Diary of a Tree Stump
“I would vote for a tree stump if it could beat Donald Trump”
[Timothy Egan, in his Nov. 8, 201...
Buy from Amazon
rapid climate change
Winds of Change
Buy from Amazon
Afterword to the softbound edition.
The Octopus and the Orangutan
The Future In Plain Sight
The Parrot's Lament
Affluence and Discontent
The Alms Race
Apes, Men, & Language
THE CRISES THAT DARE NOT SPEAK THEIR NAMES
Thursday May 15, 2014
[I'm going to continue to bang this drum until I get it right! This appeared in The Daily Beast]
In the first quarter of 2014, the economic impact of extreme weather related to climate change, combined with the inherent weakness of an economy suffering through a depression, produced a preliminary estimate of nearly no economic growth. This stark portrayal is a far cry from how the 0.1% GDP growth of the quarter has been presented. Rather, the narrative has gone something like this: Weather-related disruptions weighed upon business investment and consumer spending as the weak recovery continued.
Thus we continue to endure the two most consequential events of the recent decade without acknowledging either for what they are.
In the case of climate change, this timidity is understandable as change comes as weather and there will never be one clear event that signals indisputably that we’ve entered the climate rapids. Fifty years from now, however, odds are that historians will mark the first decade of this new millennium as the point at which global warming became undeniable, particularly in its economic impacts.
Similarly, future economic historians will likely mark the financial crash of 2008 as the beginning of a depression (it would be nice if they would come back in time and told us when it will end). Here too, it is understandable because there is such a high noise-to-signal ratio amid an incessant drumbeat of often conflicting economic data and so many false starts that it is extremely difficult to define a depression except in retrospect.
Part of the problem is that definitions of depression abound (the concept is so nebulous that the National Bureau of Economic Research, which officially calls recessions, demurs on the question of calling depressions). The description of depression that fits the present situation is a sustained period in which economic output falls substantially below an economy’s potential. Now five years into our “recovery” the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the economy this year will still fall short of its potential output by $723 billion (and this gap comes against figures for potential output that have been steadily marked down by the CBO since 2008, essentially lowering the bar).
Recognizing that things have truly changed has always been difficult for those living through inflection points in history. Those deepest inside the U.S. government and the intelligence community in the late 1980s were among the last to acknowledge that the Cold War was really over as the Soviet Union unraveled. “The Great Depression” as a proper noun only came into popular use in the 1950s, long after the event was over. As the economy bounced around in the mid-1930s, there were many premature calls that the crisis had ended, including one by President Roosevelt in 1936, after three years of impressive recovery, but just before a vicious new recession hit, and unemployment rose to new highs.
This blindness is deeply embedded in human nature. Such is our commitment to the world view we forge during our formative years that often we can’t see what is literally staring us in the face. Jerome Brumer, father of gestalt psychology, demonstrated this in a celebrated experiment in which he showed people a deck of cards salted with the wrong colors for different suits such as a red ace of spades. When the cards were turned over, most people saw them as normal. Only when they could linger for long periods would they see that something was amiss, but even then some people could not put their finger on what was wrong.
Does it matter whether and when we put a label on an era? Yes, greatly. Our reticence to state the obvious but unproven may be understandable, and even prudent, but it is not helpful. Recognizing that the changing climate carries with it harsh economic consequences might spur action to limit the harm. The Obama administration just did its part releasing a draft assessment of climate change asserting that it is already hurting Americans. Still, our current posture that global warming is a nebulous, far-off problem largely explains our complacency about a threat that has in the past been a civilization-killer.
Similarly, while economists will argue over whether the present period of near zero growth and stretched household finances is a depression long after the economy really does recover, acknowledging that for all but a tiny group of Americans the economy is in depression would do a world of good. For one thing, there might be less push for deficit reduction and more pressure for programs that might improve the incomes of ordinary Americans. One school of thought holds that FDR’s false belief in 1936 that the depression was over led his administration to tighten credit, pushing the fragile economy back into recession.
So, let’s acknowledge the obvious. The upside is that we might muster the political will to develop policies that match reality. Do we want those yet unborn historians (who are going to be royally annoyed about the world we bequeath them anyway) wondering how it was that we ignored what was staring us in the face?
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.