Archive for the ‘Climate follies’ category

The Common Inheritance, The Common Defense

March 5, 2017

A bit of self promotion here, but I’ve got a piece in today’s Boston Globe that might be of interest to some here.

It’s a look at what the idea of the commons — not just the abstract, model commons of Garrett Hardin’s famous essay, but the historical commons as actually lived and used — can tell us about current problems.  The TL:DR is that commons are not inherently prone to tragedy, but that the preservation of communal goods requires…wait for it…communal action: regulation, self-regulation.

This is, of course, exactly what the Republican Party denies — more, loathes and condemns.  With Trump, they’re getting their way, but its vital to remember that the consequences that will flow from these decisions are not down to him, or simply so: the entire Republican power structure is eager to do this, and when we pay the price, we must remember who ran up the bill.

Anyway, here’s a taste from my piece.  Head on over to the Globe’s site if you want more.

The idea of the commons is deeply woven through the history of the English countryside. Shakespeare captured this idyllic approach to nature’s wealth in “As You Like It,” when the shepherd Corin explains to the cynic Touchstone the joys of his life. “I earn that I eat, get that I wear,” he says, adding that “the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck” — in the unowned, readily shared Forest of Arden.

There can be trouble in such an Eden, as Hardin pointed out in an influential 1968 paper. Hardin asked what would happen if access to a commons were truly unfettered — if Corin and every other villager ran as many sheep as they could there. In such cases, Hardin argued, the endgame is obvious: Too many animals would eat too much fodder, leaving the ground bare, unable to support any livestock at all.

The evolution of resistance to antibiotics fits that story perfectly. The first modern bacteria-killing drug, penicillin, came into widespread use in 1944, as American laboratories raced to produce millions of doses in time for D-Day. The next year, its discoverer, Alexander Fleming, used his Nobel Prize lecture to describe precisely how this wonder drug could lose its power, telling the sad tale of a man who came down with a strep infection. In his tale, Mr. X didn’t finish his course of penicillin, and his surviving microbes, now “educated” (Fleming’s term), infected his wife. When her course of penicillin failed to eradicate these now-resistant microbes, Mrs. X died — killed, Fleming said, by her husband’s carelessness. It took just one more year for this fable to turn into fact: In 1946, four American soldiers came down with drug-resistant gonorrhea, the first such resistance on record.

Go on — check it out.  You want to hear about the great Charnwood Forest rabbit riot.  You know you do…

Image: Jacopo da Ponte, Sheep and Lambc. 1650.

Unlimber That Gas Mask

March 4, 2017

Amidst all the attention grabbing stuff — you know, just a president accusing his predecessor of high crimes — the Trump administration proceeds with impressive consistency with moves designed to make the world worse, Americans sicker/poorer, and their inner circle enriched.

Next week, it’ll be the air-we-breathe’s turn:

The Trump administration is expected to begin rolling back stringent federal regulations on vehicle pollution that contributes to global warming, according to people familiar with the matter, essentially marking a U-turn to efforts to force the American auto industry to produce more electric cars.

The announcement — which is expected as soon as Tuesday and will be made jointly by the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, and the transportation secretary, Elaine L. Chao — will immediately start to undo one of former President Barack Obama’s most significant environmental legacies.

During the same week, and possibly on the same day, Mr. Trump is expected to direct Mr. Pruitt to begin the more lengthy and legally complex process of dismantling the Clean Power Plan, Mr. Obama’s rules to cut planet-warming pollution from coal-fired power plants.

The regulatory rollback on vehicle pollution will relax restrictions on tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide and will not require action by Congress. It will also have a major effect on the United States auto industry.

I don’t want to go all-apocalyptic on this news, in part because I want to sleep more than four hours tonight, and more because there are some secular processes underway that reduce the impact of Trump’s and Republican willingness to destroy the climate and give Americans respiratory diseases — think the long-term losing market battle coal is waging against everything else, and the advances in transportation tech that will help mitigate the license to ill being granted the domestic auto industry. (I’d note that those car companies based in countries that do impose efficiency rules will now get an advantage over the big three that could very likely hit the domestic industry hard in a decade or less…rather like the way Japanese car companies were poised to take advantage of the oil shocks of the 70s, to great wailing and gnashing of teeth in Detroit.)

But even with that rather meagre reed of hope, there’s no way to spin this as anything but craptastic news for both the global and every local environment.

Every act this administration takes; every law this congress takes is the fruit of a poisoned tree: an election manipulated by foreigners, and undermined by domestic law enforcement.  There’s no room for negotiation here.  Step one: 2018.

Image: Department of Defense. Department of the Navy. Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Gas masks for man and horse demonstrated by American soldierc. 1917-18

WASF, Part ∞

November 23, 2016

If we can’t see it, it won’t happen, climate change edition:

Donald Trump is poised to eliminate all climate change research conducted by Nasa as part of a crackdown on “politicized science”, his senior adviser on issues relating to the space agency has said.

Nasa’s Earth science division is set to be stripped of funding in favor of exploration of deep space.

After all, we can’t have any of that nasty left wing bias that reality imposes:

There is overwhelming and long-established evidence that burning fossil fuels and deforestation causes the release of heat-trapping gases, therefore causing the warming experienced in recent decades.

[Trump campaign advisor Bob] Walker, however, claimed that doubt over the role of human activity in climate change “is a view shared by half the climatologists in the world. We need good science to tell us what the reality is and science could do that if politicians didn’t interfere with it.”

Walker is, as one expects from Trumpistas, simply lying. Half of the world’s climatologists do not doubt the fact of human-driven climate change, unless you include those who got their advanced degrees at the University of Exxon’s Koch School of Science.  Ostriches and sand ain’t in it.


This is a hugely consequential move.  There are two technologies that are essential to modern climate science: large scale numerical modelling made possible by the insane advances in computing power and associated computer science over the last several decades…and remote sensing, the ability to monitor earth systems on a planetary scale.  That’s what NASA — and for the forseeable future, no one else, brings with its earth science programs.  Kill that and we not only lose data going forward, we degrade a capability in an intellectual infrastructure that will take a long time indeed to restore:

Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said as Nasa provides the scientific community with new instruments and techniques, the elimination of Earth sciences would be “a major setback if not devastating”.

“It could put us back into the ‘dark ages’ of almost the pre-satellite era,” he said. “It would be extremely short sighted.

“We live on planet Earth and there is much to discover, and it is essential to track and monitor many things from space. Information on planet Earth and its atmosphere and oceans is essential for our way of life. Space research is a luxury, Earth observations are essential.”

This is a call your representative kind of issue.  It’s going to be difficult, certainly, if Trump really does go down this path, but NASA is enough of a pork barrel, and some GOP senators, at least, are not wholly clueless on this issue, so it might be possible to avoid the worst outcome.  It’s necessary to try.  If and as I hear of organized campaigns on this, I’ll bring the news  here.


PS: that laser like media focus during the campaign on issues like climate change sure was impressive, wasn’t it?

C. C. Pierce, Carl Eytel and George Wharton James in a horse-drawn wagon on the Butterfield Stage Road in the Colorado Desert, c.1903. (Eytel was a painter associated with the “smoketree school” of artists working on desert subjects; James was a journalist and photographer.)

Profiles In Courage

August 17, 2014

Republicans and global warming:

In stark contrast to their party’s public stance on Capitol Hill, many Republicans privately acknowledge the scientific consensus that human activity is at least partially responsible for climate change and recognize the need to address the problem.

However, they see little political benefit to speaking out on the issue…

Anthony Adragna, writing in Bloomberg BNA, points out that it’s not simply the lack of benefit that constains his sources.  Rather,

Most say the reluctance to publicly support efforts to address climate change has grown discernibly since the 2010 congressional elections, when Tea Party-backed candidates helped the Republican Party win control of the House, in part by targeting vulnerable Democrats for their support of legislation establishing a national emissions cap-and-trade system.

Ah, Brave Sir Robin GOP!

To give themselves cover, as Adragna notes, those who spoke to him came up with all kinds of alternative explanations for their reticence:

…the devastating impacts of the economic crisis, the low priority Americans place on addressing climate change and what Republicans say is overheated rhetoric from Democrats. Also playing a role in the reluctance to speak out is skepticism among Republican voters about federal government intervention and the increasing role of special interest money in elections.

That last one is sweet, isn’t it — that nasty “special interest” money.  I believe that special interest is spelled K.O.C.H. et al., but never mind.

And as for overheated rhetoric — well, I’m gearing up to do some separate posts about how all the climate news lately is worse than we thought, so for now, let me just leave you with this reminder of how badly, f**ked we may already be.


Of course, no discussion of Republican failure to lead — or even engage — an issue would be complete without laying the blame where it clearly belongs:

“I do believe there is some resistance to come out publicly and say what’s happening here,” Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), who served in Congress from 1993 through 2011 and is now a partner at the law firm DLA Piper, told Bloomberg BNA. “One thing that would be helpful would be having a president who could articulate the issue well and who the Republicans have some confidence in.”

Yes, if only Barack Obama would stop presidenting while Black/Democrat, the Republican Party would leap into the breach.

To Adragna’s credit, he doesn’t let that claim go unchallenged — that Republicans who hold actual power, as opposed to those who are all ex- or former- somebodies, would actually be willing to take global warming seriously as soon as there’s a change at the White House:

[NRDC Action Fund spokesman David] Goldston said the Tea Party movement has swept many more deniers of climate change into Congress than ever before, and it has pushed Republicans away from basic environmental principles. He disagreed with others who said many Republicans privately acknowledge the risks of climate change, even if they don’t say so publicly.

“It’s very comforting for people to think that these people are pretending,” Goldston said. “It’s not true. The problem would be in many ways easier to solve if it was true.”

Read the whole thing.  Adragna tries to present the notion that Republicans as a party, as opposed to a handful of dissidents, actually do take this most serious of issues at all seriously.  He lets his sources make their best case…and the take-away is of a party that is in the hands of anti-science crackpots whom those who do know better are powerless to control  Which seems about right.

Oh, and when Mitch McConnel says that:

he [does] not believe in human-caused climate change.

“For everybody who thinks [the planet] is warming, I can find somebody who thinks it isn’t,” McConnell told the newspaper.

I say “shut your festering gob” you hopeless git.  For everyone who says you are any kind of a public servant, I can find someone who swears you enjoy the carnal knowledge of barnyard animals.

Image: Nicholas Bertin, Phaéton on the Chariot of Apollo, c. 1720.

Everything’s Bigger In Texas, Even The Stupid…

August 8, 2014

….hell, especially the stupid.

Exhibit ∞:   A top Texas official just announced that the state plans both to sue the EPA over its new carbon rules, and just because nullification has always worked out so well, ignore the hell out of them too [vie The Hill]:

The top environmental regulator in Texas said the state may choose not to follow the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rules limiting carbon pollution from power plants.

At a policy event Thursday, Bryan Shaw said he is concerned the rules “are only the camel’s nose under the tent,” according to the Texas Tribune.


There are any number of ways to plumb the pure cretinism on display here, but if Mr. Shaw is really concerned about a camel proboscis poking across the line, he might want to think on this:

If Texas ignores the rules and refuses to write a plan to implement them, the EPA would have to step in and write a plan for the state.

IOW: stupid has consequences, as Texans have reason (if not apparently the willingness) to know:

Texas also ignored a 2010 federal rule requiring new industrial plants to obtain greenhouse gas permits. The EPA took over, leading to years-long delays for permits, which caused industrial interests to blame the state for its decision.

If they had Darwin awards for states…

Image:  Edward Lear, Camel Study, 1867

Bonus camel image after the jump: (more…)

The Fugue Playing Behind Obama’s Climate Speech — Or Swampland in Florida…

June 25, 2013

…is looking to be an even worse investment than legend would have it.

The Republican Party may not believe in global warming, but those realists with money on the line clearly do.  As reported by Alistair Gray and Pilita Clark in the Financial Times blog, Alphaville, it’s getting harder — and may soon become impossible — to insure areas vulnerable to sea level rise:

Parts of the UK and the US state of Florida were already facing “a risk environment that is uninsurable”, said the global insurance industry trade body, the Geneva Association.

That’s close to all I can quote from the piece under the FT’s copyright/use policies, but you get the idea.  This is at least part of the backdrop to President Obama’s (to me) very significant speech today.  Digging a little deeper into the report the FT cites [PDF], you can see why:

Recently, improved observational records and the increased length of reliable time series have provided new evidence of the degree of global ocean warming and the distribution of energy within the ocean (e.g. Levitus et al., 2012). A positive temperature trend in the ocean is now detectable and has already changed selected but relevant metrics for extreme events away from what we have observed in the past (e.g. Elsner, 2008)…

There is a significant upward trend in the insured losses caused by the extreme weather events discussed in Chapter 2. [Tropical cylones.; extra-tropical cyclones; convective storms]…This is true for primary insurance, which is impacted by an increasing attritional loss burden caused by severe local weather events, as well as for reinsurance losses caused by large scale catastrophic extreme events.*


And the money quote:

The interplay between the potential of rising risk levels and insurance demand, but decreasing self-protection, could create a risk environment that is uninsurable in some regions (Herweijer et al., 2009). Examples for markets with this potential are U.K. flood or Florida wind storm insurance.

So, to sum up:  those with actual money on the line agree that (a) global warming is real; (b) that significant human and environmental  consequences are already in train; and that the way we live now — especially on the coasts — is not sustainable.

The report goes on to advocate coupling the ongoing provision of insurance to climate-risk-prone property be conditional on real climate-change mitigation efforts, which is to say, building the new infrastructure needed to protect coasts from the new normal.  In that vein. check out this look at what that might entail in a short film made by three of my students a little over a year ago:

So, GOP, et al.  Here’s the deal:  Don’t ask if you believe in climate change.  Wonder instead, does climate change believe in you?
*This passage in the report goes on to say that “There is broad agreement among experts that this global trend in economic as well as insured losses from natural disasters is primarily driven by socio-economic factors…”  Translated, that seems to be making the argument I’ve heard (and advanced) since working on my book on climate change way back in the late 1980s.  That is:  there are natural events (like a hurricane) and human disasters, the losses incurred by what natural events do to the physical infrastructure and populations we’ve built up in the path of extreme natural processes.  Simpler: the cost and risk of climate change comes not simply from stronger or more frequent storms (or whatever) but because we’ve got so much more to lose along, say, the Florida coast than we did 50 or even 10 years ago.
Image:  J. W. M. Turner, Snowstorm off the Harbor Entrance, 1842.

For a Good Time on the Intertubes — Today!

May 22, 2013

It’s that time of the month again — the third (usually) Wednesday, when I do my Virtually Speaking Science gig.

This afternoon at 6 p.m. eastern time I’ll be talking again to Naomi Oreskes, historian of science and co-author of Merchants of Doubt,an account of how a small(ish) cadre of cold-war scientists became hired guns for Big Tobacco and the anti-climate change brigade.

Naomi and I spoke in 2011 about the threats posed by the spread of “scientistic” argument — the use of a science-like language, couched in the rhetoric of disinterested skepticism, to obscure critical knowledge for public audiences.

Well, flash forward a year and a half, and we come to an America in which we have experienced years of devastating drought, superstorm Sandy, this week’s tornado, and the breaching of the 400 ppm atmospheric carbon threshold, and it’s time to talk again about the cost of denialism and the misuse of perceived authority by our still-thriving doubt peddlars.


The tornado provides a great touchstone in fact — as Naomi and I have been emailing back and forth on the question.  What’s happening is that there is a growing body of increasingly firm research on the impact of climate change on all kinds of circumstances.  Changing and possibly deepening patterns of drought are pretty clearly on the table.  A boost in the number of severe hurricanes too.  Significant ice melt and sea level rise too. But what will happen to tornado patterns as climate change proceeds is still unclear.  So what to make of that lacuna?

Here’s my take (not to put any words in Naomi’s mouth):  If you are a rational person, you say we need more research on that particular concern, but the broad pattern is clear:  human-driven climate change is in progress and it is causing a host of changes that directly conflict with the way we’ve rely on our built environment and on all the things we do (grow cereals in the midwest, e.g.) needed to keep our societies going.  And we’ll get back to you on the twisters, asking you to bear this thought in mind:  if you are a betting person, how much do you want to wager on the possibility that increasing the amount of heat trapped in the lower atmosphere won’t kick up some extra nasty storms?

We won’t confine ourselves to climate and the weather, by the way.  Merchants of Doubt has given me a frame for looking at a lot of news, and I see the same desire to conceal useful knowledge the doubtists serve in the somewhat different technique of simply blocking research that might be used to produce inconvenient truths.  See, e.g. the NRA – led ban on research on gun violence and the  the recent Republican proposal to forbid the US Census from doing anything but a decennial count, thus eliminating, among other things, our ability to measure unemployment.

So come on down.  Listen live or later here.  Y’all can head over to the Exploratorium’s Second Life stage as well if you do that virtual world thing.

Image:  Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, c. 1596.