Eugene Linden
home   |   contact info   |   biography   |   publications   |   radio/tv   |   musings   |   short takes   

Lastest Musing

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...

continue

Featured Book

The Ragged Edge of the World
Buy from Amazon

more info

Articles by Category
endangered animals
rapid climate change
global deforestation
fragging

Books

Winds of Change
Buy from Amazon

more info
Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
more info


The Future In Plain Sight
more info


The Parrot's Lament
more info


Silent Partners
more info


Affluence and Discontent
more info


The Alms Race
more info


Apes, Men, & Language
more info

Everyone Saw This Coming


Friday May 22, 2015

Twenty-seven years ago, when the world briefly awoke to the threats of global warming and tropical deforestation, scientists could only speculate on what changes might come in the future. Now, one need only look and observe.

Nineteen years ago, I went to Antarctica to report for Time magazine on the ways in which global warming was affecting the frozen continent. One concern was the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (or WAIS).

In 1996, scientists had detected an increase in the velocity of the so-called “ice streams,” which transport ice from the interior of the immense glacier to the shore. The fear was that as WAIS diminished, salt water might intrude under the ice and eventually cause it to float, raising sea level around the world, and inundating large swaths of Florida, not to mention Bangladesh, Indonesia and other low lying areas that are home to hundreds of millions of people.

This year, Eric Rignot, a scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, published a study confirming these fears with the stark conclusion that the ice sheet is in a state of “irreversible decline,” and in early May, Princeton University researchers released a new study confirming the accelerating melting.

The great ice sheet won’t collapse any time soon, but it’s a chilling thought in a warming world that an ice sheet that has been stable through the entire time modern humans have existed has now begun to come apart.

More than 20 years ago, INPE, Brazil’s Space Agency published studies arguing that continued cutting of the Amazon was diminishing the vast forest’s ability to recycle moisture. Water – it used to be seven trillion tons each year – evaporated from the Amazon forest rises above the forest, bounces south along the Andes, and then is carried by prevailing winds, first across the dryer areas of southern Brazil and then, after traversing the Atlantic, to South Africa, where it nourishes the corn crop. Since then, the forest has shrunk by an area equivalent to the size of Texas, and now residents of Sao Paulo, the hemisphere’s largest city, desperately scrabble for water after multiple years of drought have desiccated the reservoirs.

And of course, at the same time, California is trying to cope with the worst drought in its modern history. This drought was predicted 18 years ago by Richard Seager of Columbia University, who in 1998 published a paper in Science arguing that a warming world shifted the global precipitation patterns pole ward leaving California and other mid-latitude regions in a rain shadow. Exacerbating California’s problems has been a diminished snowpack – this year at 6 percent of normal. Ordinarily, the snowpack stores water and then melting acts as a meter, delivering water during the dry summer months. Tim Barnett of Scripps Oceanographic Institute first predicted 15 years ago that the combination of drought and warming would have this result.

Are you seeing the pattern here? Time and again, the world’s best scientists have done their job and made predictions based on the best available evidence, only to watch in dismay as their predictions come true because an oblivious world fails to act.

Many other predictions made about the likely consequences of global warming have come to pass: more extreme weather events (a drumbeat of such studies the mid-1990s, with the most recent published in Nature Climate Change on April 27); the disappearance of arctic sea; the collapse of fish populations in the Pacific; and even the series of frigid winters in the Northeast, fueled by a slowdown of the ocean circulation pattern that distributes heat from the tropics to the North Atlantic (predicted by Wallace Broecker of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in an article in Science in 1997, and now back in the news).

Can it be said unequivocally that the drought in California is related to climate change, or that Sao Paulo’s water crisis is tied to cutting of the Amazon, or that there is, in fact undeniable evidence of an increase in extreme weather events? Nope, weather might be the most complicated phenomenon on the planet, influenced at any given time by myriad cycles as well as by such disparate factors as air pollution, land, even the expansion of cities, as well as the difficulty of obtaining consistent measurements on a global scale.

As new predictions of past decades come to pass, however, it makes it harder to explain these changes as coincidence. And there are quite unequivocal signals of a warming planet. Sea level rise, resulting from increased melting of ice and the thermal expansion of the oceans, offers a mute, global signal of a warming planet. Moreover, sea level is rising much faster than predicted, possibly because ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are melting more rapidly than predicted.

Could any of these unfortunate events have been prevented? Of course! Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which warned that unchecked use of DDT would lead to the collapse of bird populations. The United States and other developed nations banned the pesticide, and bird populations have recovered to the point where bald eagles visit New York City (China ignored the warnings about DDT, and has suffered the silent spring that Carson predicted). Dealing with greenhouse gas emissions is vastly more complicated, but it is highly likely that the world would be in a better position to fight the threat now had it begun to take action in 1988.

Now we’ve gone backwards. Thanks to a campaign to discredit the threat of climate change financed by the fossil fuel industry and vigorously promoted by Fox News and other right-leaning media, fewer Americans think global warming is human caused than they did eight years ago, according to a recent study conducted by Anthony Leiserowitz* of Yale University.

Think about that: even as predictions of past decades have become reality, the American attitude about global warming has shifted towards “prove it.” One thing is certain: we’ve forfeited the right to say, “Nobody saw this coming.”

contact Eugene Linden

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.



read more
  designed and maintained by g r a v i t y s w i t c h , i n c .
Eugene Linden. all rights reserved.