of what waterfalls might lie ahead. This is supposed to be a comforting thought? Fortunately, (if that’s the word), there is almost no doubt that Inhofe is wrong. There is plenty to debate about climate change, both in policy and the science, but the consensus among scientists is that humans have contributed to the current warming. I suspect that the right loses all perspective on the issue in part because the proposed solutions involve a house of horrors of libertarian nightmares, including international treaties, regulations, new taxes, and, worst of all, admitting that those insufferable environmentalists are right. If that’s the case, fine, let’s talk about alternative approaches and likely impacts. That conversation, however, hasn’t gotten off the ground. Instead, Inhofe, who for the past six years has had the most important position in the Senate with regard to climate, calls the threat of global warming the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” Those in Congress have the flimsy but credible excuse of scientific stupidity (credible since they are members of one of the few remaining forums where evolution remains a subject of debate), but the few scientists in the skeptic camp have no cover for debating in bad faith. Bad faith? Yes, serious climate scientists have become so frustrated by the misinterpretation of their data that they have taken to tacking on public disclaimers that their findings should not be used to contradict the consensus on global warming. Peter Doran, a scientist whose study about cooling in the interior of Antarctica, was cited by so many naysayers as evidence that the world isn’t warming that he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times publicly aligning himself with the global warming consensus. Climate skeptics also trumpet that Mount Kilimanjaro’s glaciers started shrinking before industrial era greenhouse gas emissions really began in earnest. Here again, Douglas Hardy, one of the authors of the cited paper complained that “Using these preliminary findings to refute or even question global warming borders on the absurd”. What frustrates Doran, Hardy and many others is the skeptics’ tendency to cherry-pick data, and take findings out of context. To win, the skeptics don’t have to disprove global warming, they just have to convey the notion that it’s still under debate so that the public says, “I’ll wait until the scientists sort it out before I start worrying.” But the scientists have sorted it out, and they’ve done so despite being natural contrarians. That’s why the consensus that humans are affecting climate is so extraordinary. If the public realized the breadth and depth of this consensus, climate change would get the consideration it deserves. The naysayers know this, and they jump on any report that underscores the rare scientific unanimity on the issue. Naomi Oreskes of the University of San Diego felt this heat when she published a study in Science. Her simple thought was that if rank and file scientists did not share the consensus of the leaders of major scientific organizations, dissents would have shown up in the peer-reviewed literature. Critics castigated her on the internet, on television and on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal, but there has been no credible challenge to what she actually said in her article. Just recently, the sports psychologist who’s unpublished study was the basis for the naysayer attack on Oreskes, backed off from his assertions. There has always been an easy way to get past the naysayers disinformation campaign because their arguments always fall apart upon close examination. The climate skeptics’ strategy rests on the assumption that most Americans are too lazy or too ignorant to look past the headline. So far they have been right, but ultimately spin collides with reality. Just such a collision seems to have taken place in the case of American attitudes towards the war in Iraq, and it cost the GOP control of Congress. Among those swept out of power will be Inhofe, and the incoming chair, Barbara Boxer of California, has stated that she will make global warming a priority. That alone gives cause for hope that a real discussion of the threat of climate change can get started. Let’s hope that it’s not too late.

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Short Take

In Memorium: Koko the Gorilla

Koko the gorilla died on June 19. She and a female chimpanzee named Washoe (who died in 2007) played an outsized role in changing how we view animal intelligence. Their accomplishments inaugurated deep soul-searching among us humans about the moral basis of our relationship with nature. Koko and Washoe have made it much more difficult for us to treat animals as commodities, in any way we wish.

I knew the two great apes when I was young and they were young, and I”ve closely followed the scientific, philosophical and moral upheavals they precipitated over the last five decades. In the 1960s and ’70s, they learned to use American sign language, and they came to understand that words could be combined to convey new meanings. It threw the scientific world into a tizzy, implying that sentience and languagewere not ours alone, that there was a continuum in higher mental abilities that linked animals and humans.

The problem for science remains unresolved: 3,000 years into the investigation of signal human attributes and we still don’t have rigorous ways to define language and intelligence that are agreed on and can be empirically tested. There remain a number of scientists who don’t think Koko and Washoe accomplished anything at all. Even if a scientist accepts one of the definitions of language that do exist, it’s nearly impossible to test it in animals because what is being examined is inherently subjective, and science demands objective, verifiable results.

Consider how hard it is to prove a lie beyond a reasonable doubt in court. Then consider trying to prove lying in an animal in accord with the much stricter standards of science.

As difficult as proving it may be, examples of apes lying abound. When Koko was 5, I was playing a chase game with her. When I caught her, she gave me a small bite. Penny Patterson, Koko’s lifelong foster parent and teacher, was there, and, in sign language, demanded, “What did you do?”

Koko signed, “Not teeth.”

Penny wasn’t buying it: “Koko, you lied.”

“Bad again Koko bad again,” Koko admitted.

“Koko, you lied.” But what was Koko’s intent — a central issue when it comes to proving a lie. What was actually going on in her head when she made the gestures for “not teeth?” As if that weren’t inscrutable enough, one of the guiding principles of scientific investigations of animal intelligence is what’s known as Morgan’s Canon: Scientists must not impute a higher mental ability if a behavior can be explained by something more primitive, for example, simple error.

Analogously, about 50 years ago, on a pond in Oklahoma, Washoe saw a swan and made the signs for “water” and “bird.” Was she simply noting a bird and water, or was she combining two of the signs she knew to describe an animal for which she had no specific word? The debate continued for decades and was unresolved when she died.

Since Washoe made those signs, there have been many more instances of apes combining words to describe something, but these examples still don’t prove they can combine words to arrive at a novel term, even if it seems obvious that they can. Faced with these ambiguities, many scientists have moved to studying whether animals can accomplish specific cognitive tasks, and a welter of credible findings show sophisticated abilities in animals ranging from crows to elephants.

Although science struggles with questions of general intelligence, language and intent, the public is in the “it’s obvious” camp, readily accepting evidence of animal sentience. The latest objects of fascination are the octopus — a relative of the clam! — and fish. Stories of cephalopod escape and problem-solving regularly go viral, and to the consternation of sushi lovers , John Balcomb’s book, “What a Fish Knows,” provides copious evidence that fish know a lot.

We tend to see animals as either personalities or commodities, or sometimes, both. When I wrote about octopus intelligence, I was amused by one octopus-oriented website that divided its space between stories of smart octopuses and recipes for cooking them. Perhaps the most extraordinary example of our schizophrenic view of animals occurred some years back when a chimp colony that included sign-language-using apes was disbanded and many of these onetime celebrities were shipped to a medical research lab to be used in Hepatitis B and AIDS drug testing.

I knew these chimps too, and visited them in their new environment. They were desperate to communicate with their human captors, but the staff didn’t know sign language. So insistent were Booee and Bruno with their signing that one handler put up a poster outside the cages showing some basic signs to help the humans respond. When I was there, three days after Booee had arrived, he was signing agitatedly for food and drink. But what I think he really wanted was reassurance: If the humans would respond to “gimme drink,” things were going to be OK.

Teaching Koko, Washoe and other animals some level of human and invented languages promised experimenters insight into the animal mind. But the animals seemed to seize on these languages as a way to make their wishes — and thoughts — known to their strange, bipedal wardens, who had no ability or interest in learning the animals’ communication system. For Koko, I believe, sign language was a way to make the best of a truly unnatural situation, and so she signed.

Science doesn’t know if great apes can invent terms or if they tell lies. And the tension between whether we view and treat animals as personalities or as commodities lives on. The truth is, Koko, Washoe and many other animals who have had two-way conversations with the people around them shatter the moral justification for the latter.



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