Diary of a Tree Stump
“I would vote for a tree stump if it could beat Donald Trump”
[Timothy Egan, in his Nov. 8, 201...
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rapid climate change
Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.
The Octopus and the Orangutan
The Future In Plain Sight
The Parrot's Lament
Affluence and Discontent
The Alms Race
Apes, Men, & Language
PLEASE TREAD ON ME (Updated)
A few weeks back, President Bush signed a budget measure that would effectively cut environmental protection spending by the EPA over the next year by about six percent. Score another win for the corporate Browns in their long-standing rivalry with the Greens in this latest game in the World Environmental Football League. Recurrent lopsided scores should not be a surprise in this league since the Browns are pros playing for money, while the Greens are amateurs playing for effete liberal ideas like the viability of the planet.
The league itself has unusual rules and traditions. The Greens play touch, while the Browns play tackle. Moreover, leaving nothing to chance, the Browns buy the ref. Strangest of all; the Greens would not have it any other way.
I was prompted to look into the rules of this bizarre set-up a few years ago. I attended a meeting of an international environmental group and listened as a highly motivated group of greens discussed plans to fund a pilot project on ecotourism in Quintana Roo, Mexico. The idea was to point the way towards nature-friendly projects in this beautiful but vulnerable stretch of Caribbean coast. I should have been swept up by their idealism, but I wanted to tear my hair. Fourteen years earlier, I had visited this very area and heard highly motivated greens discuss similar plans to raise money to fund pilot projects in ecotourism. In the interim, highly motivated developers have built real hotels, destroying mangroves, killing reefs, and fouling once-clear sinotes in the process. There are no pilot hotels.
This was but one episode of a pas de deux of destruction now playing in the U.S. and around the world (the WEF is the world’s one true global league). While greens concoct pilot projects and scrupulously honor "process," developers develop, loggers log, and poachers poach. When a builder in Quintana Roo or a timber interest in the Tongass covets a piece of real estate, he does whatever necessary to get the necessary approvals, produces an environmental impact study that suggests that sewage is good for coral reefs, or cutting is good for forests, and then builds.
When environmentalists find some natural treasure, they hold conferences, fund surveys and censuses, seek consensus with locals, and say things like, “after doing x,y and z we can begin to…” Greens are always beginning to do something or other. A green-run airline would have pilots perpetually training for flights that were forever delayed.
When they need it, exploiters have an ace in the hole: corruption. Pay offs and muscle, ubiquitous in decisions affecting natural areas in the developing world, and more subtly used in the U.S., utterly trump the law-abiding, bureaucratic approach of greens. Mario Villanueva, the governor of Quintana Roo, accused of taking mordida to approve hotels, eventually went on the lam, but the damage was already done. When, during the ’97 Asian financial crisis, greens asked Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to support making new loans to Indonesia contingent on environmental reform, he replied that the time to talk about environment was when the country was back on the path to prosperity. Wrong: it was when Indonesia was richest that its corrupt politicians and generals were the most destructive. Since Rubin’s remarks, Indonesia has become the most critical environmental catastrophe on earth as free-lance loggers, squatters, and poachers take advantage of the country's instability to invade the nation's protected areas and remaining forests. On some islands, even the legal amounts of timber allocated for cutting vastly exceed the remaining stands of trees, parks included.
The mismatch between the Browns and the Greens offers one reason that decades of mounting environmental awareness have produced so little in the way of facts on the ground. The decline of earth's ecosystems has only accelerated despite a geometric growth in the number of environmental groups around the world. Perhaps the most aggravating aspect of this danse macabre is that even its victims accept it as the way it should be. As one environmentalist told me, "of course we have to do an assessment; how else can we make the case for what to save and where to put boundaries."
He's right. But, doesn't it seem strange that even as we watch forests disappear, fisheries die, and creatures go extinct, we continue to agree that the burden of proof lies with those who would protect nature rather than those would exploit her? Greens do their studies before entering an area, while if a company is building a pipeline in Kamchatka or a road in the Amazon, they make their plans first and let others worry about environmental impact. The practical reality is that once a development project is announced, with all its promise of jobs and profits, it is very difficult to halt.
Still, what seems like common sense today may go down in history as collective madness as the bills start coming due for the destruction of earth's life support systems. Greens need to toss their playbook, and find a legitimate way to level the playing field. The huge reservoir of environmental awareness in the rich consuming nations offers enviros a powerful weapon to bring to bear on corporations, financial institutions, and international lending agencies that control the flow of money to the developing world -- a point made by activists at every international globalization forum. This is a useful step. And please, no more pilot projects!
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.