Eugene Linden
home   |   contact info   |   biography   |   publications   |   radio/tv   |   musings   |   short takes   

Lastest Musing

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...

continue

Featured Book

The Ragged Edge of the World
Buy from Amazon

more info

Articles by Category
endangered animals
rapid climate change
global deforestation
fragging

Books

Winds of Change
Buy from Amazon

more info
Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
more info


The Future In Plain Sight
more info


The Parrot's Lament
more info


Silent Partners
more info


Affluence and Discontent
more info


The Alms Race
more info


Apes, Men, & Language
more info

BUSINESS DISCOVERS THE COSTS OF EXTREME WEATHER -- THAT'S GOOD NEWS!


Saturday February 15, 2014

        The weather has become the go-to excuse for economists and businessmen who want to explain poor performance. “Unusually, disruptive weather across large stretches of the country kept people indoors,” explained Lawrence Yun, the chief economist of the National Association of Realtors, in accounting for a slowdown in home sales in Dec. Speaking on CNBC, Diane Swonk, the chief economist of Mesirow Financial, used the January chill that gripped much of the nation to explain disappointing numbers on U.S. auto sales. “It literally freezes the economic activity,” she noted. Similar explanations were offered for the very weak ISM manufacturing numbers released in early February. Economists blamed the huge miss on Non-Farm Payroll numbers in Dec.  – 74,000 instead of the consensus expectation of 197,000 – on bad weather. The same excuse was trotted out when the January ADP number came in weak. The Bureau of Labor Statistics did not blame the weak NFP number of 113,000 on the weather, but pundits were quick to point out that the January employment survey was taken during the one mild week during the month. To top it off the weather has been trotted out as an excuse for a possibly weak GDP number for the first quarter of 2014 – which really jumps the gun because the quarter is not yet half over.  As many financial bloggers have noted, the weather excuse has become the economic equivalent of “the dog ate my homework.”
       

          Change the word “weather” to the phrase “climate change,” however, and be prepared for howls of protest. Though this is another dismaying example of the how toxic the phrase has become, the universal acceptance that extreme weather has economic consequences points to a path towards awakening the public to the risks we all face. This is simply because we will experience climate change as weather, and the more businesses and municipalities find themselves suffering economically because of extreme weather events, the more they will realize that even more frequent extreme storms, temperatures, floods, and droughts are a risk factor (to use the language of corporate reports) going forward.

           No one would claim that all extreme weather events are the result of global warming, but one of the most widely agreed-upon consequences of warming is an increase in extreme weather events. Climate is what you expect, and weather is what you get. If the weather we experience ever more frequently diverges from expectations, then it is natural to wonder whether climate is changing.

          One of the biggest impediments to any public awakening is that the phrase “global warming” implies that the extremes will only be in the form of heat and everywhere at once. Hence the blizzard of smugness – “where’s your warming?” – that was an insufferable fellow-traveler with the arrival of the Polar Vortex in January (an easy answer, by the way, is “Alaska” where unseasonable warmth led to a massive avalanche that isolated the town of Valdez for two weeks).  When climate changes, however, the scientific consensus is that the transition is not smooth. The term favored by climate scientists is “flicker” where climate jumps back and forth between hot and cold and wet and dry until it finally settles in a new state.  In this context, rather than putting aside concerns about global warming when the temperature plunges, we might well wonder whether or not the extreme is yet another data point in an accelerating pattern of extreme events.
           

        There have been numerous studies of the potential economic impact of climate change (I helped edit one published by the UNDP and World Bank in 2005), the most recent being “The Weather Business” published by the German financial colossus Allianz. Many of the earlier studies speculated about future events, while now, a businessman, economist, a mayor, governor, or President doesn’t need a study to envision the costs of weather catastrophes. All they have to do is look at their corporate results, or busted budgets. The increasing pace of extreme weather events is telling us that climate is changing and it is costing us money now (the Allianz report estimated the cost of worldwide weather disasters in 2012 to be $170 billion).
           

         Which brings us back to the question of the difference between thinking about the costs of extreme events as “weather” related losses or as costs related to “climate change.” Attributing poor performance to the weather contains an implicit assumption that this was a one-time event, not likely to be repeated as things revert to normal. Recognizing that an event might – might – be related to changing climate means that a CEO or political leader recognizes that he or she should be prepared for things not returning to normal. Which corporate leader or politician would you prefer to have making decisions about budgets and strategy?
          

contact Eugene Linden

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.



read more
  designed and maintained by g r a v i t y s w i t c h , i n c .
Eugene Linden. all rights reserved.