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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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THE OZONE CHRONICLES; HISTORY REPEATING AS TRAGEDY


Friday August 19, 2016

Joe Farnam, the dogged, data-driven discoverer of the ozone hole, died in 2013, three years before publication of findings showing that the ozone layer, which protects life on earth from UV radiation, has finally started to recover. This nascent recovery comes 42 years after atmospheric chemists first raised alarms about the threat chlorine compounds posed to this fragile shield, 34 years after Farman first saw an alarming drop in ozone in Antarctic, and 29 years after the world’s nations took action to phase out the chemicals, and it will still be decades before the ozone layer recovers completely. Were it not for Farman, the international community might not have taken action, and the world would be a far different place today, with unchecked UV radiation spreading cancer and havoc among humanity and devastating ecosystems and the food chain. It’s also worth revisiting this history because the struggle to identify and come to grips with this threat prefigured all the themes of the still-unresolved question of dealing with another man-made threat: climate change.
 
In 1982, when Farman’s monitoring equipment first showed a dip in ozone, he was tempted to dismiss the readings as instrument error. At that point, ozone levels had been stable for 25 years. A recheck validated the findings, however, and subsequent years showed an alarming acceleration in the deterioration of the ozone layer.
 
It was no mystery for scientists what was causing the decline. Eight years earlier, atmospheric scientists Sherwood Rowland, Mario Molina, and Paul Crutzen had published articles documenting that the release of certain chlorine compounds could start chemical reactions that destroyed atmospheric compounds. They won a Nobel Prize for their discovery. Later, prefiguring the playbook of climate denialists today, Congressman Tom Delay disparaged the award as the “Nobel Appeasement Prize.”
 
Even before Delay’s attempts to delay action on protecting the ozone in Congress, the industry, led by DuPont, which dominated the production of CFC’s (the chemicals deemed to destroy ozone), had organized a lobbying effort to discredit the science. They helped found The Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy in 1980, which challenged the scientists at every turn, spread alarm about the economic consequences of a CFC ban, and sowed disinformation in the media. They realized that given the inertia of American politics, they didn’t have to disprove the science. All they had to do was to argue that the science was inconclusive.
 
This was the exact same playbook used in the next decade by the Global Climate Coalition (also founded by Dupont), as well as numerous fossil fuel industry lobbying groups in so-far successful efforts to delay action on climate change. Indeed, a good number of the scientists who disparaged the threat of CFCs, including Fred Singer, Richard Lindzen, and Patrick Michaels, later turned up as leading climate change deniers.
 
In a typical example of industry casuistry, DuPont officials argued in the mid-1980s that no action was necessary because the market for CFCs was flat. What they well knew was that it only looked flat because a severe recession in 1982 distorted the figures, while, in fact, growth was accelerating as the economy recovered and emerging nations looked to increase refrigeration (CFCs were used as a refrigerant).
 
Once the evidence became incontrovertible, DuPont flipped and became an advocate for banning CFCs. While the action looked noble, DuPont had started developing alternatives to CFCs in the 1970s and had a huge lead on competitors. One wonders whether DuPont would have given its support for the 1987 Montreal Protocol if it were not to their economic advantage.
 
There are three lessons from the ozone chronicles, all of which have been ignored thus far in the struggle to deal with climate change:
 
1)   Industry requires regulation. In their no-holds barred attack on the scientists, duplicitous use of disinformation, and lobbying power, the chemical industry showed that all their executives cared about was profits, even if those profits came from chemicals that posed a threat to life on earth. Yet the mood in recent years has been decidedly anti-regulation.

2)   Politics matters. DuPont began to develop alternatives when Rowland and others showed the link between CFCs and the destruction of ozone. They tabled these efforts when Ronald Reagan was elected because they assumed no regulation was coming. In the U.K., the incoming Thatcher administration almost eliminated Farman’s ozone monitoring operation in a cost-cutting effort. How much more damage to the ozone layer might have occurred before some other agency discovered the problem? Today, Australia is considering the shut down of some of its ocean and atmospheric monitoring, vital to our understanding of climate change, in an effort to redirect science towards more commercial applications.

3)   Basic science matters. Were it not for the 25 years of data Farman had collected prior to 1982, he and his colleagues might not have noticed that something unprecedented was happening to the ozone layer. Before Rowland, Molina and Crutzen did their work, CFCs were regarded as entirely benign chemicals. It took basic science to make the leap connecting refrigerants in kitchens to the health of an atmospheric shield.  As we introduce more and more novel compounds into daily life, we need such imaginative scientists to determine whether they might also pose novel threats. Yet, both EPA and research budgets are continually under threat. The world remains one short-sighted budget cut away from blithely ignoring some new novel threat. Trouble is, we don’t know which cut it will be.

 
The world owes a huge debt to the diligence of Joe Farman who doggedly pursued what most would regard as mind-numbing data collection in the face of public indifference and political hostility. We need his successor now more than ever.
 
 

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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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