Eugene Linden
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Latest Musing

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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Latest Book

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

Books

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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America's Game


Eugene Linden As we make fateful decisions during the coming weeks (no, I'm not talking about the Democratic Primaries, but whether to mute the ads or the game during the Super Bowl), we might take a moment to ponder the ways in which football really is America's game. With apologies to Bronislaw Malinowski --whose pioneering treatise on the Trobriand Islands off New Guinea led to studies of the ways in which the islanders appropriated cricket and turned it into a native ritual -- let's explore how we Americans took over the primitive sports of soccer and rugby and adapted them to our belief system. Where both antecedent sports offer nearly continuous action, American football amounts to brief periods of furious motion squeezed in between meetings (or huddles as they are called by initiates). This innovation is both comforting and familiar for legions of middle managers across this great land for whom meetings have ritual significance (in the sense that they represent something you have to do that produces no discernible results). During these meetings the CEO -- the coach -- delivers his instructions to his chief operating officer -- the quarterback -- who is expected to deliver quarterly results. A football quarter is calculated in minutes rather than days, or course; it only seems as though each period takes months. As in the markets that are the soul of this nation, analysts pour over the team's performance in real time, comparing the results to the "whisper number" that represents a consensus of some of the best minds in the country. While company earnings may be scrutinized in financial centers, the best analysts in this business are in Las Vegas. It's a safe bet that the expected numbers produced by bookies are far more reliable as a guide to future performance than the estimates that come from Wall Street. Football also reflects our American fondness for litigation. Teams of referees roam the field, sometimes interfering with the play in progress. When eight or ten official eyes are not enough to rule beyond a reasonable doubt, a plaintiff can appeal a decision. In such cases, the officials turn to another American icon -- technology. When reviewing plays, the technology is the television camera, but the average pro football team uses more computing power than the Apollo rockets that put a man on the moon. Apart from simulations and other analytical tools, players wear padding that is the result of thousands of man-years of ergonomic studies, while field generals communicate with their coaches through helmets with telecommunications links that have fidelity and security better than that used by Iraqi commanders during their recent loss to team America. The way things are going, future quarterbacks will have heads-up, intelligent displays that give them real-time interpretation of defensive sets, much like fighter pilots have today. While the nave fans of soccer and rugby expect players to be generalists who can play both offense and defense, we Americans have done what we've always done when we want results: we turn to specialists. Zoologists who argue that dogs have the greatest variation in size of any species have obviously never seen a pro football team where you can fit three placekickers into the pants of one defensive tackle. Fortunately, territorial boundaries on the playing field are so rigorously enforced that the two almost never encounter each other. If we Americans have "optimized" rugby according to our notions of progress, there are still things many team owners might like to import from Trobriand cricket. While in football, the home team wins most of the time, in the Trobriand Island sport the home team always wins. There is still consolation for the visitors though, since the home team throws a feast in their honor. Huge differences remain, however. While football, with its fighter plane flyovers and other militaristic trappings often seems to celebrate war, cricket was introduced to the Trobriands in 1903 to replace war. How primitive!

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Short Take

THOUGHTS ON WHY THE EARLY IPCC ASSESSMENTS UNDERSTATED THE CLIMATE THREAT

 

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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