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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”

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5 Things To Expect Dick Cheney To Do As Global Warming Intensifies

Monday April 10, 2006

[Adapted from my contribution to Duck!, a new humorous anthology of advice for Dick Cheney] If climate turns out to be the weapon of mass destruction Vice President Cheney should have been worrying about, he has a problem. Let’s say in the near future hurricanes, nor'easters, dust bowls, floods, crop failures, ice storms and tornadoes are ruining the economy, and the voters are blaming Cheney because he and President Bush dismissed the science behind the threat, ridiculed conservation (one of the easiest ways to immediately lessen greenhouse gas emissions) as a “civic virtue,” and were champions of the fossil fuel industry. Cheney may think he has big business on his side, but even before Katrina, many CEOs began joining the tree huggers. Even the evangelicals, whose leaders went enviro and called for action. So when the weather changes, what will Cheney do? 1. Blame the Democrats. This is easy, it's what he always does, and they usually don't fight back. Cheney will say that he and Bush inherited the problem from the Clinton administration (not mentioning that it was a Republican- controlled Congress that torpedoed action) and that the Bush Administration actually cut oil use by the end of its second term, while it steadily went up during the Clinton years (expect him to gloss over the fact that supply disruptions due to civil war in the Middle East and a worldwide depression caused the decline). 2. He will claim that no one could have seen it coming. That strategy worked for a bit after Katrina--until those irritating videotape and emails started surfacing. And the truth is, it's entirely possible that Cheney didn't see it coming: it's unlikely that any of the “experts” his administration consulted, ranging from science fiction writer Michael Crichton to the paid lackeys of the coal industry, mentioned that it might be a problem. (Don't expect him to acknowledge that the entire scientific establishment had been warning of the threat for fifteen years.) 3. He will argue that the Kyoto Treaty would not have helped, and that he and Bush were engaged in a search for the real way to deal with the problem, one that includes India and China. This one is tricky-smart. It's true that Kyoto is vastly inadequate to the scale of the threat, but it could be made stronger. On the other hand, he will have to finesse that India and China are never going to join an effort on climate change unless the U.S., with 25 percent of world emissions, shows leadership on the issue. 4) He will say the crazy weather is natural. Why not? That's what the naysayers have been saying whenever an ice shelf collapses. It's unlikely that Cheney will mention that CO2, which has tracked temperature for millions of years, is now at higher levels than its been since homo sapiens evolved (better for him to avoid evolution anyway). 5) Expect him to move to Canada. Washington will have a climate like Khartoum, and Vancouver will be the new San Diego.

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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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