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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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Diary of a Tree Stump

Tuesday January 14, 2020

Something lighter:                                    

  “I would vote for a tree stump if it could beat Donald Trump”

   [Timothy Egan, in his Nov. 8, 2019 column for the New York Times]

           Well, it’s been a whirlwind! There I was, quietly decaying in a clear cut in northern Wisconsin when I heard a couple of hikers talking. One said, “Tim Egan said he’d vote for a tree stump if it could beat Trump.” The hiker laughed. “I would too!” My first reaction was to feel insulted because Egan’s remark seemed to imply that tree stumps were, well, dumb or somehow inferior to the other candidates, even Biden. And it also triggered hurtful memories of 2000 when Al Gore would joke about suffering from Dutch Elm Disease – talk about cultural appropriation! But then the penny dropped, and I thought, “Hello! I’m a tree stump.”  

I’m also from Wisconsin, a crucial swing state. I’ve got a compelling personal history – I was the last old growth black spruce in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest before Trump opened it up for logging every remaining tree. And, I probably have the support of every tree stump in America (not that they can vote, but there are a lot more of us since Trump took over).

            So, I continued to daydream (not much else to do except rot). Then, about a week later it happened! None other than Tim Egan showed up, hiking by with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.  “Look at the size of that stump,” said Egan, pointing at me.

            Weingarten bored into me with one of those withering stares she’s used to intimidate legions of politicians. Then she smiled, “hmm, definitely has some gravitas.” If I had breath I would have held it -- it’s well known that she’s not happy with the existing Democratic candidates. She gave me another appraising look, “This could be the guy.” 

            Next thing I know, I’m ripped out of the ground, sprayed with insecticide to kill the bark beetles slowly devouring me, and I’m being prepped for television by Mr. James Carville. Yup, that James Carville (Egan said as a journalist he couldn’t get involved, but then he winked and said, “but I can still vote!”). 

Carville’s advice: “Don’t say a fucking word!” Piece of cake for a tree stump.

            As a stump I had no plans for universal health care, reparations for minorities, identity politics, or any other hot button issue. (I do have strong views about forestry, but no way to articulate them.) Carville came up with a suitably sententious slogan: “It takes a real stump to stump for Iowans!” 

Not having any positions proved to be a winning formula. Moderates flocked to me. Polling showed that independents were breaking for me as well. Other candidates started imitating my silent strategy, which made for a lot of dead air during the seventh debate. Mayor Pete filled the space by offering a disquisition on the virtues of silence, citing Benjamin Franklin, Tacitus (in Latin), the ancient Greek philosopher Silenus (in ancient Greek), and Chief  Dan George in Salish (where Buttigieg lists himself as one of the 114 remaining living speakers). He finished with a flourish in which he argued that silence can only carry you so far -- at some point, he said, you have to stand for something.

            Apparently not; I carried every state except Mississippi, Alabama and Wyoming. Now I’m settling in to a copse of trees between the residence and the West Wing. The White House chef has been replaced by a bottle of wood preservative. Carville’s my chief of staff, and keeps repeating his initial advice -- the dummy hasn’t glommed to the fact that I can’t say a fucking word -- but now he adds that Veep Pete can do enough talking for both of us.   Still, I don’t fault Carville for worrying -- Woodward was spotted having coffee with the White House arborist.  

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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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