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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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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.


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THE BAY OF PIGS: DISASTER AND TRIUMPH


Tuesday March 08, 2011

 

Eugene Linden
 
At first I thought it was a version of the granfalloon, the term Kurt Vonnegut invented to describe a striking but meaningless encounter: my brother-in-law, Jim Rasenberger and I both have books coming out within two weeks of each other. My book, The Ragged Edge of the World, is a farewell tour (the places are disappearing, not me) of the most remote reaches of the planet, and it tries to evoke life at that moveable frontier where wildlands and native peoples collide with modernity. His book, A Brilliant Disaster, examines the Bay of Pigs fiasco on its 50th anniversary.  To judge by their covers, the books are utterly different, but we thought it fun to schedule a joint book party midway between the two publication dates, For the sake of family harmony, if nothing else. The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that the two books investigate two aspects of the same thing: individual brilliance and collective stupidity.
 
            Jim looks at the foreign policy expression of this enduring puzzle as he explores the iconic American example of the fiasco that ensues when some of the smartest and most powerful men in the country-- the best and the brightest as David Halberstam indelibly called them-- become blinded by ideology and arrogant self-assurance (although the Iraq War is a strong contender to replace this example).  I look at what this syndrome has wrought as the march of progress continues to consume wildlands and peoples despite decades of evidence that this march-- more like a stampede, really-- leaves nothing but wastelands and disenfranchised peoples in its wake. There’s an element of black humor in both books. I tell this story through tragicomic vignettes, while, with the arch perspective of time, Jim lets the black humor of self-delusions of the times speak for themselves.
 
            Our two books converge in a more immediate way: in one chapter, I also write about the Bay of Pigs. Where for Jim, the Bay of Pigs provides a symbol of an epic fail of the intelligence and foreign policy apparatus, I look at some of the positive results of that failure. Today, the Bay of Pigs is a triumph of conservation and one of the natural wonders of the Western hemisphere. The Bay marks one boundary of Zapata Swamp, an Eden-like wetland the size of Delaware, with boundless bird-life and shimmering pure rivers. It is one of a string of great parks that make Cuba’s natural systems among the best protected in the world.
 
            How this happened is an object lesson in the ironic twists of history. The island stands today as a shining example of how a desperately poor country can preserve its natural systems. This is no endorsement of communism, a system that seems to have been designed to convert resources into pollution with minimum economic benefit. Karl Marx was focused on the control of the means of production, and was blind to environmental consequences (which is uncomfortably similar to  unregulated free-market capitalism which is focused on the private control of the means of production and simply ignores environmental consequences).
 
            The reason Cuba has not suffered the ecocide visited on the landscape by other communist governments has to do with three things: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the American embargo, and, most importantly the accident of history that an illiterate farmer who saved Castro’s life during the Cuban Revolution, turned out to be a nature lover. Elevated to be one of three Commanders of the Revolution, Guillermo Garcia Frias, provided political cover for an entire generation of conservationists and scientists who now have key positions in parks and environment.  The collapse of the Soviet Union starved Cuba of funds from its former patron, and the ongoing U.S. economic embargo has forced Cuba to be both innovative and sustainable, since it has lacked access to cheap fossil fuels. For the Bay of Pigs and Zapata Swamp this means that very few pollutants flow into the area from surrounding agricultural lands.
 
            The unexpected connections that link our two books prompt another question: what might have happened had the U.S.-sponsored invasion succeeded in 1961?  Without question, many Cubans would have gotten rich as developers exploited Cuba’s gorgeous coasts, lagoons and beaches. The mob would have gotten its casinos back, and Cubans of all stripes could experience the joys of fast food and the consumer society. But Zapata Swamp, which in structure is similar to the Everglades, would long since have been channeled, converted, polluted, and otherwise exploited like most other wetlands in the hemisphere, including the Everglades. So maybe The Brilliant Disaster Jim describes was for the best. Despite the many other benighted policies of this police state, Cuba may be one of the best-prepared nations to navigate what looks like a fossil fuel constrained future that the rest of the world may soon have to deal with. Sometimes good can come from having a superpower as an enemy.
 

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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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