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Diary of a Tree Stump

Something lighter:                                    

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

   [Timothy Egan, in his Nov. 8, 201...

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In Defense of Raising Alarms


Thursday April 24, 2014

A good alternative to a bracing cold shower as a way of raising your heart beat in the morning is to read any review, oped, or editorial about environment in the Wall Street Journal. Today’s digitalis was served up by James Hoffman in his review of A Climate of Crisis by Patrick Allitt. I’ll reserve judgment of the book, but the review offers the standard WSJ stew of casuistry, cherry-picking, misinformation and distortions that has long been the Journal’s signature when it comes to environment.

For instance, Huffman credits authors like Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner with rousing the public to demand the landmark environmental legislation of the ‘60s and early ‘70s (give a nod to Richard Nixon – much of the credit for today's cleaner air, water, and protected species trace to legislation he signed), but then has this gem: “Even so, environmentalists continued to cry wolf, and we’re undeterred when their doom-saying forecasts of global famine and ecological ruin failed to materialize.”

In what way was Silent Spring crying wolf? To find an example of a nation that didn’t heed the warnings of the environmentalists of that era, Mr. Huffman need only travel to China, where pesticides did kill off most birdlife, where pollution has so fouled the air and water that in vast stretches of the country the water is unfit even for industry, the land is too poisoned for farming and air pollution makes the cities unlivable.

And then there’s this: “And numerous Northwest communities were devastated in the 1990s by a 90% cut in public-land timber harvests, which crippled the timber industry to save the Northern Spotted Owl.” Really? At the point at which the Spotted Owl issue boiled up, the only remaining large tracts of old growth Pacific Northwest forests were on public land as virtually all old growth on private land had already been cut. So much for Wise Use. Moreover, over the years, automation threw more loggers out of work than environmental restrictions (which were a convenient whipping boy for owners who would gladly cut the payroll if a machine could do a man’s work). With old growth gone the logging industry was destined to shrink drastically anyway as the real money lay in extracting the giant, ancient trees.

If private owners had acted responsibly and the Forest Service not acted as errand boys for the loggers over many decades, the Endangered Species Act would not have come into play as a last resort. Would Huffman have preferred that all old growth be available for logging?

I’ll give Huffman some credit. Unlike virtually any other writer that appears in the Journal’s editorial pages, he sounds as though he does think environment needs protecting. He thinks the courts are the place to work out environmental disputes (which reminds me of Michael Kinsley’s pithy line about the libertarian preference for courts over regulation: “Why do something once when you can do it many times”). Courts need laws, however, and when has Congress enacted any legislation without a sense of urgency?

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Short Take

THOUGHTS ON WHY THE EARLY IPCC ASSESSMENTS UNDERSTATED THE CLIMATE THREAT

 

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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