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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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SustainableFollies

BY EUGENE LINDEN


Monday, May. 24, 1993
HOW ARE AFRICAN ELEPHANTS SIMILAR TO MINKE whales? Neither animal is in immediate danger of extinction, but both are protected by international hunting bans because past efforts to exploit the beasts commercially have driven their populations into precipitous decline. Countries that have well- managed elephant herds, including Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana, are eager to sell ivory, just as Norway and Japan want to kill whales. But conservationists are loath to exempt specific nations from the ivory-trade ban for fear that any traffic in tusks will bring a reprise of the rampant cheating that occurred before sales became illegal in 1989.

When it comes to exploiting nature, humans seem to be like alcoholics: either on the wagon or on a binge. The fashionable and optimistic belief that humans can reap nature's bounty in a controlled fashion -- an ideal known as "sustainable use" that has long been the prevailing philosophy of conservationists as well as many businessmen -- is turning out to be a chimera.

Though many of the world's fisheries are ostensibly managed on a sustainable basis, important species are in danger. Among them: bluefin tuna, cod and haddock in the Atlantic; certain varieties of grouper and snapper in the Gulf of Mexico; and sardines and anchovies in the Pacific. The United Nations and World Bank sponsored the Tropical Forestry Action Plan to sustain forests, but instead the plan spurred further deforestation. When asked by an environmentalist what he meant by sustainable, a World Bank agronomist replied, "Fifty years of timber production." Even the rubber tappers of Brazil's Amazon rain forest, who along with their martyred leader, Chico Mendes, became symbols of the sustainable use of tropical forests, overexploit their ecosystem. Writing in the journal BioScience, John Browder notes that in search of food and sources of cash, these seringueiros can kill off wildlife and cut forests as much as settlers do.

Sustainable use is not some fringe idea, but rather the central organizing principle for global environmental policy, a concept refined over two decades at international conferences. It is often paired with "sustainable development" -- the notion that economic development, if carried out in a careful manner, can proceed without exhausting the natural resources needed by future generations. As recently as last June during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, governments tried to forge an action agenda based on sustainable development.

Now, however, scientists are beginning to acknowledge that theories of sustainable use and development almost never work in practice. "What we are seeing is that conservation and development are not the same process," says the Wildlife Conservation Society's John Robinson, a leading revisionist on sustainable use. "If you are interested in development, you cannot get there by doing conservation, simply because the most diverse ecosystems are usually not the most productive in human terms." This means that development almost always brings losses of biological diversity. Instead of preserving the variety of a rain forest, for example, humans have the urge to chop down the trees and plant uniform crops.

What's good for society in the long run is of no immediate concern to people who use up natural resources. Given the high cost of modern fishing equipment, an individual fisherman is driven to catch every last fish rather than limit catches and ensure long-term supply. And no matter how good the plan to manage an ecosystem, some people will cheat.

Environmentalists cling to the idea of sustainable development because it enables them to present themselves as advocates of economic progress and, as Robinson puts it, "the concept allows them to play with the big boys and have an impact on huge development projects." If sustainable development proves illusory, environmentalists will be left with a huge problem: there is no big idea ready to fill the void. With human numbers expected to double in the next 60 years, policymakers must now find some new trail map that will enable humanity to walk the ledge between rising material expectations and the wholesale collapse of the biosphere.

Robinson believes environmentalists will have to embrace anew the politically incorrect concept of pure preservation for some vital areas. For their part, policymakers must try to guide development away from sensitive ecosystems and toward regions where inevitable losses of diversity are more "acceptable." An economics that accurately accounted for the costs of destroying species would also help. Most likely, though, a sustainable future will not come from policy wonks, but rather from a broad change in values as ordinary people react to ecological disasters around them.

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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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