Eugene Linden
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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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PRESENTING THE QUANTUM PANDER


Wednesday April 08, 2015

In recent days, Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana has given us a political analogy to Erwin Schrodinger's famous thought experiment in which he posited that there were situations in quantum mechanics where a cat could simultaneously be both alive and dead. In Pence's case, in the course of one week he both attacked as an unjust smear, the criticism that a bill he signed on religious freedom implicitly gave license to individuals and businesses to refuse customers if serving them violated their beliefs, and also demanded that the bill be "fixed" before the end of the week. Thus the bill in question was both perfect as it was, but also in urgent need of fixing. Call it quantum pandering.

These days Pence might prefer to be living in a world of quantum indeterminacy. In 1935, Schrodinger dreamed up his scenario in response to an interpretation of quantum mechanics in which various possible realities remained piled up upon one another -- "super-positioned" is the word physicists use -- until they were observed, at which point these many states would "collapse" into something definite. In Pence's case he was faced with the task of appeasing two core constituencies of the Republican Party: the Christian right who abhor gay marriage, and the business community, which doesn't want to alienate potential customers. The problem for Pence is that neither is a subatomic particle, and both want definite results, not the blurry miasma which politicians prefer to inhabit.

The difference between quantum pandering and the more familiar political syndrome of flip-flopping is the element of time. John Kerry could get away -- sort of -- with the phrase "I was for the war before I was against it" because people are allowed to change their minds. We enter the political equivalent of quantum reality when the two contradictory positions are near simultaneous. Flip-flopping, hardly more noble, usually represents a politician's craven recognition that a pander isn't working. Quantum pandering is not about the times changing, but rather the need to appease two irreconcilable points of view at the same time.

A near-heroic example of flip-flopping took place in 1961 when Robert Wagner ran for his third term for Mayor of New York City as a reform candidate, in essence running as an incumbent on a "throw the bums out platform." The bums in this instance, were the very political machine, the operatives of Tammany Hall, who had put him in office for his first two terms. Mitt Romney came closer to the quantum pander during the 2012 campaign when he both defended the health care plan he championed in Massachusetts and attacked Obamacare, which was based on that very plan.

The Pence drama is but a warm up to the 2016 presidential election, which promises a rich smorgasbord of quantum panders. How will the Democrats tap into anger at wealth inequality and the impunity of the banks without alienating the deep pockets of Wall Street? Will Rand Paul find himself caught between the libertarian abhorrence of foreign adventures and Republican allegiance to defense spending; or rights of privacy and government surveillance? For those planning to keep score at home, a flip flop becomes a quantum pander when it occurs within the same week, as politics works operates slightly longer timescales than quantum mechanics. Do you agree Dr. Schrodinger?

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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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