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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 REPUBLIC OF BIRDS: THOUGHTS FROM MIDWAY ATOLL


Thursday January 24, 2008

EUGENE LINDEN
Iíve been to a number of places where wild animals are trusting of humans, but perhaps none so unlikely as Midway Atoll, smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. After more than a century of abuse at the hands of man -- first being slaughtered for their feathers by hunters, then being paved over by Seabees, then shelled by the Japanese during World War II, and finally Osterized by the engines of the planes of the U.S. Strategic Air Command during the Cold War -- the albatross and other birds donít seem to bear a grudge. Maybe thatís because theyíve won. Albatross have succeeded where the Japanese military failed and have successfully taken over the island. And, they did it in a way that Mahatma Ghandi would applaud Ė through passive resistance. Itís only fair since theyíve have ancestral rights to Midway (or whatever itís called in Albatross-speak), but itís still both eerie and wonderful to see how the birds been able to enforce an avian eminent domain and build their nests on every available open space, including the middle of the islandís paths. Even more moving is the gracious way in which we humans have surrendered control and allowed the establishment of a republic of birds. For the most part itís a peaceable nation, and the citizens are irresistible, albeit short. Iíve discovered that itís impossible not to talk to them as I make my way around the island on foot or on bike. For their part, the albatross make we humans feel like superstars as we pick our way among them. The combined effect of tens of thousands of birds clacking in the background makes it seem as though our every move is accompanied by polite applause from a very large crowd. Their curiosity and clumsiness on land make them endearing. Every day, our group trades stories of heart-stopping take-offs as birds flap their wings and run wildly down impromptu runways that open in the middle of the nesting area. More often than not they inadvertently step on a nesting bird at some point during take off, eliciting an indignant squawk. The concept of zoning doesnít seem to have taken hold in bird land, although there are a couple of paths to the beaches that the albatross use for a more official runway, and the albatross using these runways even line up and (mostly) take turns. Landings are even more dramatic. If youíre an albatross, every landing seems to be an emergency landing. Unless thereís a stiff wind to land into, they have to put on the brakes immediately on touch-down, and quite often this ends up in a face plant, if not a collision with another hapless bird. In the air, though, they are magnificent, even heroic, and their life style would appeal to both feminists and the most fire-breathing moralists. Feminists would have a hard time finding fault with males who pitch in and take over care of the baby immediately after hatching while the mom gets a chance to rest up. Albatross may be one of the few species where spouses are actually an asset, rather than a clumsy menace, around newborns. On the other hand the ďvaluesĒ crowd might find inspiration in their commitment to monogamy since the birds mate for life. All in all Midway today is a happy place. The few humans working here or visiting here all care deeply about restoring the atoll as the haven for wildlife. God knows the albatross need it. Between the plastics that get into their digestive systems when they feed, to the impacts of global warming, the albatross run a gauntlet of threats during their life on the high seas. Once back on the atoll, however, at least for the moment, they find a haven where humans have turned the infrastructure of war and conflict towards their betterment. Theyíve managed to get a superpower as a protector and they donít control a drop of oil -- no mean trick for a birdbrain. Thatís an auspicious augury at the dawn of the 21st century.

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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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