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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.


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The Future In Plain Sight
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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Apes, Men, & Language
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Time Warp on Climate Change


Thursday August 28, 2014

 

In yesterday's New York Times, there were two articles on climate change. The first was a front page piece about how President Obama will try to end-run Congressional paralysis on dealing with climate change by seeking to update the existing Kyoto treaty in ways that commit nation's to targets to reduce green house gas emissions. Then there was an article by Justin Gillis discussing a new UN report that outlines dire predictions for climate change, which is being circulated a month before the organization meets to forge an agreement on climate change. This triggered a distant memory: seventeen years ago, the UN was also about to convene to try to agree to a climate treaty, and seventeen years ago I published an op-ed in the New York Times that offered a simple idea to break the impasse. Think about that: seventeen years ago, people were frustrated by the global community's inability to deal witht the threat. And what has happened since? The rate at which greenhouse gasses are accumulating in the atmosphere has nearly doubled. Oh, and Obama's outline for an agreement repicates some elements of the approach I proposed back then.

Here's the op-ed:

 

Here's the text of that op-ed. It's astonishing how little the basic debate has changed even as the threat has become so much more dire and imminent:

 

 If global warming were a Communist plot, there would be a treaty to combat the peril by now. Instead, only two months before representatives from industrial and developing nations are scheduled to meet in Kyoto, Japan, to agree on steps to counter the threat of climate change, it is becoming ever more clear that five years of negotiations have produced little that is meaningful.

 In a last-ditch attempt to develop an American consensus on action, President Clinton plans to hold a White House conference on Oct. 6. Given the prospects of the Kyoto treaty, it is time to consider creative alternatives for reducing the so-called greenhouse gases – byproducts of combustion – that are linked to climate change. A solution outside the framework of the negotiations for the Kyoto agreement may be the only way to resolve the impasse between economically advanced nations and those that are trying to catch up.

The industrial nations that account for most emissions cannot agree among themselves on a way to address global warming. They are reluctant to commit to freezing or reducing emissions, mainly because of concern about the possible economic costs of such actions. Meanwhile, countries with emerging economies worry that curbs on emissions will imperil economic development.

Yet nobody wants to admit total failure, particularly since with every passing year, new information emerges about climate changes, underlining the risks of human tampering with the atmosphere. The latest surprise is new evidence that climate changes may not be gradual, but more rapid and extreme. The reason for such flips isn’t clear, but most scientists recognize that the more carbon dioxide dumped into the atmosphere, the more likely that the climate will change.

What to do? Earlier this year, a delegation from the European Union may have inadvertently offered the kernel of a solution. The delegates proposed that the world’s nations commit to a 15% reduction from 1990 levels of greenhouse gases by 2010. It was a cynical suggestion because the Europeans knew the United States would never accept those terms. It was also hypocritical because Europe has an easy way of achieving greenhouse reductions: inviting the former Communist states into the European Union.

 As they modernize their antiquated, coal-fired industries, Eastern European nations like Poland and Hungary will be making significant reductions in the emissions that cause global warming. By bringing these nations into the European Union, the economically mature countries of Europe could more than offset their own increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

But the idea of linking industrial and emerging economies offers a way out of the impasse that has paralyzed the talks on global warming. Why not divide the world into three giant regions and hold each to an agreed-upon target for reducing greenhouse gases that the regions could achieve any way they want?

 North and South America could be one region, the slice of the globe from Northern Europe (including Russia) through Africa could be another, and Asia and Oceana could make up the third. With industrial powers and emerging economies in each region, countries could trade emission rights and share new technologies.

This plan could also help solve a knotty political problem. By shifting responsibility for reducing greenhouse gases from individual nations to a larger unit, no country would need to fear being placed at an economic disadvantage by a climate treaty. The goals for each region should be different since the biggest reductions in greenhouse gases will come in the modernizing economies of the former Communist states, while developing nations, especially in Asia and Latin America, will have more difficulty limiting emissions.

  Rewards for success and penalties for failure could be based on regional tariffs. That’s a tricky concept in an era of free trade, but no one has proposed a better enforcement alternative for the treaty being negotiated now.After years of talk about a solution, the problem of global warming looms every more ominously. It’s time for a new approach.

That last sentence was true seventeen years ago. That it's still true today is pathetic -- and tragic.

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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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