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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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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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Climate Change is Here, Ready or Not. So What Now? Part 2


Friday April 12, 2013

 So how should we respond? Most obviously, we should stop making things worse. Tax penalties, tax credits, and import tariffs can nudge consumers, producers, and exporters towards reducing emissions without wasting more years on fruitless international negotiations or creating cumbersome new bureaucracies.

Second, we need to start adapting to the changes that are inevitable. Emergency loans and other financial aid to redress the billions in damage from extreme weather of the past couple of years already pressure budgets from the federal government on down. Hurricane Sandy showed the Northeast, for instance, where the vulnerable spots were. If someone wants to rebuild in one of those areas, so be it, but there is no reason that taxpayers should subsidize individual folly. The rates a private insurer would extract to enable a person, corporation or farmer to rebuild or replant in vulnerable areas would largely accomplish the necessary relocations—again with no bureaucracy.

Most importantly, we need leaders with the courage to steamroll the deniers and the vested interests. After a very short respite greenhouse gas emissions are getting worse. The Great Recession largely stalled U.S. greenhouse gas emissions for several years (though globally CO2 increased thanks largely to China). The respite ended in 2012, which saw the biggest jump in CO2 in the atmosphere in this millennium. The journal Science just published a reconstruction of past climate that showed that current temperatures are the highest in 4,000 years. Still, this won’t convince the deniers – nothing will – and the U.S. and the rest of the world are going to have to act over the loud objections of vested interests just as the government took action on smoking over the objections of the tobacco lobby.


A resident walks through flood water and past a stalled ambulance in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012 in Hoboken, NJ. (Charles Sykes/AP)

This brings us to a roadblock as formidable as the great ice wall in Game of Thrones—we haven’t had those leaders. Since it’s open to question whether the present Congress would have the courage to take on the tobacco lobby if the link between smoking and cancer first arose today, how can we expect them to act against the vastly richer fossil fuel lobby? How can a political system that could not institute real reform in the financial system even after near collapse in 2008 be expected to act rapidly to impose new taxes—the most polarizing word in the political lexicon—and do that during a time of weak economic growth? The answer is obvious: it can’t—at least not without overwhelming pressure from powerful groups that can’t be bought off or befuddled.

Therein lies the faintest glimmer of hope. With $5 trillion of invested capital, the American insurance industry has as much economic clout as the fossil fuel industry. Insurers lose money if they under-price the myriad risks of climate change. If they can’t raise prices to match the estimated risk, they simply pull out of the market. This happened in Florida where a series of governors stymied insurers’ requests for rate increases to adjust for increased risks of hurricane damage. The insurers said sayonara leaving the state to backstop homeowners who insisted on living in harm’s way. Thus we have the delicious irony of Florida having a free-market champion and climate change denier governor, Rick Scott, presiding over the socialization of climate change risk. A study by the non-profit CERES estimates that government—meaning us the taxpayers’—exposure to climate-related risk has increased fifteen fold since 1990 as private insurers have pulled back and extreme events increased. If government stopped smothering the market signals coming from the insurance market, both adaptation and calls for action on dealing with global warming would accelerate enormously.

Outside the U.S., developed nations take climate change seriously, and if the international community started imposing tariffs on goods coming from nations that fail to address emissions, that would get the attention of Congress. It’s sad, but at a time of imminent peril, we are stuck with a political system that will not act without adult supervision.

President Obama made strong statements about the importance of climate change when he first ran for president. Then, in his first term, he abandoned the issue, just as every other American leader has done since global warming first entered the national conversation. Now he is promising to do what every previous administration could have done by using executive powers to actually lead on the issue. Presidents are said to care about their legacy. Climate change is a civilization killer, and if we continue down the climate rapids, future generations probably will not be thinking about any presidential legacy of our era—except to assign blame.

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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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