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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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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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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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A Future We Don't Want


Thursday October 23, 2014

Since 1998, when The Future in Plain Sight was published, I’ve been watching the nine clues to future instability that I put forth in that book come into to the headlines one by one, and, unfortunately, way ahead of schedule. The basic argument in TFIPS is that the contours of the future might best be glimpsed through the filter of stability. While predicting whether we’d all have personal flying machines is a fool’s errand, we could know a lot if we could make an informed guess as to whether the future was likely to be more or less stable than the present.

With that in mind, I proposed nine, long wave-length trends/clues that strongly implied that the future would be less stable than the present. After exploring how different an unstable world is from a relatively stable one (less investment and innovation, religion/family/clan more important, etc), the book offered a series of scenarios set in the year 2050, which tried to put some flesh on what such a future might look like.

Alas, it looks like we won’t have to wait until 2050 to see this unstable future. We have had vivid, real world examples of the disruptions wrought by religious extremists (the chapter “The Rise of the True Believers” was written before the religious right gained ascendence here, and radical Islam began its bombings and wars); a disappearing Middle Class (“the Ubiquitous Wage Gap”); markets wrecking economic chaos (“Hot-Tempered Markets”); and so on.

And now, with the Ebola crisis, unless the world takes action real fast, we are going to witness the unholy synergy of three other clues offered in the book – “Infectious Disease Resurgent,” “A Biosphere in Disarray,” and the inherent instability of swollen, emerging nation cities. Wholesale ecological disruption very likely played a role in Ebola jumping from its animal host to humans, its emergence also signals that the “honeymoon” from infectious disease that started with sanitation in the late 19th century and the discovery of antibiotics in the 20th, is coming to an end, and the swollen cities of emerging nations are providing the springboards for the return of the microbes.

In the years since I wrote that book, I’ve looked back many times, wondering whether I was wrong about any of the clues, or whether I missed one that I should have added. One such candidate for inclusion is the rise of international criminal gangs. The drug cartels and their affiliates have made much of Mexico to dangerous to travel, and similar, large scale criminal enterprises destabilize scores of cities around the world.

As for a clue where I might have overstated the threat, there is one that bears directly on whether or not the world will contain the Ebola threat. That clue focused on the destabilizing aspects of the emergence of megacities. Given their size and importance to regional economies, it is easy to see how problems in a megacity could bring down an entire nation’s economy. What happens to Japan, for instance, if radiation from Fukushima continually worsens and makes Tokyo uninhabitable, or, what happens to Brazil if large parts of Sao Paolo really do run out of water, as is threatened now? On the other hand, these giant cities also create a critical mass of intelligence and the capital to deploy it. There's a ray of hope in the fact that an Ebola carrier made it to Lagos, the very poster child of a city always on the verge of collapse, and yet the city was able to respond and contain the disease. If the home of kleptocrats and email scams can deal with Ebola, maybe other African cities can too. Go Lagos!

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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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