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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 Ragged Edge of the World
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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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Forget SARS. What About the Weather?


Global climate change could have a far greater impact than worries about terrorism or disease Friday, May. 02, 2003 When it comes to evaluating risks, both ordinary people and policymakers tend to be wildly inefficient. Remember that in the 1970s, intelligence officials, preoccupied with communism, discounted the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. The lesson: Ignored threats often pose more serious threats to global stability than the fears du jour. So with SARS and terrorism now dominating headlines and our worry space, it's worth pondering what threats have been squeezed out. The recent bad winter suggests one strong candidate for consideration: the threat of rapid climate change. An important consideration in evaluating a threat is whether it is more likely to do its damage through uncertainty or by bringing about instability. Uncertainty is bad for an economy, but instability is a killer. In uncertain times people worry about whether to postpone a vacation, while businesses put off hiring decisions and reduce spending. In unstable times, people stockpile food or hit the road as refugees, while businesses shutter. Uncertainty focuses on worries about what the future might bring, while instability has to do with upheavals in the here and now. Fears of terrorism and disease have already pummeled world economies, but, at least for the moment, the damage wrought by these threats comes more from their attendant uncertainties than their direct affects. So what might bring about actual instability? The endless winter in the northeast, for instance, may be a signal that an abrupt change in climate lies right around the corner. If so, large parts of the world might face ice age ? that's right, ice age ? conditions with virtually incalculable consequences for agriculture and travel, much less ordinary commerce. The key to this threat is a recently discovered vulnerability of the Gulf Stream. The current, dubbed the Blue God by author William MacLeisch, warms much of Europe and eastern North America by bringing enormous amounts of tropical water northward as part of the "great ocean conveyor" that distributes heat around the world. As this warm water moves north, evaporation makes it saltier and heavier. By the time the stream has reached the far northern waters between Norway and Greenland it has given up most of its heat, and this salty, heavy water plunges into the abyss, pulling more water behind it. This is where our warming globe can screw things up, according to scientists such as Robert Gagosian, president and director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. The melting of glaciers and increased precipitation in the north has poured fresh water into the Atlantic, in some places leaving a ten foot thick layer on the ocean surface, according to Terence Joyce, also of Woods Hole. As the lighter fresh water slows the sinking of the Gulf Stream as it hits these northern latitudes it reduces the pull that brings warm water northward. Scientists estimate that the speed of the conveyor in the far north has diminished by 20% since the 1970s. Coincidence? Perhaps, but the synchronous freshening of the North Atlantic, a less vigorous Gulf Stream, and a cold snowy Northeast when the rest of the world is baking (last year was the second warmest year on record), may be conveying an urgent message. Something like this happened 12,700 years ago when a post-ice age warming suddenly reversed and in just a few years plunged much of the North Atlantic region into a 1,300 year deep freeze. If this signals the beginning of an abrupt change in climate, instabilities that dwarf the threat of terrorism lie in our future. If these great ocean currents are interrupted, temperatures in the Northeast might drop 10 degrees F (this winter represented a drop of about 2.5 degrees F) in less than a decade. Naturally, one winter does not an ice age make, and maybe our cold winter represents nothing more than a byproduct of regularly recurring cycles such as the North Atlantic Oscillation and El Nino. At the moment we don't know. But maybe we should try to find out. As recently as the 1980s, a cold winter was a curiosity, an outbreak of a new disease, a problem for the third world, and, while the Soviets had many nuclear weapons, they knew better than to use them. Today's tightly connected globe means that uncertain times create a petri dish in which destabilizing fears multiply. Worse, if climate change does come about and those fears become real, the damage will be far greater if we're not prepared. Such uncertainties will be with us for the foreseeable future, dampening spending and investment, and leaving regions prone to sporadic panics. The last thing the public needs right now is another threat on people's minds, but a little more attention to rapid climate change is in order. In an uncertain world, the first order of business is to know what to worry about.

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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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