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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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Betting the farm against climate change


Friday September 09, 2011

Global warming is extracting real costs, even in states where the governors are in denial.

Footprints mark the bank of a partially dried-up pond near downtown Dallas, Texas August 1. Scorching heat and lingering drought across Texas have pushed electric use to a new all-time peak according to the state grid operator. (Tim Sharp / Reuters)

Footprints mark the bank of a partially dried-up pond near downtown Dallas, Texas August 1. Scorching heat and lingering drought across Texas have pushed electric use to a new all-time peak according to the state grid operator. (Tim Sharp / Reuters)


 

Leon Trotsky is reputed to have quipped, "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you." Substitute the words "climate change" for "war" and the quote is perfectly suited for the governors of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, all of whom have ridiculed or dismissed the threat of climate change even as their states suffer record-breaking heat and drought.

In his book, "Fed Up!," Texas governor and presidential aspirant Rick Perry derided global warming as a "phony mess," a sentiment he has expanded on in recent campaign appearances. Susana Martinez, the governor of New Mexico, has gone on record as doubting that humans influence climate, and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma dismissed research on climate change as a waste of time. Her solution to the extraordinary drought: Pray for rain (an approach also endorsed by Perry).

Although they may dismiss climate change, a changing climate imposes costs on their states and the rest of us as well.

In Texas, the unremitting heat has been straining the capacity of the electric grid, killing crops and livestock, and threatening water supplies. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the grid's governing body, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, bases its forecasts on the average demand over the previous 10 years. In a world without the threat of global warming, this is an entirely reasonable approach. But what if climate change makes the past an unreliable guide to the future? Then Texas is left with the present situation, in which the grid operator is forced to procure power in a tight market where wholesale prices have skyrocketed to 60 times normal.

Grid problems in Texas are but one pixel in a vast panorama of weather-related costs. In 2010, extreme drought in Russia and floods in Australia contributed to a doubling of grain prices. This year, floods from the Dakotas to Louisiana, and drought in the American Southwest and parts of Europe, have kept grain prices high.

The floods in Australia also contributed to a rise in steel prices in 2010 by closing Brisbane's port and interrupting the shipment of iron ore. The Mississippi floods this spring affected the delivery by barge of materials ranging from grain to such basic manufacturing chemicals as caustic soda and cumene. This year may surpass the 2008 record of $9-billion-plus weather-related disasters, and it probably will be the costliest in U.S. history in terms of tornado damage. Add it all up — well, you can't because, as in the case of the Mississippi floods, it's hard to pry apart weather-related damage from the compounding effect of dunderheaded human actions such as walling off the river from its natural flood plain.

Politicians who dismiss the risk of climate change like to talk about the uncertainties of the science. And, at least in one sense, they're right. It's impossible to assert that global warming contributed X amount of damage to this year's floods, much less finger climate change as a precise component of the extraordinary violence of this spring's tornadoes. The best climate science can say is that a warming globe provides a nurturing context for more intense storms and weather extremes. Scientists can offer only scenarios, rather than a script, as to how that will play out.

Richard Seager of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory labs offered one such scenario in a much-discussed paper in the journal Science. It postulated that a warming globe would shift upper-atmosphere circulatory patterns and lead to "perpetual drought" in the American Southwest and other subtropical regions around the world.

Given that events on the ground have been playing out in a way that supports Seager's hypothesis, one would think, for instance, that planners for electrical grids and other sectors likely to be affected would stress-test their models for situations in which prolonged heat and drought became more frequent events. Via email, Seager told me that, indeed, the study had prompted concerned government officials to contact him. But how likely is any follow-up action if the very highest elected officials in the affected states dismiss the threat with scorn?

Though there have yet to be political costs to adopting an anti-scientific posture on the threat of climate change, the real economic costs of mispricing this risk have caught the attention of a good segment of the business community, from commodity traders to insurers. Reinsurers in particular (companies that insure the insurers against catastrophe) see risks on a global scale and have the data that allow them to sort out local effects from global trends. Insurers also are the best equipped to price those risks — when politicians let them.

For instance, increased hurricane risk in Florida caught the attention of insurers and reinsurers in the 1990s, even as people flocked to the coast to live. Responding to the perceived threat, insurers tried to raise rates, but a succession of Florida governors stymied these increases, causing many insurers to abandon the market and the state to form an insurance pool to provide protection for homeowners.Rick Scott, the new governor, remarked on the record that he does not believe in climate change, which means Florida's taxpayers — and the rest of us, if a major disaster strikes — have joined him in making a bet that global warming is a myth.

In the states governed by climate-change deniers — and in the nation as a whole, where we are doing too little to address the threat of a warming globe — nature seems to be calling that bet.

Eugene Linden is the author of "The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations," among other books. In 2005, he helped edit "Climate Change Futures: Health, Ecological and Economic Dimensions," a project undertaken by Harvard Medical School and sponsored by the United Nations Development Program and Swiss Re, a worldwide reinsurer.
 
 

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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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