Posted tagged ‘carbon’

Why You Should Read Eric Roston: Sarah Palin Edition.

September 25, 2008

I know we are all supposed to be burying gold in the corners of our gardens, but I’m still dealing with the grotesque implications of Sarah Palin’s apotheosis. Last night’s Katie Couric train wreck (Q:  So, Governor:  what has Maverick McCain ever done to regulate the financial markets?  A:  Katie — let me get back to you on that…) gives a hint of what we might all be in for should November 5 turn out to be an official Very Bad Day

Her rise from Alaska GOP hackdom to all the lengthening tally of the fictions that comprise the GOP presentation of its Evita – has allowed some of what makes her the worst running mate choice in history to fade into the background a bit.

That would be the substance (shurely shome mishtake? — Ed.) of what Palin actually thinks about the world in which we live.  Most important, at least from this blog’s perspective, look at the degree to which Palin’s rise to prominence ratifies the anti-science turn in the GOP from which it – and if McCain does win this election, the country too – may not recover.

Palin’s anti-science bent has been best documented through three of her positions.  Her unsurprising support for  abstinence education as the proper form of sex education for American teenagers, despite for all the evidence, some close to home, of the inadequacy of that approach, is the tell that reminds us how much damage a disdain for data and the test of reality can do.

Palin’s personal commitment to creationism is similarly not a shock, for the same reason, given her extreme religous practice (though to be fair, she has not made the teaching of creationism in school a priority in either Wasilla or Alaska at large).  It is also, for many in the science blogosphere (and the rest of the science-positive community), a sufficient lapse to make it unnecessary to look for further evidence of the danger she might pose were she to achieve power.

But in fact, at least as I see it, it is her blithe dismissal of human-induced global warming that should scare us the most.

(She has, as documented here, recanted, a bit.  In assessing her sincerity I will pass over in silence that which cannot be spoken, at least in language appropriate for a family blog.)

That is: it is pretty obvious why Palin might deny human agency here.  She is the governor of an oil and gas rich state, and she is a member of the drill-now party; both of those affiliations require placing a low weight on global warming concerns, which she duly assigns.  That’s fine, as far as it goes: she’s entitled to argue her corner, and if the other side can’t come up with more compelling arguments, shame on us, not her.

But the point is not that she says global warming doesn’t matter, or that there is nothing that can be done about it — those are genuinely arguable issues.  She’s saying that humans are completely uninvolved, that as a matter of empirical fact, the notion of human agancy to combat global warming is based on the flawed premise that the combustion of fossil fuels has something to do with climate change.

Not even the most determined of the intellectually prepared opponents of climate-change infused public policy — my own MIT colleague and global warming activist bete noire Dick Lindzen, for example – holds that view.

It is untenable.  It makes no sense.

Channeling my favorite commentator on the absurdity of life:

It is an ex-argument.

Which brings me to the point of this post, which is to commend Eric Roston’s book The Carbon Age as an antidote to the weary headache that comes from listening to absurdities proffered by the dangerously inane.

I’m not going to offer a full review here – that’s been done with gusto, as for example, here.

What I am going to say is that it is the first work on carbon and climate I have read (and I’ve read plenty, and written, long ago, one of my own) that is so neatly constructed in such a way as to combine the natural history, the science, and the tool-making ape’s transformations of carbon come together in a way that makes it possible to get in the gut why knowing all this stuff matters.

That is: Roston should be understood to have written carbon’s biography, it’s history, it’s behavior, and the implications of both when they encounter the recent and unanticipated fact of humankind’s technological evolution.

It’s a good read, a very good one — and even better, once you’re done, you will have a deep grasp of why it is both fun and essential to get to know the underlying science behind top line talking points.

And in the current context, you can’t read this book and come out thinking of Sarah Palin and the Republican Party that has embraced her anything other than either congenital or self made fools:  the kind of people who screw their eyes shut and hold their hands over their ears whilst shouting “I’M NOT LISTENING! I’M NOT LISTENING!”

As a lagniappe — the M. Python sketch referenced above can be viewed after the jump:

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Carbon TV: Steve Colbert meets Eric Roston

July 30, 2008

In case you missed it last night — you can see it here.

Colbert is the energizer bunny. Eric did a good job — but Stephen definitely made him work.

Closing line (Colbert’s) “This book is made of carbon.”

News Flash: Dog Bites Man take two — McCain does not care about global warming

July 28, 2008

I’ve said this already, here and here. Now its official, and all over the liberal end of the blogosphere.

Well — kind of official, in exactly the way one might expect such things to go down.  McCain himself still promotes his global warming straight talk on his campaign site — but just in case any of those who really matter get worried that the “maverick” ™ senator might really mean to stray out of the petroleum corral, a mutually trusted messenger, Steve Forbes, gets tasked to deliver the nod-and-wink.

I’ve said before that Barack Obama won the science primary.  Now, on at least one significant issue at the intersection of science and politics, the choice between the last two candidates standing has become that much more clear.

(That last link is there for historical context — it takes you to Donald Kennedy’ s speech on climate change in the context of a presidential election in 2000.)

Eric Roston Wins!: Judge Someone by Their Enemies, Dept.

July 4, 2008

Eric Roston, author of the new and invaluable The Carbon Age, has done well, very well, in a two step sequence.

Step one: receive an intelligent and positive cite in Time Magazine for his book on the singular importance and dangers of element number 6. If you want to understand the basics and real significance of climate change, read Eric’s book.

Step two: Rush Limbaugh goes ballistic at the notion that capitalism might work.

For some reason, perhaps because he has shifted his substance abuse from prescription narcotics to petroleum, Rush seems to hate the free market that has driven oil prices up — and hence, as every ec. 101 textbook will tell you — has shifted behavior among energy consumers. He would rather, as Eric writes in his brutally funny response to Rush, support the vicious, dictatorial states and sponsors of terrorism that own so much of the world’s oil than see his fellow Americans reduced to riding bicycles or taking the bus.

This tempest in a teapot (dome?) illustrates a point this blog tries to make over and over again. It pays to be able to do the numbers. We all know that price changes alter consumer choices. We know that oil in particular and energy in general is traded in a global market. We know, or should, about the concept of peak oil . We can reason our way to the likely impact that increased demand and slowing then reversing production increases will have on our energy mix, our economy, and the wealth of nations. Rush can play a farcical King Canute as long as he wants, but he can no more hold back the flow of numbers, of the hard fact of supply and demand than the old Dane could restrain the tide.

The oddity in all this — or perhaps the revealing detail, is that Rush’s rhetoric is his usual song to the common man. But, as we learn here, there is a simpler reason to explain his howls of pain and rage at the thought of 4 buck a gallon gas that has nothing to do with any notional common touch. The old deaf (recovering, we hope) drug addict drives himself around in a Maybach 57S — no doubt a truly wonderful automobile. It must hurt, however, even for a man as rich as Limbaugh, to fill the tank of a $450,000 behemoth that scores 10 miles to the gallon in the city.

I’m sorry — but I somehow don’t see Eric Roston as the effete elitist out of touch with the lives of ordinary Americans here. But then, I don’t see how a tax dodging Senator with seven homes, $200,000+ monthly credit card spending, a growing domestic staff, and a married-into inherited fortune worth more than 100 million behind him is somehow more of a regular guy than that other Senator who rose out of a broken home through education and talent to the realms of upper-middle class comfort. Just me, I guess.

In any event: Good job, Eric! By the quality (sic) of your enemies may we recognize your worth.

Image: Johannes Christiaan Schotel, “Low Tide in a Bay with a Moored Vessel and Fishing Boats,” Early nineteenth century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

News Flash — Dog Bites Man dept: John McCain does not care about global warming

June 18, 2008

This just in:  John McCain, who claims that “he has been a leader on the issue of global warming with the courage to call the nation to action on an issue we can no longer afford to ignore,” said on Monday that he believes “that lifting the moratoria from offshore drilling or oil and natural gas exploration is something that we place as a very high priority.”

This, on top of his recently renewed call for the twofer environmental and economic foolishness of a gas tax holiday, makes it clear, to me at least, where Senator McCain actually stands on the issue of global warming.

Not to beat a horse I long sinced blogged to near-death here, but if you are even remotely serious about the issue of global warming (not to mention, being a “leader”) you don’t look for ways to encourage people to burn more oil.  You can’t have it both ways (or rather, if you are anything but a straight talking, honest kind of guy, you can try, but annoying folks like me will point out the contradiction).

So — for anyone tempted to back McCain because of his environmental commitments — remember the last time we trusted a plausible sounding, straight shooting kind of fella on this issue, look at the other promises McCain is making, and think long and hard when you find yourself all alone in the voting booth.

Image:   Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky, “Moonlit Seascape with Shipwreck,” nineteenth century.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Update and pointer on the ongoing carbon fest/Postrel roast.

May 2, 2008

I just want to call attention to Eric Roston’s latest post on the news of a research paper on ocean circulation and possible northern hemisphere cooling for the next decade or so.

Eric makes one key point — that those who would either seize on or deny this result because of a preconceived commitment to a policy prescription miss the real nature of science: that it is an ongoing, self-destroying, self-renewing enterprise. (He also makes the point that the mass media, and especially advocates, have a terrible time figuring out what each new iteration of scientific understanding actually means, especially in as complicated a subject as climate.)

Read Eric. To what he said I’d add just one point, something that Steven Postrel failed to grasp in the provocation that got this whole exchange of posts going.

That is: the central issue in the uncontrolled experiment we are doing by injecting carbon pollution into the atmosphere is not the precise change in global average temperature that will result, nor specific predictions about the fate of this locality or that.

Rather, it is about the ever increasing uncertainty about weather and climate that accumulates as wholesale changes in the bulk chemical composition of the atmosphere work their way through the physics, chemistry and biology of climate.

As I discussed below at too great length, the problem with climate change now, whether natural or anthropogenic, is that human beings have built an enormous, complex, and in many ways very vulnerable material infrastructure on certain assumptions about the stability of climate.

Current carbon profligacy casts those assumptions into doubt. We thus face both the daily costs of weather and more persistant patterns that do not conform to our expectation (Katrina; prolonged droughts; etc), and the costs of insuring ourselves against less and less accurately quantifiable risks of future climate events.

That uncertainty ultimately becomes something else: the fact of a climate regime different from the one within which we have built our cities and planned our farms. The Dust Bowl, or the collapse of the Sahel provide recent examples of the kinds of consequences we may expect from such an effect: not just suffering, but movement — the migration of peoples that traditionally produce stress at least, and armed conflict at worse.

The imperative both to understand climate dynamics and to avoid turbocharging whatever transformation is going on, derives from a healthy caution in the face of confounding the fundamental human belief that the world will behave tomorrow pretty much as it does today.

Update: Eric Roston’s name spelled correctly, again with apologies.

Image: Dallas, South Dakota, May 13, 1936. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

More On Steven Postrel’s Climate Issues…

April 30, 2008

Issues, as in he has ’em, and it matters because his ill-informed comments (and I’m trying to keep the discourse on a reasonably polite level, as Dr. Postrel himself has done) actually capture a much broader pathology in the realm of those who oppose taking climate science and its predictions seriously.

Last night, I posted my much too-long and still incomplete response to Dr. Postrel’s comments further down this blog — but I also pinged my internet-friend Eric Roston, to see if he wanted to have a crack at the same material that I saw, frankly as nonsense born of a dangerous brew of ignorance of the field and an ideological predisposition to a given outcome.

I did so because while I have written at length about climate change — I did so mostly two decades ago. I have complained (to Eric among others) that what’s most depressing about that is how little I would have to change in my basic take on the subject now, and you can see Eric’s treatment of that claim here.

But the point is that Eric, a former Time magazine science/tech correspondent is now the author of the forthcoming The Carbon Age (Macmillan, July, 2008), and is much more deeply immersed in the current science and policy literature than I ever was. So when in doubt, call in the expert — and here is Eric’s first whack at Postrel’s argument. I should warn you — it ain’t pretty (that is to say, Eric fired for effect, and he got it).

Update: Eric Roston’s name now spelled correctly (with apologies).

Image: Francisco de Goya “Bravo Toro,” 1824-1825. Source: Wikimedia Commons