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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Erectile dysfunction is ascendant, so to speak. The Super Bowl displayed a trifecta of impotence potions as the makers of the three main drugs –- Levitra, Cialis, and Viagra-- all ponied up millions to advertise. Obscured by the debate about some of the cringe-making disclaimers – “if erection persists for more than four hours seek immediate medical attention” – has been the obvious question: why are erectile dysfunction drugs advertised on the Super Bowl at all?      Professional football has long been the high altar of American maleness. Everything about it celebrates warrior culture, physical dominance, and raw aggression. The same is true for NASCAR, another venue that impotence drug makers see as fertile ground. What’s going on here? Aren’t the wimps and sexual no-shows supposed to attending the Philharmonic and reading Spinoza? Shouldn’t Eli Lilly be sponsoring “Masterpiece Theater” rather than wasting its money on the NFL, and, as an aside, do Mike Ditka’s self-confessed problems correlate with the arc of his coaching career?      Popular culture often does offer a different perspective on where to look for real men. In “Something About Mary,” Tom Green’s high school football hero can’t get it up, while nebbishy Ben Stiller makes Cameron Diaz happy. And the drumbeat message of nearly every Woody Allen film is that beautiful women ultimately turn to short, whiny guys for ultimate fulfillment. Unfortunately, the message from popular culture is tainted by conflict-of-interest because it’s dweeby guys who make the television shows and films celebrating the sexual virtues of dweeby guys.      Nature, as always, offers crucial insights. Studies of chimp DNA have shown that while the alpha male and his aggressive pretenders are bluffing each other and fighting battles, junior and low-ranking males are regularly making assignations with the desirable females. Since there is evidence that female chimps choose the fathers of their offspring, and since reproduction is the only score that counts for evolutionary biologists, it’s game, set and match for Woody (can his name be a coincidence?) and his peers. So the question for football-worshipping guys has to be: what’s your girlfriend doing while you’re wrapped up in the big game?

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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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