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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.

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GOP Scare Stories Point to the Real National Emergency


Sunday June 09, 2019

A couple of months ago, in the days before President Trump declared a national emergency to try and circumvent Congress and fund his Wall, a number of Republicans scrambled to articulate sufficiently horrifying examples of how others might misuse those powers. Florida Congressman Matt Goetz offered a nightmare scenario in which a Democratic President forcing elementary schools across the country to build transgender bathrooms. Florida senator Marco Rubio went on CNBC and asserted that the true nightmare was that, “Tomorrow, the national emergency might be, you know, climate change…” Permit me to rephrase this: for Rubio, the problem with Trump using emergency powers was not that he was using a phony emergency as a pretext, but that in the future Democrats might use those powers to try to deal with an actual emergency.

That’s what’s truly scary. Rubio’s example reveals his assumption that Congress can block action on climate change going forward, forcing a President to assume emergency powers. The Wall Street Journal editorial page also chimed in, warning that Trump invoking a national emergency might embolden a future president to use these powers to deal with rising carbon emissions, again implying that other means of dealing with rising emissions could be blocked.

OK, let’s go with this. Imagine the circumstances in which some future President thought it necessary to use a declaration of national emergency to deal with climate change. Maybe it would be a collapse in the housing market as sea level rise, super storms, and wildfires made trillions of dollars in property uninsurable, and thus ineligible for mortgages. Or perhaps it would be the banking and financial crisis attendant to these developments.

It would also imply that the public was not yet concerned enough to elect a Congress that would take action to contain the threat. It’s true that there has been a rapid uptick in concern about climate change as determined by polling, but a recent study by the Energy Policy Institute found that while 57% of those polled people thought climate change was sufficiently threatening that they would spend $1 a month to avert it, most would still balk at $10 a month. 

To put this in perspective, the amount the U.S. spent on defense and intelligence last year equates to roughly $650 a month per household and that figure does not include spending at the state and local level for police. The amount the U.S. spent last year just to fight ISIS amounted to $40 a month per household. Is ISIS, which has never successfully mounted a mass attack on U.S. soil, really 40 times the threat that climate change poses?

Part of the problem is that the threat of climate change remains something that is still treated as a matter of belief; i.e. whether one “believes” in global warming (and recent polling reported that even today, only 52% of Republicans agree that global warming is happening). Given that climate change is staring (most of) us in the face, we should be past that point, but we’re not. This cognitive dissonance will ultimately resolve itself, however, because whether you “believe” in climate change becomes irrelevant if sea level rise and storms render your house unsaleable.

Still, the Trump administration continues to fight a rear-guard action, pushing back on its own agencies that have warned about the threat.  The White House wants to convene a 12-member panel to review whether climate change is a national security threat – despite the assertions that it does threaten national security that come from intelligence agencies and defense departments around the world in the form of reports as recent as the Department of Defense report on its vulnerability to climate change this January and dating back to the 1990s. 

The real purpose of the panel becomes apparent from its membership. One of the leaders will be William Happer, who serves on the National Security Council and who has argued publicly that climate isn’t changing and that additional CO2 in the atmosphere will be beneficial rather than harmful. If this panel attaches the prestige of the White House to a report pooh-poohing global warming it could sew further confusion in the public and reduce any sense of urgency. More likely though, it will backfire as so many Trump initiatives do. Rather than undermining a sense of urgency, a clown car convention of fossil fuel apologists could undermine the prestige of the White House.

 Now, the Trump administration has also targeted the climate assessments produced by its own agencies. As assessments of the future impacts of climate change have become ever-more dire, the administration’s response is to cut off any forecasts beyond 2040. Because of the lags in the climate system, this would eliminate many of the worst scenarios as many impacts accelerate in the second half of this century. As the global scientific community will not go along with this willful blindness, this initiative will only further underscore the impression that the White House is more interested in propaganda than science.

As for the rest of us, those of us who see the changes that that climate is working in the world around us, we can only hope that some future President has the guts to declare a national emergency if things worsen and Congress continues to abnegate its responsibilities.

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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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