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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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Pope Francis in the Lion's Den


Tuesday September 22, 2015


Pope Francis will be the first leader of the Catholic Church to address a joint session of Congress.  Take out the name “Francis”, and that sentence would be the subject of universal rejoicing among Catholics. Instead we get this: “[The Pope ought to] leave science to the scientists,” from former Senator and Presidential candidate Rick Santorum, or this “when the Pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, he can be expected to be treated like one,” from Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona who intends to boycott the session.

Santurum, Gosar, and many other Catholic Republicans are in a snit because Francis intends to use this opportunity to spread the message of the threat of climate change that he laid out in his encyclical Laudate Si’ earlier this summer. This has led a number of Republicans, who loudly invoke religious authority when thundering on the evils of abortion or same sex marriage, to suddenly become passionate advocates of the separation of church and state. Beyond the amusing theater of politicians trying to pick and choose which Church doctrines they like – “Cafeteria Catholics,” as former Republican representative Bob Inglis calls them – there is the important question of what impact the Pope might have. 

If he’s hoping to change minds, he has got his work cut out for him. In most of the world’s nations, Pope Francis’ acceptance of the reality of evolution and the threat posed by climate change seems nothing more than common sense. When he addresses the Republican-controlled Congress, however, he will be in a chamber where common sense (along with consistency, logic and a sense of proportion) must be checked at the door. A political party that can dismiss as a hoax or conspiracy the overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientists with expertise in climate is not suddenly going to change its position because a Pope says that he thinks the threat is real.

In the longer run, however, the Pope’s address marks the end of climate denialism as a viable political position. I suspect that many of the politicians venting against the Pope recognize this. It’s clear by now that many of the politicians and organizations that oppose action on climate change have long known that it is real threat, but have used the levers of political power and propaganda to protect profits or funding. Reporting by InsideClimate News revealed that Exxon’s own studies confirmed the threat in the 1970s (indeed one study estimated that a doubling of CO2 would raise global temperatures by 2-3 degrees Celsius, very much in line with current estimates). Exxon, of course, has gone on to fund many of the organizations that spread disinformation about global warming.

Were the Pope only speaking to Congress, politicians might continue to bluster about hoaxes and liberal conspiracies, but the Pope’s message is going out to a billion Catholics around the world, and it is coming from the leader of a faith known for conservative positions on many social issues. As it stands, recent polling done by Pew Research Center suggests that Catholics are in line with Americans on awareness of global warming, but that only 24% of Republican Catholics think it is a serious problem. 
Expect that number to rise as the millions of people the Pope is trying to reach come to their own conclusions by simply looking around their world. In the Arctic, they can see that their world is warming catastrophically, and not cooling as recently trumpeted by the deniers (a claim based on cherry-picking data on variations in seasonal sea ice). In the Mediterranean regions of the world, they can see that droughts are more persistent; in the mountains they can watch glaciers retreat and snow packs thin; and everywhere people can see that once-in-a-100-year weather extremes are coming in packs. These observations confirm the Pope’s message and contradict the denier’s view that everything is fine.
        

Changes in public opinion will put pressure on politicians, but I suspect that what will really tip the political balance will be the growing economic clout of alternative energy. Solar, wind, fuel cells, battery and other energy storage devices are beginning to go viral, and a basic metric for politicians is job creation, particularly in an economy where household incomes have stalled for decades. The growth of renewables offers politicians a way to embrace action on climate change without ever admitting that they were wrong. 
        

So, rather than forcing change, the Pope’s encyclical and his address to a joint session of Congress mark a major inflection point in the protracted and agonizing struggle to address global warming. No one event will bring about change, but the combination of moral suasion by major religions; the undeniable changes in the world around us; the palpable costs of climate disruption; and the emergence of alternative energy as an economic engine of growth, suggest that the deniers’ rear guard actions are collapsing and that the world is mobilizing. The question remains: is it too late?
 

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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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