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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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The Ragged Edge of the World
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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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A climate change of heart


Wednesday March 29, 2006

Even Bush's business allies have seen the light on global warming. But he's dug in. A BELEAGUERED president stubbornly insists on staying the course even as his staunchest allies abandon him. I'm not talking about Iraq, but global warming. Here's a case where virtually everybody is acknowledging a weapon of mass destruction the threat of climate chaos but still President Bush refuses to take action. When the evangelical community, Bush's stalwart base, called for climate action last month, the news grabbed headlines. But the more important Bush defectors on this issue are some of the world's largest corporations, including British Petroleum, General Electric, DuPont and Cinergy. So, the question arises: Why does Bush persist in his increasingly lonely stance? The answer may lie in the difference between realpolitik and ideology. Many corporations initially opposed climate action as a practical matter, because of its perceived costs. The Bush administration's opposition seems to derive from its ideological hostility to international treaties and the United Nations on the one hand and environmentalists on the other. One story from 2002 illustrates the different approaches. A former staffer from an anti-climate-action lobbying group, the Global Climate Coalition, had dinner with oil and chemical company bigwigs at the Palm Too restaurant in New York not long after the U.S. negotiating team walked out of the talks on the Kyoto treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. "You'd think that this group would have been jumping for joy," he told me, "but instead, they were sputtering mad because they felt that the move could not have been done in a more politically incompetent way." The last thing these savvy businessmen wanted was a grand gesture that would galvanize the the world against the U.S. Instead, business groups had hoped for the U.S. to stay inside the negotiations, where they could quietly kill action by a thousand cuts. That approach had already proved successful. For 17 years, industry-sponsored lobbying groups forestalled action on climate change even as scientific alarm mounted. One prong of the attack was to infiltrate treaty negotiations. The lobbyists not only influenced policy, in some cases they wrote it. In one incident in the 1990s, Don Pearlman, an attorney who represented the Climate Council (another vociferous anti-climate-action group), was escorted from the floor of a Kyoto negotiating session after he was spotted writing positions for the Saudi Arabian delegation. When they were not writing policy for emerging nations, industry groups were insisting that there was no scientific consensus that climate change was an urgent threat. It was a brilliant tactic. The naysayers didn't have to disprove global warming; they just had to create the impression that it was still subject to debate. This left the public feeling that there was no need to get excited until the scientists sorted things out. Two things happened to change corporate attitudes. The destructive power of extreme weather events has become impossible to ignore (for instance, Hurricane Katrina and the 2003 heat wave in Europe that killed nearly 35,000 people). Even to the casual observer, the climate system seems to be popping rivets. And multinational corporations couldn't afford to be too out of step with their customers and stakeholders, particularly in the many countries where global warming is viewed as a clear and present danger. Businesses began defecting from the Global Climate Coalition, which closed up shop in 2002 (noting that the Bush administration had adopted its agenda). And some companies changed positions to attempt green branding or because of the threat of sanctions. In other cases, however, change came about simply because there was a new boss. That seems to have been the case with General Electric, the ninth-largest corporation in the world. Chief Executive Jack Welch was vocal in his opposition to taking action on climate change, and according to those close to the situation, in 1997 he forced the head of Employers Re, a GE insurance subsidiary, to abandon a plan to join a public/private environmental and climate initiative put together by the U.N. Environment Program. Now, however, under Jeffrey Immelt, GE trumpets the very type of initiatives that Welch squashed. The changed corporate landscape gives hope until we remember that the climate seems to be changing the landscape that we live on even more rapidly. With carbon dioxide levels already higher than they've been since homo sapiens emerged as a species, we are conducting a science lab experiment on a planetary scale. India, China and other big greenhouse gas emitters will not do their part unless the United States, the biggest emitter, joins the effort. And that won't happen without presidential leadership. So, President Bush, if the scientific, evangelical and business communities can't sway you, what will it take to persuade you to help halt our lunatic meddling with Earth's atmosphere?

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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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