Eugene Linden
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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...


Latest Book

Deep Past
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Articles by Category
endangered animals
rapid climate change
global deforestation


Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.

The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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Now Let Us Praise Fat!

This article ran in Forbes FYI a few years ago. It seems timely again with the ongoing debate about wether fat is good or bad. Let Us Now Praise Fat Historically, there are some good reasons why humans crave a fatty diet by Eugene Linden It is possible to starve to death eating lean meat. I'm not making this up. The ancient tribes of the southwest knew this and would not eat female bison in the spring because nursing and pregnant bison cows burned off their fat reserves during the winter months leaving few calories in their flesh that might help the natives to digest the pure protein of the meat. Explorers like Randolph Marcy discovered this truth the hard way. Members of his expedition to Wyoming continued to weaken and lose weight even thought they consumed six pounds of horse and mule meat a day. The problem: the horses and mules were so starved that their meat had no fat. Such stories fire the imaginations of fat lovers. We constantly remind ourselves that most of human history has been a battle to find fat, not avoid it. We note that the scrawny rickshaw drivers of Bombay and Calcutta put away thousands of calories a day and yet never gain an ounce. And is it not true that the Japanese, an ethnic group perpetually trotted out by researchers as exemplars of sensible eating (they even call their parliament the Diet) spend fortunes to buy Matsusaka beef, which comes from Wagyu cattle that have been pampered, massaged, and beer-fed to the point that the animals resemble mounds of fat with hooves, horns, and contented expressions. It is no accident that fat adds taste to foods: evolution is reinforcing our urge to eat something that we need in order to survive. Knowledgeable explorers of the rain forest pork up before expeditions because the extra weight gives them reserves of energy should they fall ill while in the forest. At the beginning of one trip that took me into a remote area of northern Congo, the seasoned botanist leading the trip told me how pygmy trackers would pat his protruding stomach, and, nodding with approval, say, "money!" This piece of bush savvy was music to my ears, and in the forest I consumed every fattening food imaginable -- sausages, peanut butter, cheeses, chocolate -- confident that I was going to burn it off slogging down sweltering trails. (In fact I lost 17 pounds in 12 days.) At the end of the trip I nodded wisely when I heard that a Japanese researcher, emaciated from months in this same jungle, had nearly died from malaria. Of course she got sick, I reasoned -- she had little strength to fight the invading microbes. Unfortunately, I don't get to the forest quite as often as I should, though I have admirably built up my reserves of "energy" for the next adventure whenever it comes. Nor am I a rickshaw pusher. In fact, I spend most of my time sitting in front of a cathode ray tube, hardly the situation nature envisioned when evolution created our cravings. Come to think of it, my lifestyle has disturbing similarities to that of the cattle that become Matsusaka beef. And so, while I secretly pray for a credible study exonerating fat, I have been cutting back on rich foods. Unlike our hunting and gathering ancestors I may well live past 90 -- but I may also hate every minute of it.

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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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