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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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Deep Past
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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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When Nixon Resigned...


Friday August 08, 2014

When Richard Nixon resigned forty years ago I was in Lesotho, a tiny, mountainous, eroded and overpopulated Kingdom that is entirely surrounded by South Africa. The project that brought me to Lesotho was my book, The Alms Race, which tried to answer the question of why attempts to help the developing world continually repeated the mistakes of the past [the answer is that many of the projects that were abject failures from the recipients point of view actually were successes in terms of the donor's objectives]. I was interviewing a couple of officials from the Ministry of Education when the news came through that Nixon had resigned. The bureaucrats were in the process of trying to devise a curriculum that would convey to bright-eyed students that Lesotho had a rational system of government, when in fact, at that time, the country was ruled by a strongman.

At one point the delicate question came up of how to discuss the fact that the Prime Minister, Chief Leabua Jonathan, had suspended the constitution a few years earlier and that nothing had replaced it. One of the officials, a glib, rising star in the Ministry, had a ready answer. Alluding to Nixon's misdeeds he said that the needs of a developing country are somewhat different than those of Great Britain or the United States, and that there were countries with law that were lawless, like the United States, and there were countries without constitutions that we're law abiding, e.g. Lesotho.

At this, another official, a decent, educated man, had had enough. Risking his career, he said, "Didn't Watergate show that the United States is not a lawless country, and, in fact, didn't Watergate show the strengths of a constitutional system?" I felt like applauding.

One other note on Nixon. If someone had told me back then that Richard Nixon would be our greatest President in terms of pushing through  environmental legislation protecting air, water and endangered species I would have laughed outright. Nor would I have believed it, if someone had predicted that no environmental law passed during the subsequent 40 years would be anywhere near as significant as the landmark acts of Nixon's administration. But it's true, and it's worth reflecting on what it means that this legislation, that materially changed the face of America for the better, came from a most unlikely champion.

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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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