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Diary of a Tree Stump

Something lighter:                                    

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

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

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Deep Past
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endangered animals
rapid climate change
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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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SmokeSignals

Vast forest fires have scarred the globe, but the worst may be yet to come
BY EUGENE LINDEN


Monday, Jun. 22, 1998
Why are the world's forests burning? Why did uncontrollable fires cut a 7,700-sq.-mi. swath of devastation across Indonesia? Why have the blazes of Mexico sent plumes of smoke across Texas and Louisiana?

Here's the simple answer: El Nino. While that notorious weather system flooded some regions, it produced horrendous droughts in other areas, making half the world a tinderbox.

But that's too easy an explanation. Scientists suspect that something more fundamental--and frightening--is happening. In one country after another, flames are going where they've never gone before. "These fires are burning into virgin, humid forests that have evolved without fire," says Nels Johnson of Washington's World Resources Institute. "There is no historical precedent for the fires in the cloud forests of the Lacondon region of Mexico." Fire storms in the rain forests--the very idea defies common sense--have become an unmistakable distress signal from the developing world.

Even without the effects of El Nino, forests are increasingly vulnerable, and the blame lies with human activity. People are literally paving the way for fire's intrusion. Roads penetrating tropical forests provide access to loggers, peasant farmers, ranchers and plantation owners, all of whom use fire to clear land. Logging in particular creates incendiary conditions by leaving combustible litter on the forest floor and allowing sunlight to penetrate the forest canopy and dry out the vegetation.

A rain forest is a self-perpetuating system in that water vapor from trees energizes rainstorms. Cut the trees and rainfall decreases, further drying a system that is not adapted to recovering from fire. Experts wonder if this is why denuded southern China has seen a decline in rainfall this century, and why West Africa has lost one of two rainy seasons. Looming over all rain forests is the threat of global warming caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases. Computer simulations suggest that the greenhouse effect will increase the frequency of drought in tropical areas.

Belatedly, rains have come to Southeast Asia in recent weeks, and they are still expected in Mexico, but any relief is likely to be temporary, and dryer conditions will return later in the year. Experts are particularly worried about Brazil, where a new dry season is just starting. Daniel Nepstad, a tropical-forest ecologist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, notes that "the eastern Amazon is teetering on the edge." The region has received one-fifth of its normal rainfall in the past year, and Nepstad says an area 20 times the size of Massachusetts is at risk.

The tragedy goes far beyond the countries that are burning. Besides worrying about the loss of tropical forests, with their unmatched natural resources, policymakers have to be concerned about the clouds of smoke that have endangered public health from Singapore to Houston. But so far it's been easier to announce programs to combat the fires than to get at the causes. In April the United Nations Environment Program called for a $10 million fund to help Southeast Asia contain its fires. Washington has contributed $7.5 million to Mexico's firefighting efforts.

Such meager sums won't even begin to save the forests. In Indonesia the collapse of the economy has driven many of the urban poor back to the countryside, and often the only land to cultivate is virgin forest. So a new round of fires seems unavoidable. Says John Redwood, a World Bank environmental specialist: "Once small fires get out of control in remote areas, they become unstoppable until doused by rains."

Several forces combine to darken the outlook. The industrial world hasn't curbed its appetite for wood or halted the harvesting of rain forests by multinational corporations. In many developing countries, government corruption or mismanagement has allowed indiscriminate logging and clearing of woodland for agriculture. And efforts to slow greenhouse-gas emissions in the U.S., the biggest offender, continue to be stymied by a skeptical Congress. The Senate Appropriations Committee has just slashed $200 million from the Clinton Administration's proposed program to improve energy efficiency, citing doubts about "the existence, extent or effects of global climate change."

What all this adds up to is a cycle of destruction. Chopping down the forests creates conditions that foster fires. The fires pour carbon dioxide into the air, which promotes global warming and makes the forests dryer still. A computer simulation of the effect of climate change in Mexico has predicted that if temperatures rise as feared, rainfall might be reduced 40%--a drop that would doom the remaining rain forests in the state of Chiapas.

The global bonfire of 1998 is a warning, an unsubtle hint that humanity will have to change its ways or watch its forests disappear. It is a smoke signal we cannot afford to ignore.

contact Eugene Linden

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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