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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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The Octopus and the Orangutan
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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Apes, Men, & Language
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Saturday November 08, 2008

By EUGENE LINDEN If ever there was a year for a Democratic president to be elected, this was it - a war without end, imploding economy, the most unpopular incumbent in living memory, etc. --but a black Democrat? Even given the revulsion over the mess the GOP has created, it's still hard to imagine any other prominent black politician winning the Democratic nomination, much less the presidency. Jesse Jackson? Charles Rangel? Maxine Waters? Obama has more in common with someone like Colin Powell than he does with Al Sharpton. Like Powell, he came up through the establishment, not the inner city. Obama never had to have a photo-op with Tawana Brawley or pay lip service to the notion of reparations for slavery, or do any of the things that might pander to resentments in the black community, but at the price of completely alienating white and Hispanic voters. Yes, he attended a church where the reverend Wright on occasion inveighed against America, but the association never stuck, possibly because the contrast between Wright's demagoguery and Obama's thoughtful style only underscored that Obama was not of that school of politics. Rather, he's a charismatic, eloquent, and highly intelligent politician who happens to have a dark skin. Still, that probably wouldn't have been sufficient to get him elected in 2000 or even 2004 (had he been old enough). Americans needed a narrative that would help prepare the public for a different skin color in the White House. There have been articles in the press about the parallels between Obama's campaign and the story line of the last season of "The West Wing" where a Hispanic candidate played by Jimmy Smits ascends to the White House. The real narrative that made the prospect of a black president plausible, however, came not from the left, but more likely from the right, from the pro-torture, militaristic, and wildly popular television series "24." In President Palmer, Americans got to see Dennis Haysbert play the role of a strong, competent, intelligent, even inspiring leader, dealing with the most dire crises that the show's paranoid, right-wing creators could dream up. President Palmer did not deal with these crises as a black president, but as a president. His advisors didn't deal with him as a black politician, but as a president. Palmer's skin color was all but irrelevant to the high-tension story line. The show took for granted that a black man could function in the land's highest office, and I suspect that this low-key, almost subliminal message was far more effective than the preachy, self-conscious stereotypes that the entertainment industry seems to prefer when dealing with racial themes for mass culture. "24" offered a template for what we might want in any president, black or white, and Barack Obama fit that template perfectly. So for millions of "24" fans, Barack Obama's candidacy had a familiar reassuring aura. It's unknowable how much that helped, but it sure didn't hurt.

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Short Take



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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