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Diary of a Tree Stump

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

   [Timothy Egan, in his Nov. 8, 201...

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OCCUPY WALL STREET IS THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG


Wednesday October 26, 2011

EUGENE LINDEN

          But for the housing bubble that temporarily camouflaged our “winner take all” economy, the resentments that produced Occupy Wall Street might have bubbled to the surface many years earlier. Published back in 1998, my book, The Future in Plain Sight, contained a chapter on the wage gap, which argued that the ever-widening gulf between executive pay and the incomes of the rest of the workforce was one of the intractable problems that portended future instability.  Every metric I cited in that chapter as evidence that the wage gap had reached crisis proportions has only widened in the intervening years.
 Here’s a snippet of what I wrote back then:


       …The growing pool of modem-accessible workers may act as a cap on wages and job availability in the U.S. for years to come. A substantial percentage of America’s white-collar workers face an indefinite future of limited prospects.


            This means that a large pool of voters will have more reason to remain angry and dissatisfied, becoming fertile ground for radical and xenophobic causes. The danger to society comes not so much from extreme events such as the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City… as from even-wilder oscillations in political positions, in which moderates lose influence and the more passionate extremists take control of the political agenda.


           This is one reason why the widening gap between the top and the bottom income groups cannot continue to widen indefinitely. The few can maintain their wealth only with the permission of the many. If the middle continues to stagnate in the developed countries while the top prospers, the majority will demand action, and politicians, being politicians, will give it to them…

   
                     Well, here we are in 2011, and we may be approaching that point where the wage gap cannot continue to widen. Will these protests continue to swell and force politicians to act? If they do, what will they give the voters?  


                      On the first question, I think that if the protests coalesce around the 99% meme -- the conviction that system is rigged, and that the middle class is being asked to suffer to preserve the privileges of the very rich – OWS will continue to gain traction. Indeed, it’s not inconceivable that this movement might co-opt some of the anger that has supported the Tea Party (which, since its inception, has had the delicate task of asking the middle class to vote against its own interests).


                      What might politicians toss to the 99%? Easy -- a tax increase on the wealthy (anti-tax posturing notwithstanding). They’ve done it before, several times in fact. If pressure builds much more, Congress will do it again.


                    Of course, OWS might peter out as the weather chills, and if the offensive actions of a few protestors continue to dominate the media coverage. Regardless, the genie is out of the bottle: more and more of the middle class are coming to the conclusion that the system is unfair.  There is no reason to expect that this anger will dissipate, even if OWS fades, if only because the endless cycle of layoffs, benefit cuts, and pay reductions, will continue to remind the middle class of their economic pain.


                   The lucky few might well ponder the voting power of the 99%, and consider whether they really want to continue to reap everything on their wish list. There are teasing suggestions that some may be thinking along those lines. Consider OWS’s favorite villain, Goldman Sachs.  The bank could have reported a profit in the third quarter, but instead showed a loss, mystifying some observers. Is it possible that the clever minds at the financial giant realized that yet another quarter of big profits was not the message they wanted to send, given the merciless economic context -- and the chanting crowds just a few blocks from their headquarters?
 

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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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