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

I'm Not Hopeful About COP21 in Paris


Monday November 30, 2015

[A version of this appeared Nov. 29 in Yale Climate Connections]

 

 

Starting November 30, some 45,000-plus interested parties converge in Paris to try to influence the final form of what is supposed to be a universal agreement among nations on how to address the unfolding threat of climate change. As the date looms, the prospects are not encouraging.


The first thing to keep in mind is that only the climate gets final-say: the measure that matters most for what comes out of Paris will be the reaction, over time, of the climate itself. Countless unambiguous signals, ranging from disappearing arctic ice to sea level rise, tell us that human-induced changes in climate are already happening. It’s too late to stop global warming; the world’s nations can only try to prevent its worst effects by drastically reducing further emissions of greenhouse gasses. The world may yet do so, but not solely as a result of any agreement that comes out of Paris.

Most of the horse-trading and language that will go into this agreement will be irrelevant to how much carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gasses ultimately rise into the skies. At least that’s the grim conclusion that can be drawn from the history of most U.N. actions devised to address environmental problems, as well as from the signals coming from the ongoing negotiations themselves. Consider the sad history of the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty intended to address the climate threat, with roots extending back to the 1980s. It was finally negotiated in 1997, and went into effect in 2005. Big nations by and large failed to meet the targets, and China, now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, was not even bound by its commitments. Moreover, the most successful reductions came not from the treaty, but in the ordinary course of modernizing the outdated and comically inefficient industries of the former communist bloc nations after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Even as it was being negotiated, few experts believed that Kyoto by itself would forestall global warming. It was pitched to doubters with the argument that once in place, the treaty could be strengthened. It wasn’t. More often, it was either evaded or ignored.


Another troubling sign is the wrangling over money, which conjures up another international environmental effort: The U.N.’s Tropical Forestry Action Plan (TFAP), an effort to slow destruction of the world’s rainforests, was hatched in the 1980s. The program was sold to donors as a way to slow deforestation in these fragile ecosystems, but it was sold to recipients as a way to channel additional money for economic development. The result: in a number of African nations, TFAP actually accelerated logging.

In the case of climate change, one has to wonder how much of the money that is supposed to go from the developed countries to emerging nations will simply be viewed as a new source of development aid (at least those funds that are not simply relabeled existing commitments) that will be channeled into politically favored projects, with little or no impact on emissions.


Shifting the world’s energy sector away from fossil fuels requires investment, and it’s understandable that poorer nations will try to seek funds from richer countries, and that all nations will try to dodge their own responsibilities. That’s what nations have always done. That this wrangling continues even as this supposedly historic meeting convenes, however, bespeaks the lack of urgency that for some surrounds this issue. It’s a depressing indicator of how low climate change ranks on various national agendas that only a tiny number of politicians bother even to pander on the issue.

If Paris were somehow to lead to a robust agreement, how many years will pass before it’s put into place by various countries needing to do so? And then, how many years will it take before its “binding” commitments go into effect? The leisurely timetable and mild demands of the Kyoto Protocol won’t cut it given the pace at which climate is changing.


An aura of unreality surrounds the whole process. Somehow negotiators settled on 2 degrees Centigrade, 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, as an acceptable amount of warming (by the way, Earth has already warmed by nearly 1.3 degrees F from pre-industrial levels). Despite its nearly iconic status, it’s a target that wrongly presumes that scientists can pin-point how much warming will result from a given amount of GHG emissions, or that economists and social scientists can nail, with precision, the economic and social costs of a given degree of warming. They can’t.

The magical and mystical two degrees number dates back to 1990 for policymakers and was advanced as far back as the 1970s. A lot has changed in climate science in the years since. Until the mid-1990s, for instance, most scientists felt that climate changed in a stately, linear way, over hundreds if not thousands of years. Now, the climate community has come to realize that climate can change quite abruptly, and that climate transitions are characterized by tipping points and non-linear (read unpredictable) responses.

Take, for instance, the question of thawing permafrost. Several times the amount of additional greenhouse gasses humans might “safely” release into the atmosphere remain trapped in permafrost in the northern hemisphere. When the magic two degree number first gelled into consensus, few were considering whether a rise of two degrees might trigger irreversible thawing of that permafrost, leading to runaway warming. Indeed, IPCC estimates of future GHG emissions contain no figure for future permafrost contribution to the carbon budget.

Based on a study of ancient permafrost thawing, Anton Vaks of Oxford University in England estimates that the tipping point might be a rise in global temperatures of 1.5 degrees centigrade. Oops!

More than a decade ago, I helped edit a report on rapid climate change sponsored by an elite group of institutions and a major re-insurer. The idea was to model the implications of rapid climate change for the insurance industry, but what the participants discovered was that the non-linearity that characterizes so much of the climate system made realistic loss estimates impossible. The study reverted to using linear projections – a classic case of looking for the keys under the street lamp because that’s where the light is.

So, the Paris Congress of Parties, COP, now finds itself with participants haggling over an agreement that will take years to come into force, and one that can’t even be called a treaty because that would require ratification by an adamantly opposed Republican majority controlling the U.S. Congress. The agreement will involve unenforceable commitments that few will seriously strive to abide by, and transfers of money that rich nations don’t want to spend. All to avoid a 2 degree rise in global temperatures that few serious observers think will be adequate to prevent a rapidly unfolding climate catastrophe.

Clearly, the world needs a Plan B, and the good news here is that it’s well under way – only it’s not a plan, but rather the actions of millions of consumers, investors, and companies. Alternative energy technologies seem to be going viral as prices fall, and economies are becoming less carbon-intensive, a process driven by simple economics and technological change. It’s heartening too that major investors and finance groups are banding together to help grease the wheels of the transition to a climate-friendly economy.

We can only hope that the jury – which is to say the climate – is still out on whether change will come in time. Ultimately, only the climate will give us the verdict that matters most.

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.