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...


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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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Bush, Saddam and Climate Change

Bush, Saddam and Climate Change: What Might Have Been Wednesday, Jul. 16, 2003 As the hunt for Saddam's WMD begins to look as promising as OJ's search for the real killers, it becomes tempting to think about what might have been. If only, for instance, the Bush Administration had adopted its posture on global warming when considering the evidence justifying the invasion of Iraq and vice versa. Instead of fighting a lonely battle amid hostility and near anarchy in Iraq, the U.S. might have let inspections and containment continue to hobble Saddam forever, while we mustered a real coalition to confront North Korea, which is all but televising its efforts to build nuclear bombs. Instead of dismissing the overwhelming evidence that climate is changing, and alienating the 111 nations that have ratified or acceded to the Kyoto Treaty, the Administration could be leading the way to promote the technologies and policies that will be necessary to come to grips with a real threat to civilization. In attempts to muster support for the March invasion, the Administration took a worst case scenario view in estimating Iraq's stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and then, in the State of the Union Address, President Bush credulously trumpeted bogus evidence that the Saddam was buying uranium from Niger. With climate change, however, the Bush Administration grasps at every whisper of doubt and demands a standard of proof that would make it difficult to prove that the earth orbits the sun. In this world of what might have been, imagine a conversation between UN chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, and U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, last fall: Blix: "We need at least a year to complete our inspections." Powell: "Take 10 years; better yet let's wait until Saddam uses them." Blix: "I'm not sure even the French will be willing to wait that long." Powell: "Well the U.S. isn't going to waste money and risk lives on some hypothetical threat. Democracies don't invade other countries without incontrovertible proof of an imminent threat." Blix: "And if we find that proof?" Powell: "If it's a real threat, I'm sure Old Europe will unite behind us." Imagine the conversation between VP Cheney and representatives of the coal industry: Coal rep: "The science is uncertain!" Cheney: "We'll be making tea by dipping Earl Grey in the Potomac before there's absolute certainty. When the threat is a potential calamity for the global food supply and economy, we have to act!" Coal rep: "Fixing the problem will bankrupt the American economy." Cheney: "Wrong, global warming will bankrupt the economy. Taking action will be the biggest stimulus since the end of WWII. Imagine the capital spending!" Coal rep: "OK, OK, but the transition will still cost money. How much is the Administration prepared to spend?" Cheney: "Will $3.9 billion a month help? It's a figure we think we can sell to Congress for dealing with extraordinary threats to stability."

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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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