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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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The Ragged Edge of the World
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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 Future In Plain Sight
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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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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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Saturday June 16, 2007

[This is a slightly longer version of an essay that first appeared in Business Week]
Eugene Linden
With global oil production basically stalled for the past two years, the controversial prediction that the world is fast approaching maximum oil output is looking a bit less controversial. At first blush, those concerned about global warming should be delighted if this is the case. After all, what better way to prod the move towards carbon-free, climate-friendly alternative energy? Actually, the U.S. is completely unprepared for peak oil, as it's called, and the wrenching adjustments it would entail could easily accelerate global warming as nations turned to coal for energy. Moreover, regardless of the implications for climate change, peak oil represents a mortal threat to the U.S. economy. Peak oil refers to the point at which world oil production plateaus before beginning to decline, as depletion of the world's remaining reserves offsets ever increased drilling. Some experts argue that we're already there, and that we will not likely exceed the 84.5 million barrels per day production peaks reached in 2005 and 2006. If so, global production will bump along near these levels for some years before beginning an inexorable decline. What would that mean? With alternative energy still far too small to grow fast enough to make up the difference, global economic growth would slow, stop, and then reverse; international tensions would soar as nations sought access to diminishing supplies, enriching and enabling autocratic rulers in the unstable oil states in the process; and, unless some other sources of energy could be ramped up with extreme haste, the world could plunge into a new Dark Age. Even as faltering economies burned less oil, carbon loading of the atmosphere might accelerate as nations turned to vastly dirtier coal. Hmm, given such unpleasant possibilities don't you think this issue would rank a little higher on the radar screen? Actually, it's dumbfounding that Peak Oil isn't a day-in, day-out obsession for the press and policy makers. Picking a date for peak oil is exceedingly complicated, involving uncertainties ranging from how much oil might be recovered from unconventional sources such as oil sands to determining whether secretive oil exporting nations are telling the truth about their reserves. Even if proponents are wrong that the peak has already arrived, however, there are enough disturbing omens out there - e.g. declining production in most of the world's great oil fields and no new super-giant fields to take up the slack - to merit an intense international effort to understand the issue. For those interested in a robust discussion of the details, I'd highly recommend visiting, where some of the best minds in the business ventilate all these issues. Regardless of whether peak oil has arrived globally, the stark reality is that it will arrive much sooner for the United States -- in the form of peak global oil exports. Since we import nearly two-thirds of the oil we consume each year, oil available for export is the figure Americans should be concerned about. Fast-rising domestic consumption in the oil exporting nations, and increasing demands by big importers like China, means a scramble to maintain supplies to the U.S. unless world production rises rapidly. Production isn't rising, however; it has stalled. Call it de facto Peak Oil or Peak Oil Lite, but it means is that the United States is entering a brave new world in which we have to scramble to maintain levels of existing imports, much less increase the amount of oil we bring in. We will know soon enough whether the extra capacity to raise production really exists. If not, it's too late to avoid significant pain. Basic math and the clock tell the story. Taken together all alternatives - geothermal, solar, wind, etc. -- produce only 3% of the energy supplied by oil. If oil demand rises by 2% while production remains flat, production of alternative energy would have to grow by 60% a year - more than twice as fast as the growth of wind power, the fastest growing alternative energy -- and all this incremental energy would somehow have to be delivered to transportation (which consumes most of the oil produced each year) just to stay even with the growth in demand. Nuclear and hydropower together produce ten times the power of wind, geothermal and solar power, of course, but even if nations put aside environmental concerns, it takes many years to build either nuclear plants or dams, and it's getting harder to find un-dammed rivers. There are many things that we in the U.S. should be doing right now. If a tax on oil makes sense from a climate change perspective, it makes double sense squared from the point of view of extending remaining oil supplies. Improving efficiency and scaling up alternative sources must be a priority, but, recognizing that nations will turn to cheap coal (in recent years 80% of global growth in coal use has come from China), major efforts should be directed towards de-fanging this fuel, which produces more carbon dioxide per ton than any other energy source. If the peakists are wrong, we'll still be better off with these actions, but if they are right, major efforts right now may be the only way to avert a new Dark Age in an overheated world. Unfortunately, our collective policy on peak oil seems to be cross our fingers and hope it's not true. It that worthy of a great civilization facing a threat to the energy source that propelled much of its prosperity and growth?

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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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