Eugene Linden
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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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Why Corporations Will Soon Embrace Kyoto


This ran in TIME.com a while back under the headline, "Who's Going to Pay for Climate Change." The essay has renewed salience as concerns about changing climate surface once again. By EUGENE LINDEN The Bush administration, so warlike in response to terrorism, has revealed a pacifist streak in its approach to the threat of climate change. At meetings on the Kyoto Treaty last fall in New Delhi, U.S. delegates argued that we ought to be thinking about adapting to changing climate. The administration's position seems to have gone from doubt about the science of climate change to suggesting it is inevitable without ever acknowledging that the nation might take steps to avert the threat. The new position is a clever one: By leaving moot the question of cause, and by implying that no one could have done anything about it, the administration also implies that no one is responsible. The administration underscored its genial "no fault" approach when it recently asked industry to voluntarily reduce emissions. Nice try, but don't be surprised if there are few takers for this line of reasoning. As the costs of climate change become more obvious in everything from lost crops to wrecked real estate, victims will begin pointing fingers and businesses will begin diving for cover. John Dutton, dean emeritus of the Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, estimates that $2.7 trillion of the $10 trillion U.S. economy is susceptible to weather-related loss of revenue, meaning that an enormous number of companies have "off balance sheet" risks related to climate. This could wound corporate America in a lot of ways, particularly as insurance companies discover this new area of risk. Most policies covering natural disasters are renewable on a yearly basis. When risks become too expensive, insurers can simply walk away. Something like this happened after the Sept. 11 attacks. Insurers suddenly realized that they had vastly underpriced the risk of terrorist attacks and stopped writing new policies. This brought many big construction projects to a standstill until President Bush signed a bill in Nov. that shifted responsibility for $100 billion of future terrorism-related losses from insurers to the taxpayers. If climate change starts inflicting losses, insurers will again head for the exits. Just such insurer flight has already caused problems in North Carolina's Outer Banks and in parts of New York's fabled Hamptons, where coastal storms are eating up homes and businesses. When insurance companies quit these high-risk places, the burden shifts to banks. But they don't have the same freedom simply to cancel mortgages and loans. What will happen to the markets if banks start demanding insurance for weather-related events that is either prohibitively expensive or completely unavailable? The climate change threat that will really get the attention of executives and boardmembers, however, is the possibility that they might be liable for damages. This could happen if insurers like financial giant SwissRe start changing the insurance policies that insulate directors and officers (called D&O insurance) from the costs of lawsuits resulting from the actions of their corporations. Businesses open themselves to lawsuits when they take a position contrary to others in their industry, and in recent cases such as asbestos litigation, courts have assessed damages proportionate to a company's contribution to a problem. Chris Walker of Swiss Re describes how this might come about with regard to climate change. He notes that energy giant Exxon/Mobil accounts for roughly 1% of global emissions, and has aggressively lobbied against any efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses. "So," says Walker, "we might then go to them and say, 'Since you don't think climate change is a problem, we're sure you won't mind if we exclude climate related lawsuits and penalties from your D&O insurance.'" Swiss Re recently set the stage for such action by sending a questionnaire to its D&O customers inquiring about their company's strategy to deal with climate change regulations. Some climate change regulation seems to be coming, whether the federal government acts or not. States such as New Jersey, Massachusetts and New York are following the lead of California, imposing their own limits on greenhouse gases and presenting businesses with the prospect of a crazy quilt of regulations. Various state attorneys general are going further, exploring ways they might sue companies for climate change-related damages. And if the Kyoto Treaty comes into force, as now seems likely this spring, countries might similarly seek trade sanctions against the U.S. for its unwillingness to abide by its terms. Faced with the prospect of class-action lawsuits, states that take a "roll your own" approach, and trade sanctions, many of those executives who are opposed to the Kyoto Treaty might begin to rethink their position, and the Bush administration might find itself abandoned by its ostensible allies. For corporate executives pondering climate change, threats to the wallet may prove far more persuasive than science. -----------------------------------------------------------------------

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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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