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Diary of a Tree Stump

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  “I would vote for a tree stump if it could beat Donald Trump”

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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.

The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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Apes, Men, & Language
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Monday March 17, 2014

Sunday night was very cold in my neighborhood north of New York City, maybe about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. I’d let out our adopted stray, Noodles, during the evening, and after dealing with a bunch of minor chores, had gone to bed. I woke up just before seven AM this morning after a decent night’s sleep, and I was lying in bed thinking it strange that I hadn’t heard Noodles scratching at my bedroom door as he is wont to do for several irritating hours at a stretch each night. I thought back over the previous evening and couldn’t remember letting Noodles in. No sooner had this thought entered my mind than I heard a very loud “Meow!!!” from outside my bedroom window. Aha, one mystery solved – I let in through the window a very angry cat, who proceeded to give me a piece of his mind -- but another mystery presented. Outside my bedroom window is the roof of the porch, which stands a good 20 feet above the ground atop vertical posts.

Somehow Noodles, who is a complete couch potato and must have endured a miserable night, realized that his best chance to be let in would be to get someplace where I could hear or see him, and he figured out that I would be in the bedroom early in the morning. To do this though, he also had to figure out where the bedroom was when viewed from the outside, and then somehow climb the posts and get past the gutters -- in difficulty a task that must rank with climbing Half Dome in Yosemite. This is perhaps the most unambiguous instance of something I’ve been observing for decades: cats wanting to get let in will size up the situation and will figure out how to get noticed.

In my book, The Parrot’s Lament, I tell the story of my Maine coon cat Zephyr, who, on an absolutely frigid and windy night in New Hampshire resorted to jumping up and down outside the kitchen window to get my attention. He seemed to realize that I could not hear meows given the wind and that the best way to get me to notice him was  by moving in my field of vision. The story is striking, but it wouldn’t prove anything to a skeptic about animal intelligence. More recently, Oliver, another of our adopted (better word might be kidnapped) strays, has taken to standing outside the French doors of the TV room when I am watching television to get my attention, and Noodles regularly will find a window where we can see him to get our attention, rather than sitting by the door. A reductionist would dismiss these examples too as ambiguous. Noodles' roof gambit, however, is a lot harder to dismiss.

Now cats don’t rank that high in the metrics -- e.g. encephalization quotient – that we use to rank potential for intelligence. Still, they continually exceed expecations. In truth,I suspect that cats don’t really care much about how we measure intelligence. And who was the dummy in this story?

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Short Take



An oped involves extreme compression, and so I thought I’d expand on why I think the initial IPCC reports so underestimated the threat. Make no mistake, the consensus in the summaries for policy makers in the first two assessments did underestimate the threat. The consensus was that permafrost would be stable for the next 100 years and also that the ice sheets would remain stable (there was even a strong sentiment at that time that the East Antarctic sheet would gain mass). Moreover, in 1990, the concept of rapid climate change was at the periphery of mainstream scientific opinion. All these things turned out to be wrong

Of course, there were scientists at that time who raised alarms about the possibility of rapid climate change, collapse of the ice sheets, and nightmare scenarios of melting permafrost, but, fairly or not, the IPCC summary for policy makers was and is taken to represent the consensus of scientific thinking.

In my opinion such documents will always take a more conservative (less dramatic) position than what scientists feel is justified. For one thing the IPCC included policy makers, most of whom were more incentivized to downplay the threats. For another, many of the national governments that were the customers for these assessments barely tolerated the exercise and gave strong signals that they didn’t want to see anything that called for dramatic action, and this being the UN, there was a strong push to present a document that as many governments as possible would accept.

And then there is the nature of science and the state of climate science at that point. There is an inherent structural lag built in to the nature of science. For instance, the 1980’s were marked by the rapid development of proxies to see past climate changes with ever more precision. By the mid-late 80’s the proxies and siting had been refined sufficiently that the GISP and GRIP projects could confidently get ice cores from Greenland that they felt represented a true climate record and by then they also had the proxies with the resolution to see the rapid changes that had taken place in the past. Given the nature of data collection, interpretation, peer-review and publishing, it wasn’t until 1993 that these results were published.

It took nearly another decade for this new, alarming, paradigm about how rapidly global climate can change to percolate through the scientific community, and, even today, much of the public is unaware that climate can change on a dime.

As for the ice sheets, when I was on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in 1996, there was talk about the acceleratio of  ice streams feeding the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers, but the notion that there might be a significant increase in runoff from the ice sheet over the next hundred years was still very much a fringe idea.

With permafrost, the problem was a sparsity of data in the 80s and early 90s and it is understandable that scientists didn’t want to venture beyond the data.

The problem for society as a whole was that the muted consensus on the scale of the threat diminished any sense of urgency about dealing with the problem. Perhaps the best example of this was the early work of William Nordhaus. Working from the IPCC best estimates in the early 1990s Nordhaus published one paper in which he predicted the hit to the US GDP from climate change in 2100 would be about ½ of 1%. Nobody is going to jump out of their chair and demand action if the hit to the economy was going to be 0.5% of GPD a hundred years laterLibertarians such as William Niskanen seized on this and testified before Congress that there was plenty of time to deal with global warming if it was a threat at all.  

And then there was the disinformation campaign of industry, particularly fossil fuel lobbyists, as well as pressure from unions (the UAW in particular) and the financial community. These highly motivated, deep-pocketed interests seized on scientific caution to suggest deep divisions among scientists and that the threat was overplayed. Little wonder then that the public failed to appreciate that this was a looming crisis that demanded immediate, concerted action.


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