Climate

Real Zombie Apocalypse

According to a report published by the Public Religion Research Institute, reported today in The Atlantic, half of Americans think that Climate Change is a sign of the End Times, the Biblical Apocalypse.

There's a moment in the Doctor Who season finale this year, where the Earth is (predictably) teetering on the edge, and the Doctor says "Don't call the Americans! They'll only pray." THAT is how the rest of the world sees us, and it's because of this type of nonsense.

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A 2014 Pew Research poll found "61 percent of Americans agreed that the earth's temperature is rising, and of that group, 40 percent attributed the warming to human activity."

And according to a recent
Harris Interactive poll, 68% of Americans believe in Heaven and 72% believe in miracles. So why clean up your mess here, if a.) it can be fixed by the wave of God's hand or b.) you're going to a better place anyway. In the same poll, of course, fewer than 50% of the respondents believe in Darwinian Evolution.

What are the implications of this stunning display of American opinion, on any efforts we might want to make to dig ourselves out of the ecological, political, and social hole we're in by any sort of
grass roots, bottom up action?

Climate Trolls

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A couple of days ago a blogger I follow posted an interesting piece about the deep divide between the academy and regular people. This is a topic I'm very interested in, so I read and responded to the post. The post led back to WUWT, which claims to be the world's most-viewed site dealing with the issue of climate change.

WUWT is a "climate skeptic" website. According to the information I was able to glean from its pages, the people who comment on posts have a range of opinions. Their points of view range from mild (some of the science supporting climate change has been misused or inaccurately portrayed in the media) to a more alarmist position ("climategate" demonstrates a widespread corruption of science), to outright paranoia (global warming is all a lie promulgated to make billions of dollars available to government agencies and their grant-seeking lapdogs). But in any case, the post of the day carried a headline "
97 articles refuting the '97% consensus' on Global Warming." I think there actually is a consensus among scientists that people have caused some climate change and that it's a potentially very serious problem. And when I looked at the articles listed, they did not seem to be refuting the science. Only three were journal articles, the majority were blog posts (many from WUWT itself) and news articles. So I commented on the thread.

Within minutes I was denounced as a troll. Other commenters (the site's regulars, it turns out) told me I must be new to the issue, and that I was deflecting the conversation from its real thrust (that the 2013 "97%" article by Cook was flawed) to a wider, irrelevant issue of whether there is or isn't a consensus -- in spite of the fact that the headline, many of the cited articles, and the other comments all strongly implied that the flaws with that particular article were being taken as proof there was no consensus. I defended my points, and the tone of the conversation went downhill quickly. I was called a religious fanatic, my comments were called pollution, I was naïve or a liar, and a couple of people who couldn't come up with any type of rational argument resorted to making fun of my name. Really! Not since middle school has anyone gone there.

A couple of people came to my defense, and a couple of people on the other side of the issue said they regretted the way the thread had devolved into name-calling. The site is apparently very loosely moderated -- only one comment was blocked, and it was directed at me, so given what was allowed to pass I'm glad I didn't get to see what was deemed too extreme! One person basically said (by way of excuse) if you think it's bad here, go look at a pro-climate change site.

I thought that was a lame excuse, but possibly a valid point. So I went and looked at the comment thread of a post I had clipped to OneNote from a pro-climate change site called RealClimate. The post was a
debunking of a graphic used by the WUWT website, so I thought it might be a good one to check. What I found was a pretty civil scientific discussion. So, score one for the scientists.

The difference between the threads may have been related to the qualifications of the commenters. People with legitimate points to make are often less likely to resort to verbal violence. On the other hand, the RealClimate discussion seemed much more actively moderated. That may be a major factor. Also, everybody on the RealClimate thread seemed to be using their real names, which I think goes a long way toward discouraging bad behavior.

I'm not sure I've concluded once and for all that climate change skeptics (they don't like being called deniers, although they have no problem calling their opponents alarmists and "warmunists") can't be reasoned with. They weren't
all jerks. I think it's completely fair to say that WUWT's discussion threads are dominated by nut jobs, and that the site's design and moderation policies encourage this -- possibly as a means of achieving that high rate of site traffic. It's probably a good idea to try to draw "undecideds" into a new forum, however, than to bother talking to "skeptics" on their own turf.

What's the Point of Climate Change Denial?

The AGW (anthropogenic global warming) opponents at WUWT posted a review of an article on RealClimate this morning. The gist of the post is that the author (who by the tone of comments is well-known and well-hated) was admitting that "modeled absolute global surface temperatures" are bogus. A closer reading of the article, I think, suggests that the modelers are aware of the shortcomings of models but still believe them to be relevant and useful in some situations. And that they're trying to refine the models and trying not to use them inappropriately.

I commented on a quoted passage where the RealClimate author says “no particular absolute global temperature provides a risk to society, it is the change in temperature compared to what we’ve been used to that matters.” This seems like common sense, if a global surface temperature number is an average. It is easy to imagine that plus 5C, for example, might not be as devastating to human society in the Sahara as it would be on the Himalayan glaciers.

 
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Responding to my comment, a "Jeff Alberts" said "Anyone who expects 'the temperature we’ve been used to' to never change, has no common sense. The question is, are changes we’re seeing due primarily, or even measurably, to human industrial activity. We simply don’t know. CO2 went up, but temps went up and down, and even remained static in many places. Therefore we have no evidence of any even minor impact due to CO2. We have no evidence as to whether today’s temps are unprecedented in any way, none."
But I wonder if that
really is the question? If mountain glacier systems at the headwaters of many of the world's most important watersheds are melting at an alarming rate, does it matter whether the cause is AGW or some natural process? Won't the billions of people depending on that water be equally effected either way? And if the natural processes of climate are as variable as AGW skeptics claim (to be the cause of all the observed changes), is there any reason to believe they'll bounce back right away and remain in a range that's comfortable for us?

If you were a nation depending on glacier-fed rivers, wouldn't it be incredibly irresponsible not to consider the possible continuing reduction of glaciers and the concurrent possible challenge to your national water supply? Would you care whether the cause was AGW or nature? Yes, you would, because if it's AGW, there may be ways to mitigate or reverse the effects - not to mention the potential liability involved. But would you wait until the jury was "in" and nobody was arguing on the cause before starting to think about what to do? I hope not!

Does all this suggest that that one of the goals of AGW skeptics is muddying the water in order to prevent action? I don't know. My free-market friend Bob recently said the skeptics are frustrated because so much money as been poured into this -- in his opinion, down a drain. He mentioned "
$165 billion so far (CBO report)." The number I was able to find for 2014 was $21.4 billion, which is definitely a lot of money. But in perspective, the total federal budget is about $3.9 trillion, so we're talking about a half a percent. And that spending is spread across dozens of government agencies including Defense (the DOD believes climate change is a strategic concern). The DOD budget is about $457 million, out of a total package of over $600 billion. So I don't think studying the climate is bankrupting America.

Is Climate Skepticism Religious?

There's an interesting story on Scientific American. Posted Dec. 22nd, the article is titled "What Have Climate Scientists Learned from the 20-Year Fight with Deniers?" The article tells the story of Benjamin Santer, who was responsible for the original IPCC statement in 1995 that "The balance of evidence suggests a discernable human influence on climate change." Santer has been vilified and hounded by climate change opponents since then, according to the article. Although he's apparently a very private person, Santer decided "Climate scientists don't have the luxury of remaining silent."

The article goes on to discuss the ways climate change has been turned into a political debate. One interesting element is the idea that it's everybody's fault: that "all 7 billion of us" are equally, "collectively responsible for industrial greenhouse gas emissions." The implication, of course, is that we can only change the situation by radically changing our lives -- every single one of us. That's hard.

 
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In reality, a study by the
Union of Concerned Scientists has found that nearly half (48%) of the atmospheric CO2 contribution since 1854 has been made by twenty organizations. The largest contributors have been the former Soviet Union and China (each considered as a whole), followed by Chevron, Exxon/Mobil, Saudi Aramco, BP, and Shell. Another seventy organizations account for 15%, so in all we can trace nearly two thirds (63%) of all the carbon pumped into the atmosphere to 90 organizations.

That's not to say that we aren't all partly responsible. Nearly everybody in the developed world is a customer of one or more of these organizations. We heat our homes and drive our cars with their oil and gas. But it does at least suggest that as a society we may have some leverage on the issue. That we may be able to develop technology that would allow these 90 organizations (or their successors) to provide us with needed energy more cleanly than they have since 1854. There may be efficiency trade-offs involved in this -- which may be why for-profit corporations haven't yet done all they can. At the very least, it's a different problem (calling for a different solution) than the "we're all equally to blame" scenario.

The article continues by observing that climate scientists have learned a lot about their opponents by studying the creationist response to evolution in American politics, and also by understanding the tobacco industry disinformation campaigns of the 1990s, when "tobacco companies ran media campaigns that equated smoking with freedom of choice" and regularly obscured scientific findings showing that smoking and second-hand smoke cause cancer and other serious diseases. It's been well-documented that cigarette manufacturers actually lied about the results of their own research on the issue -- although ironically just this week climate skeptics commenting on Google executive Eric Schmidt's recent remarks about climate got into a side-argument in which they
reiterated the claim that second-hand smoke wasn't really dangerous.

Which brings us to the main issue: core beliefs. If climate skeptics are also arguing for the safety of second-hand smoke and
claiming that HIV/AIDS is not a real disease, what should climate scientists do to get their message through? Is there any hope of a sincere dialog? The article concludes that "people's belief in climate change often correlates with their ideology and their religious and cultural beliefs." The author tries to tie up the article and bridge this gap by suggesting that religion and science are compatible. He concludes (no kidding, in Scientific American) by quoting a Brown biology professor's assertion that "God is not the antithesis of scientific reason but the reason why it works in the first place."

I have trouble not believing the argument about scientific evidence of climate change is already lost if you start with start it with, "I'll give you your religious preconceptions, but…" Because if you really believe, then climate change isn't a problem because:

  1. God made the earth and can fix it if he chooses to,
  2. This isn't really our home. We (those who count, at least) are going somewhere more important.
  3. The Bible says we have dominion and can do what we want with nature.
Of course there are other traditions within the same religions that say we are stewards of nature and have some type of responsibility. Sometimes religions even acknowledge the social responsibility issue and the idea that environmental impacts (climate or otherwise) don't effect everyone equally. Last spring, the new Pope Francis made a Biblical case for addressing climate change, saying "If we destroy creation, creation will destroy us." The problem with religion is, which tradition are you going to subscribe to?

Even with the Pope's statement, though, I'm still concerned by that first step of caving on religion. Seems like it's at least necessary to draw a line and say
this discussion is in the realm of science. Invoke a separation of church and state for what basically amounts to a discussion of public affairs. We could argue that in order for people of all faiths (and none) to have a discussion about this, we have to keep arguments from faith out of it. But if your basic world view is informed by faith and you're told it has no place in the discussion, don't you then just spend your time not believing in the discussion? Maybe even trying to derail it? And using skeptical arguments if the faith argument has been ruled out of bounds?

Teaching Climate Change

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As I've been preparing to teach US Environmental History again, I've been rethinking how I organize each of the lectures. Students are introduced to climate change from the very first lecture which talks about the last ice age, sea level change, and the Beringian route taken by the people who populated the Americas before the Europeans arrived. In the following lecture, I talk about the Little Ice Age, Viking settlements in Greenland and Newfoundland, and the fisheries of the Grand Bank and Georges Bank. Later in the semester, I talk about the Dust Bowl and the irrigation boom that followed it. And finally, as we near the present I talk about global warming and our response to it.

Last semester I laid out the case for global warming in a pretty straightforward manner, in a lecture that also dealt with other environmental impacts and resource scarcities that might present a challenge to further growth (or even to the status quo). I gave only a few paragraphs to the controversy surrounding climate change, noting that the debate was drawn on predictable political lines. I mentioned that 97% of scientists agree that global warming over the past century is due to human actions, and that NASA, the IPCC, the American Geophysical Union, the American Medical Association, the American Physical Society, and the American Meteorological Society all agree that (in the words of the Physical Society) "We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now." And I mentioned that although 97% of scientists agree, a recent poll found only 45% of Americans are aware of this fact, and that many believe there is still a much greater degree of doubt and disagreement than there actually is.

In the past couple of weeks I've spent some time on some of the prominent global warming denial websites. These folks generally believe that the science supporting global warming is fraudulent, created by researchers seeking big grants from governments interested in increasing regulation. They prefer to be called "skeptics" rather than deniers, but
actual skeptics object to sharing the name -- claiming that skepticism is something different from simply looking for data that supports a political agenda. And there is a political agenda. A study published in 2013 found that most of the public statements made against climate change from 2003 to 2010 could be traced to 91 organizations that received their funding from sources such as Exxon/Mobil and Koch Industries, and then later in the period (once the Citizens United decision made super-PACs possible) from ultra-free-market sources like the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Searle Freedom Trust, and the John Templeton Foundation. Science historian Naomi Orestes's 2010 book Merchants of Doubt examines the similarities between the tactics used by climate deniers and those used by scientists who, working for the tobacco industry, for decades claimed smoking was not dangerous.

Some of these climate change denial websites are extremely popular, and they seem to be convincing some people I know who seem sincerely concerned about public issues. These folks also tend to be believers in free markets, and part of their objection to global warming is their belief that government-led actions to mitigate climate change will hurt the economy. I think these friends are wrong, but I'd like to expand this discussion because I think we need to find a way to bridge the gaps between populists on the left and right. So I was curious what these influential "skeptic" websites were up to.

The big issues that the global warming critics seem to come back to regularly seem to be grouped around first, challenging the scientific consensus on global warming and its causes; second, challenging the data on global warming and offering conflicting data; and third, challenging the integrity and motives of their opponents. In the first case, the two main approaches I noticed were attacking the actual article that first announced a 97% consensus, and presenting a petition supposedly signed by 37,000 scientists challenging global warming. The first approach, I think, deliberately misses the point that regardless of your quibbles about the ways that particular article analyzed the data or presented its conclusions, the fact is that an overwhelming majority of scientists
do agree on the general issue of human-caused global warming. And the second approach, the petition, doesn't really contradict this reality. Even if all 37,000 signatures are authentic (there's evidence that many of the are not) and a group of scientists led by nuclear physicist Edward Teller dispute climate change, they are still a minority. Yes, a minority of one may be right, and there may be a Galileo moment here. But Galileo had his moment because he was right, not because he was in the minority. The debate, I think, has got to be about the science and not the scientists.

Most regular people, of course, don't have the inclination, training, or resources (ability to get behind academic paywalls, access to journals, etc.) to review all the science. The ways academics communicate with regular people is one of my main interests, which is one reason I was drawn to this debate. Unfortunately, the gap between the scientists and the people works to the benefit of those who would prefer to leave behind the complexity and tentativeness of real scientific knowledge, and spread simple, certain propaganda.

The second and third challenges made by the critics take advantage of this gap. If climate is a complex system conforming to the principles of what we often call "chaos theory," then the effects of change will be non-linear, dynamic, and emergent. That means that the data will be "bumpy." There won't be simple correlations -- the temperature won't rise everywhere equally. And causes of similar-seeming events in the past cannot be taken for granted as causes of present effects. For example, one of the free-market folks I'm acquainted with argues that because the Holocene Optimum, the Little Ice Age, and other historical periods show variation greater than the current observations, that we've nothing to worry about. I think his argument is that until the variation is greater than other natural variations we know about, we shouldn't suggest something new is happening. I don't think this is how it works in non-linear systems.

The other argument that I think appeals to free-market proponents is that global warming is some type of government plot to increase the size of the public sector and stifle the economy. People are suspicious of big science and critics claim that global warming has been fatally compromised by events such as "
Climate-gate," although third-party reviewers have suggested the facts aren't quite as the critics say. But there's a clear element of conspiracy theory in the bundle of topics that surface on the big denial sites. I was banned for life from one last week after I pointed out that side-discussions had risen in post comments challenging both the danger of second-hand smoke and the existence of HIV/AIDS.

The sheer nastiness of many of the people you come across on the denial websites is probably not an indication one way or the other of the strength of their arguments.
But I think it is an indication of who these sites are marketing their arguments to. There's a difference between trying to bring important but complex social issues into a public forum were we can all talk about them, and pandering. After a couple of weeks digging into the anti-global warming websites, I think the big ones have crossed this line. But that doesn't mean there's no point engaging with people who disagree. It just makes it more difficult -- which I suppose is the whole point.

Climate Weaponization

Mike Davis,
Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World

Tom Engelhardt wrote a piece for Tom Dispatch that was picked up by Bill Moyers’s page. It’s called “The 95 Percent Doctrine: Climate Change as a Weapon of Mass Destruction.” His point has to do with the way our society responds to risk. But the moment I saw the headline, my mind went elsewhere. Specifically, it went to the fact that climate has been used as a weapon in the past, and could be used that way again. The story of climate weaponization in the 19th century was told by Mike Davis. Late Victorian Holocausts is a scary book. The genocidal imperialists in this story are the British (and briefly, the Americans in the Philippines), but dial the clock ahead a hundred years and it’s all us. Dial it ahead another century and it's a blueprint for dystopian sci-fi of the Paolo Bacigalupi variety.

Davis begins his story with a description of ex-president Ulysses Grant’s “family vacation” around the world. As the hero of the Civil War sailed from feast to banquet, a copy of
The Innocents Abroad in his lap (I wonder if this is documented, or if it was just an anecdote that was too ironic to pass up?), the world was in the grip of a climatic event of global proportions. The climate-induced late-1870s famine was the first of a series of three that together killed more than 50 million people. If the famine is mentioned at all by historians, it is usually considered an unavoidable natural catastrophe, like a hurricane. But as we've seen in the last decade, it's not always the hurricane. Sometimes it's what you do in its wake. Davis argues that many of the 50 million deaths were not due to natural disaster, but to political choices made before, during, and after the droughts and crop failures occurred.

One of the main misapprehensions Davis tries to correct in
Late Victorian Holocausts is that “We are not dealing…with ‘lands of famine’ becalmed in the stagnant backwaters of world history, but with the fate of tropical humanity at the precise moment (1870-1914) when its labor and products were being…forcibly incorporated into [the British Empire’s] economic and political structures” (9). This is an important point, because even today well-meaning writers publish sympathetic articles that perpetuate myths like the idea that “Of course, famine and pestilence are part of India’s ancient story.” Actually, says Davis, “India and China…did not enter modern history as the helpless ‘lands of famine’ so universally enshrined in the Western imagination” (287). An 1878 study in the Journal of the Statistical Society “contrasted thirty-one serious famines in 120 years of British rule against only seventeen recorded famines in the entire previous two millennia.” Similarly, China had a ridiculously long history of successful state and local famine relief. And the two nations were economically competitive with the “developed” West. “The looms of India and China,” Davis says, “were defeated not so much by market competition as they were forcibly dismantled by war, invasion, opium, and a Lancashire-imposed system of one-way tariffs.” Although it has been forgotten by history, “The use of force to configure a ‘liberal’ world economy…is what Pax Britannica was really about.” (295) And by extension, contemporary Neo-liberal globalism?

The mythology we've internalized about the underdeveloped East really does seem to be the fault of history. That is, of historians. Most of the facts Davis presents to correct our view were well-known at the time, especially among radical journalists and socialist organizers who opposed the British government’s imperial policies. But like the existence of "Little Englanders" and other opponents of Empire, the facts have since been forgotten. Davis refers several times to British socialist Henry Hyndman’s speeches and articles, and to radical journalist William Digby’s chronicle of the 1876 Madras famine. He reminds us that “If Kipling’s verse exalted colonizing optimism and scientific racism, Conrad’s troubling stories warned that Europe itself was being barbarized by its complicity in secret tropical holocausts” (140). Even “
Cosmopolitan pointedly published photographs of famine victims from the Central Provinces next to an illustration of a great monument erected to Queen Victoria” (157). It was clear that at least some contemporaries saw “mass starvation as avoidable political tragedy, not ‘natural’ disaster.” The elimination of these perspectives from mainstream history supports Davis’ claim that “the great famines are the missing pages — the absent defining moments, if you prefer — in virtually every overview of the Victorian era” (8).

Throughout his story of these horrific famines (in which parents became so desperate and demented from starvation that they regularly sold and sometimes even ate their children), Davis calls attention to the fact that food surpluses existed close at hand and that previous systems of social organization had been much more effective at mobilizing these surpluses to avert starvation. The difference under British rule was the “theology” of capitalism, which idealized free markets even while it encouraged speculation and hoarding. “
Millions die,” Davis concludes, “was ultimately a policy choice” (11). The other issue, of course, was that colonialism (whether practiced by capitalists or socialists) is all about funneling value to the center at the expense of the periphery. So it’s no surprise social organization breaks down outside the center. It’s actually a goal of the system.

“Although crop failures and water shortages were of epic proportion…there were almost always grain surpluses elsewhere in the nation or empire that could have potentially rescued drought victims.” Sound familiar? But the problem wasn’t just bureaucracy, ignorance or lack of concern for the colonized people, Davis suggests. “Each global drought,” he says, “was the green light for an imperialist landrush” (12). Although
Late Victorian Holocausts includes a detailed scientific account of our emerging understanding of ENSO (El Niño) cycles, the real power of the book is in Davis’ identification of the link between “social vulnerability” and “climate variability” (288). “There is compelling evidence,” Davis quotes Prasannan Parthasarathi, that prior to British rule “South Indian labourers had higher earnings than their British counterparts in the eighteenth century and lived lives of greater financial security…enjoyed better diets…possessed superior rights of contract and exercised more economic power” (292). The changes that eliminated these eastern advantages need to be examined more closely. And even in the Victorian era, it wasn't just the British—Americans benefited hugely. “Opium shipments from India [to China] reached a peak of 87,000 chests in 1879, the biggest drug transaction in world history” (300). The deliberate addiction of millions of Chinese by the British not only impoverished the Chinese economy, but “enabled Britain to sustain her deficits with the United States and Europe on which those countries depended for export stimulus and, in the case of the United States, capital inflow” (Quoting A.J.H. Latham 1978, 359).

2049 London: SO Cool

SO I've just finished reading the 4 books of Peter Watts's Rifters Trilogy. It's a good read, and there's a lot of interesting science behind the world-building. Thankfully, Watts cites a lot of his sources at the end of the fiction, so the reader can understand what he's basing his extrapolations and conjectures on. I've also just started reading Salman Rushdie's new novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, after reading an interview of Rushdie in which he basically says his approach is to try to merge realistic and unexpected elements. To take more or less regular people and see how they respond to abnormal (but not entirely fantastical) circumstances. This approach goes back all the way to Midnight's Children, in which a cadre of children born on August 15, 1947 at the stroke of midnight: the moment when India gained its independence from the British Empire. These kids develop a range of powers (think Heroes), but they remain rooted in a realistic world much like our own.

I think of this type of writing as science fiction. Not fantasy, where all cause-effect bets are off, and not HARD sci-fi, where everything must be explained in terms of natural laws we can at least wave a hand at right now, even if we don't completely understand them. Rushdie allows himself to invoke the supernatural, but as Arthur Clarke observed, that could just be nature we don't yet understand. So he's at least as much a sci-fi writer, in my mind, as anyone who includes the Singularity or faster-than-light travel in their stories.

But back to Watts. He waved a hand at European cooling (and lots of giant squids) in
Behemoth: Seppuku, and then gave two references to articles in Science Magazine from 2002 and 2004. I jumped onto JSTOR and checked these out (LOVE that academic access!). They talk about increasing river discharge in the Arctic messing up the thermohaline circulation that brings warmth to northern latitudes. The basic idea is, the Gulf Stream stops (or is blocked at the other end) and Europe cools down. In Watts's story, Western Europe becomes Siberia.

Of course, the articles that Watts cites are a decade old (
Seppuku came out in 2005), so I wondered what scientists are saying now. Many, as it turns out, suggest that we don't yet understand enough about the potential tipping points of the thermohaline system, and that the possibility of its collapse was rather sensationalized in the British press (at least relative to other possible problems like the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet). Sensational or not, though, I found this article from the Royal Society. It's about the same age as Watts's citations, but it has cool maps including this one:

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The place to be in 2049, it seems, is Southern England and Southern Scandinavia. Maybe also the west coast of Greenland. They could use a little warming there. The Amazon basin also seems to get way hotter than average, which could cause problems. But this is just a map of temperature -- the next step would be to consider how this might affect rainfall. Probably changes it, which even if it's not a net negative, changes the game for people who live in particular places and expect water (think eco-refugees). On the bright side, maybe coolness in the center of Greenland will prevent the ice from melting completely there.

In any case, it's a lot to think about, especially if you're interested in reading or writing stories that happen in the future. Or just wondering what type of world we might be leaving to our kids. There have been a spate of sci-fi stories recently that -- even if they're not directly about climate change -- are set in story-worlds influenced by climate change. In a sense, a hypothetical environmental history of the future. Might be interesting to track the changing zeitgeist among sci-fi authors and readers, and see how their futures develop.

The Worst that Could Happen

Future Scenarios: How Communities Can Adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change David Holmgren, 2009

David Holmgren isn’t a historian, he’s one of the two founders of the ecological farming movement known as Permaculture. Bill Mollison is the other, much more visible name behind permaculture. Holmgren has often been described as the quiet guy in the background, but he doesn't lack ideas. Future Scenarios also has a
home on the web, where Holmgren has added a new chapter to the book, written in 2012, called “Crash on Demand” that can be downloaded free. Although, like the possible futures outlined in The Collapse of Western Civilization, Holmgren’s sketches are settings waiting for plots and characters, they’re much more engaging than Oreskes's scenario, and they explore more alternatives than the single future presented in Collapse.

Holmgren explores four possible futures, based on the varying severity of two factors: Climate Change and Peak Oil. Holmgren doesn’t waste any time trying to prove either of these factors; if you don't believe in peak oil, there's still a pair of scenarios that will interest you. After a brief introduction to the two ideas, he gets right to business. Although he isn’t a historian, Holmgren borrows Daniel Yergin’s perspective when he says, “the history of the twentieth century makes more sense when interpreted primarily as the struggle for control of oil rather than the clash of ideologies” (7).

The four possibly futures Holmgren explores are “Techno-explosion,” which assumes new energy sources or new technologies will allow us to avoid or fix our problems, “Techno-stability,” where technology like photovoltaics will enable a smooth transition to a “steady state” without much social change, “Energy Descent,” a return to more rural, more pre-industrial energy use and population density as fossil fuels run out, and “Collapse,” rapid, catastrophic failure of many interlocked systems, causing human die-off and loss of infrastructure and knowledge. Basically, a new dark age.

Although this is a small book with a lot of graphic elements, Holmgren makes some interesting technical points. For example:

The promotion by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of research showing an anergy return on energy invested (EROEI) of 1.6 for ethanol as a ‘good result’ indicates how the understanding of these issues is very poor, even by the scientifically literate. A society based on an energy source of this quality would constantly be investing 62 percent of its energy back into the energy industry (the 1 in 1.6), leaving only the remaining 38 percent of the total energy in society for everything else—health, education, culture, food production, law, leisure, and so on. Our modern industrial society has been fueled by energy sources with EROEI rates as high as 100 and no lower than 6 (requiring between 1 percent and 17 percent of the wealth created being invested to get the yield) (44).

Of course, the "investing 62 percent" part is why the USDA is so interested in ethanol in the first place. It gives big corn farmers a reason to keep producing at bonanza levels. It's not really about producing efficient energy, at least not in the US. Holgren gives a succinct explanation of why the USDA's promotion of ethanol is really about enriching big corn farmers and the corporations that run refineries and not about producing a sustainable biofuel. And in contrast to the bland, “welfare loss will occur” language of other futurist books such as
Limits to Growth, Holmgren isn’t afraid to say “The low EROEI of biofuels, especially corn-based ethanol, suggests biofuels may be a way to deplete natural gas [one of the main ingredients used in manufacturing nitrate fertilizers] while degrading agricultural land and starving the world’s poor” (58).

Holmgren associates four social responses with the four possible futures he describes. The details of these scenarios are a bit arbitrary and there’s room for endless tweaking or argument over the details. But unlike
Limits to Growth, Holmgren’s scenarios are fascinating, if only because they’re so alarming. For example, “Brown Tech” (severe climate change, slow energy depletion) leads to fascism, food riots, and forced sterilization (61-5). “Earth Steward” (mild climate change, fast energy depletion) leads to the emptying of cities and starvation for former urban hipsters lacking useful skills (75-8). On the scarier side, “Lifeboats” (severe climate change and fast energy depletion) leads to chaos and “a halving of the global population in a few decades” (82).

These are all dystopias. People have become accustomed to seeing these worlds in science fiction movies and dismissing them. We have a lot of trouble admitting even the remote possibility that this may be the world we’re leaving to our kids. Holmgren’s scenarios may be extreme, but he presents plausible evidence that they’re within the range of possibility. Future Scenarios is an answer to the flippant question, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

Looking Backward Again

The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future
Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, 2014

Since I wrote fiction before I became an academic historian (and still do, from time to time), it always interests me when academics cross the big canyon separating these two genres and try their hands at fictions that illustrate important contemporary themes. Once upon a time, this happened a lot more than it does now. Edward Bellamy’s 1889 novel,
Looking Backward, was the second most popular American book in the nineteenth century (after Uncle Tom’s Cabin). George Orwell and H. G. Wells also came to mind while I was reading this, but they lived in a time when the separation of disciplinary silos maybe wasn’t as severe as it is now.

Unlike a classic science fiction tale such as
1984 or The Time Machine, The Collapse of Western Civilization doesn’t have any characters (except the narrator who occasionally exhibits a bit of personality), and it doesn’t have a plot. It’s all setting. This is a very little book, whose point is simply to suggest that there is a crisis at hand. The future world the narrator speaks from could easily be the scene of any number of stories. But sometimes setting gets lost behind story. Like Environmental History, this book puts setting front-and-center.

The Collapse of Western Civilization
is basically a fictional retrospective on what went wrong in our present, and what happened as a result. The physical consequences are all the ones predicted by the scientific consensus on climate change. Their timing and future societies’ reactions are fictional, but very plausible. In a nutshell, the authors blame runaway climate change on the inadequacies of Western scientific culture and the power of neoliberal politics. They are both historians of science, so their choice of emphasis is not surprising. And they make some important points.

Scientific institutions, the authors say, are rigidly locked in a disciplinary silo system “in which specialists developed a high level of expertise in a small area of inquiry” (14). Scientists also impose on themselves an “excessively stringent standard” of proof, they say, perhaps to distinguish their search for truth from common experience or authority-based religious belief. The authors compare the “disciplinary severity” of science to earlier, monastic asceticism (16). I think there’s a lot left unsaid here, about the ways scientific institutions have embraced religious organizational paradigms even while they argue for a standard of truth that is fundamentally different from the authority of sacred texts. But in any case, scientists in this scenario were undercut by their own refusal to abandon 95% statistical significance, by their ignorance of what was happening in adjacent disciplines, and by a huge PR campaign promoting climate change denial.

The most interesting criticism of science, to me, comes in an off-hand remark of the narrator’s, when she criticizes the “archaic Western convention of studying the physical world in isolation from social systems” (2). This is the same, in my mind, as the convention that allows economists (neoliberal or otherwise) to ignore “externalities” until (and sometimes even after) they become “market failures.” As the authors suggest, ignoring externalities was much easier when the environmental “sink” seemed infinite. But even in light of our current knowledge, the argument seems only to have shifted from “not a problem” to “not
our problem.”

And maybe that leads to the element of
The Collapse of Western Civilization’s approach that didn’t work so well for me. There are no people in it. Even though the authors blame the “carbon-combustion complex” for financing a campaign of denialism at the beginning of the 21st century (and it’s very important to note that climate denialism was manufactured — up until that time, Americans pretty much believed what the scientists were saying), the only time it gets remotely personal is when they mention that Exxon-Mobil did a deal with the Russian government to exploit the Arctic in 2012. This would have been a great opportunity to say a little more about extra-national corporations and power. Or even, perhaps, to examine why scientists were so respected while their efforts were enabling the military-industrial complex’s profits during the Cold War, but were jettisoned when their science turned against its patrons. Maybe science has never really, independently held the esteemed position the authors claim it lost in American culture. But in any case, the authors shy away from talking about the climate disaster as an abuse of power by people. So it becomes the story of two impersonal historical forces that ruined the world. Not about people who had choices to make, and made the wrong ones.

But then again, I’m the guy who wrote a revenge-tale based on the 2000 water wars in Cochabamba (unpublished). The story needs to be personal, for me. And these people are historians, not science fiction authors. And they’ve tried to do something important here. If
The Collapse of Western Civilization gets read and discussed, then it’s a huge success. Maybe it will help more academics cross that canyon, and start writing books (fiction or non) that can be read by the general public. And maybe it will inspire people to think more about the actual people making — or evading — the important decisions that will lead us into this disaster or help us bypass some of it.

The Dangerous Naivete of Risk Consultants

I'm always looking for places online to read and possibly write about Environmental History and current issues. Recently I discovered Medium, and today I searched on "environment" to see what would turn up. One of the articles returned was called "The Dangerous Naivete of Back-to-the-Garden Environmentalism," by Harvard instructor and Risk Perception Consultant David Ropeik. I don't know how many other people have read this article (I was first to comment; it also appeared on BigThink, Google+, and elsewhere), but I thought it represented a particular attitude I wanted to respond to.
 
The article begins with the author standing at the foot of a glacier in Iceland, which Ropeik says will someday disappear, but mostly due to forces much larger than anthropogenic climate change. Ropeik continues with a mild criticism of the idea contained in the three Abrahamic religions that humans have dominion over nature. The author rejects this idea, but excuses it. He doesn't say it's ancient superstition, but that it reflects what Einstein called the "optical delusion" of self and other.
 
But he's much harsher when it comes to modern environmentalists. Bill McKibben's breakthrough book's title,
The End of Nature, he says, is arrogantly anthropocentric and scientifically naïve. McKibben is a "modern environmental prophet of hypocrisy," although it's initially unclear to me, aside from the journalistic hyperbole of his title, how McKibben has offended. Biologist Edward Wilson is described as "another high priest of modern environmentalism." Is this continued use of religious language a clue to the real argument of this article?
 
At the end of part one, Ropeik argues that the "anthropogenic arrogance" that humans are not part of nature is a "central conceit of classical environmentalism." He uses Joni Mitchel's lyric from "Woodstock" to illustrate the naïveté of the idea that we can return to the Garden. And I agree with that sentiment. But he extends this to suggest there's something ridiculous about McKibben's claim that "we possess the possibility of self-restraint." We can't restrain ourselves, he says. Our "believing that we are
so intelligent that we can consciously conquer our ancient animal instincts" is pious, ignorant, and dangerous.
 
In part two, which begins in the White Mountains of New Hampshire,
Ropeik introduces James Lovelock's Gaia, which he says is an interesting example of "eco rather than anthropo-centrism." The Greek gods punished Prometheus and unleashed Pandora's box of horrors on humans, the same way the Judeo-Christian deity punished humans for gaining knowledge. Knowledge and fire (reason and technology) gave us great gifts, he says, but threaten Nature "in it's current state" (his italics). The point, apparently, is that our view is myopic, short-term, and human-centered. Nature will continue, even if we cause a few extinctions.
 
This brings Ropeik back to the refrain, the "selective hubris classical environmentalists have" that we can "solve these problems." This is my big beef with the argument. Not the straw-man "classical environmentalists," but the idea that anyone is saying we know how to fix all these problems. A lot of people are saying,
let's just try to stop causing the problems! I can't help thinking that the whole point of this article is going to be, let's keep drilling, because in the long run some new Nature will work itself out, regardless of what we do.
 
I admit, I have some sympathy for the irony of Ambrose Bierce's definition of the brain as "
the organ with which we think we think." But I'm also struck by the irony of a guy who teaches at Harvard saying this. Who is this "we" he refers to, anyway? Part two ends with a reiteration of the danger posed by believing we can think ourselves back to the Garden, when  religion has been telling us all along that reason is the enemy.
 
Part three begins in the Himalayas near Tibet. The author has apparently gone there to see an eclipse, which again impresses him with the immensity of nature and the puniness of human intention. He then goes on to draw a series of false dichotomies intended to illustrate the silliness of "classic environmentalism." We're asked to choose between monoculture agribusiness and organic local farming. Between nuclear power and wind; between biotechnology and the paleo diet.
 
The byproducts of "our" technologies, he says, are "our" monsters, and as Bruno Latour says, we must love them. At no point, though, does Ropeik recognize that those benefiting and profiting from these technologies and those facing the monsters aren't the same people. In a striking moment, he criticizes Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva, who he says also wants to go back to a biblical Garden. While I sympathize with Ropeik's frustration over the it-all-began-with-Francis-Bacon argument, I think he trivializes Vandana's actual position every bit as much.
 
The article concludes by admitting that humanity and the biosphere "are headed for an inevitable nasty crash that will certainly largely be our fault." And that this crash is
unavoidable, not because we've already passed some ecological tipping point, but because we just can't stop ourselves. Again the we. Is this the we that loses children when American chemical factories explode in India, or the we that can jet off to the Himalayas to watch an eclipse?
 
In an epilog, Ropeik describes meeting a cuttlefish on a dive in the South Pacific. He remarks that the area where he's diving had been barren ten years earlier, bleached by El Nino warming. The reef recovered, which apparently goes to show that we really aren't doing that much damage after all. Sort of like how a cold day in Harvard Square challenges global climate change.

Elon Musk: Can Government Challenge Money?

While COP21 was underway in Paris, Tesla CEO Elon Musk visited the Sorbonne and talked to a group of graduate students about taxing carbon. His message was pretty simple, and cut through a lot of the rhetoric and confusion that often surrounds the issue. Basically, Musk said that people do what they're paid to do.

The problem is, right now people are being paid to release carbon into the atmosphere. According to the International Monetary Fund, governments throughout the world subsidize carbon-producing activity to the tune of $5.3 trillion annually. These subsidies come mostly in the form of not having to pay for the damage carbon-producing does to the environment. In economic terms, the environmental damage is an unpriced externality. Musk's point is that by allowing these damages to be ignored, society is lowering the cost of doing business for carbon-producing companies. This gives them an economic advantage -- especially over companies producing less carbon.

musk
Musk's solution to the problem is to tax carbon emission. This would eliminate the subsidy and put high carbon-producing companies on a level economic playing field with low carbon-producing companies. The increased costs experienced by high-carbon producers would be reflected in higher prices, and the market would move toward low-carbon solutions. The high-carbon companies would have an economic incentive to invest in lower-carbon technologies, and consumers would have a compelling reason (lower prices) to buy low-carbon products.

The big question, it seemed to me while listening to the talk and the QA session that followed it, is whether governments still have the power to do it?

Musk was optimistic that "governments respond to popular pressure" and that the young people he was addressing had the power to lead a movement for change. But after a grad student asked him if the answer was for sustainability activists to send more lobbyists to Washington, he said this:

Tesla and Solar City, my companies are very tiny. We're tiny, tiny companies. In order for there to be a big move toward sustainability, the giant companies have to know that that is what the governments are demanding for the future; what the people are demanding for the future...Let me tell you, we definitely can't beat the oil and gas industry on lobbyists. Okay? That would be a losing battle...Exxon makes more profit in a year than the value of the entire solar industry in the Unites States. So if you take every solar company in the United States, it's less than Exxon's profit for one year. There's no way you can win on money. It's impossible (at about 45:00).

I thought that was an honest way to frame the issue. Can government win against money anymore?

Responsibility of Experts to Set the Record Straight

For the second time this week, a scientific article has been picked up by the mainstream press challenging the assumption that Norse settlements in Greenland were caused by the Medieval Warming Period and ended by the Little Ice Age. The first, "Cultural adaptation, compounding vulnerabilities and conjunctures in Norse Greenland," was published March 6, 2012 in PNAS. In spite of never arguing that climate change was the single driver of Viking settlement or evacuation of Greenland, the article led to the headlines:

Vikings were not spurred to Greenland by warm weather, research shows (Guardian),
Vikings’ mysterious abandonment of Greenland was not due to climate change, study suggests (Washington Post), and
Climate change didn't force Vikings to abandon Greenland, scientists say (Fox News)

Actually, the 2012 article concluded environmental changes probably
did affect Norse settlers' experience in Greenland, and thus almost certainly influenced their decision-making process. The article's conclusion put it this way:

Collectively, these environmental changes would have degraded subsistence flexibility, decreased environmental predictability, and driven threshold crossing in the marine ecosystems related to the Eastern Settlement. The small Western Settlement (with a maximum likely population of 600–800) failed sometime in the late 14th century. Although the end of the Western Settlement is not completely understood, a likely proximate cause was isolation combined with late winter subsistence failure, plausibly connected to climate change.

The main point of this 2012 article, actually, was that the Vikings were smart and resilient and that there's never a
single cause of major historical change. That seems pretty uncontroversial.

vikings

The second article, titled "
Glacial maxima in Baffin Bay during the Medieval Warm Period coeval with Norse settlement," was published Dec. 4, 2015 in Science Advances. In the abstract, the authors of this recent article say their dating of moraines on Baffin Island and western Greenland "point to nonclimatic factors as contributing to the Norse exodus from the western North Atlantic region." The article makes some interesting suggestions; among them, that temperatures varied in different parts of the North Atlantic during the Medieval Warming Period and the Little Ice Age, that warm temperatures around Iceland may have encouraged the Vikings to ship out, but they may have found it wasn't that warm when they got to western Greenland, and that the moraines they studied really didn't tell them much about ocean temperatures and ease of navigation in the North Atlantic during this period. The article suggests that the market for walrus tusks, shifts in trade and travel between Norway and Iceland, and conflicts with the Inuit may have contributed to the Vikings' decisions about maintaining a presence on Greenland. This all seems reasonable, but it's fair to wonder whether some of these changes might not have been influenced by climate? Could harsher conditions in the interior and northern coast of western Greenland have brought Inuits into closer contact and conflict with the Norse settlements at this time? The article's authors never claim to have found the final, single answer to this mystery. But will that prevent their study from becoming the basis of a new series of "it wasn't climate change" stories in the mainstream media?

The first mainstream article I've seen based on this new study is from
Smithsonian, dated December 4, 2015. Although it's a pretty balanced article, Smithsonian couldn't resist the temptation to title it "Did Climate Change Make the Norse Disappear from Greenland?" The article is interesting, includes several useful links, and concludes that even if scientists embrace this new data, it's still reasonable to say "climate change is very much part of the mix." But based on the comments following the article, the subtleties are falling to the wayside. Like the previous newspaper articles, this is also being understood as part of the current debate about whether climate change is real. I suspect if other news outlets report on this story, their stories will be less balanced than Smithsonian's and more like those I mentioned above.

So my question is, do scientists and other professionals (like Environmental Historians) have any responsibility for how their work is used? Presumably the authors of these studies, who discussed the complexity of the issue and the lack of monocausal explanations, do not support the use of their work to confuse the public regarding climate change. The authors of the 2012 article may even be surprised that three years after its publication, their article has become the basis of this raft of stories (timed to precede the new publication?). If I had written that article, I'd be shaking my head with frustration about now, muttering "but that's
not what we said."

If I had written that initial article, I'd be a little dismayed that my work was being used in major newspapers (and the myriad of smaller papers and blogs that pick up this story) to confuse readers regarding the influence of climate on human societies. I'd be writing letters to the editors of those papers. I'd be tweeting about it, trying to set the record straight. Given that the initial motivation for their research was probably to help set the record straight about the complex nature of historical change, I've got to imagine these scientists would like everybody to understand that point, not just their professional peers.

A final thought, and I apologize if this seems cranky, but I've noticed a lot of historians and even EnvHist folks have retweeted these mainstream articles without comment. In spite of the convention that "RT=/ Endorsement," I think when a large number of historians' feeds start presenting these news reports without any qualification, they're furthering someone else's agenda.

Climate talks and Joan Scott

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One of the things I've been noticing, as the COP21 talks have progressed, is the media attempting to tell the climate change story as if it's not an argument, and as if the time for hope and positive action was not past. I think the second point is important, that there's  reason for hope and immediate action based on the idea that we can still mitigate the negative effects of modern life. But the shift in the language used in some of these stories, and the widespread avoidance of identifying the "sides" in the debate has reminded me of some observations Joan Scott made in a different context.

I read Scott when I was thinking about how to do histories of outsiders. According to Scott, “Positive definitions rest always...on the negation or repression of something represented as antithetical to it.” The definition of anything naturally  involves the exclusion of those things that are not considered part of, or germane to, or important in its nature. That's the common sense part. It gets interesting when she says the thing's “nature” is based on its perceived use or value to particular people in a particular time and place.

Maybe a better way of thinking about definition would be in terms of set theory rather than some type of unitary equality or inequality. A thing (noun) is a set of attributes (adjectives); the most crucial ones “defining” its nature -- but only in a given place and time, based on the locally predominant values. Looking at identity this way would enable us to observe changes in the set of attributes considered most important, and to ask questions about these changes. It would also allow us to ask questions like, "why didn't urban wage workers and farmers find more political common ground in the nineteenth century?"

Scott points out that “categorical oppositions repress the internal ambiguities of either category” (in
Gender and the Politics of History). When people define things as binary pairs, the characteristics that separate them may not do so as completely as the definers believe. The characteristic that differentiates two "opposite" things may not be as clear-cut and unambiguous as it seems to the definers. Or as clearly-perceived by the members of the opposing groups. And there may be other characteristics of the “opposites” that are similar or the same -- but these are not considered “essential” at the particular time and place where definition is being done.

Scott says a major element of Derrida’s deconstruction spoke “precisely to this arrangement [in which] the second term is present and central because required for the definition of the first.” This focus on opposition tends to ignore the “non-essential” characteristics and zero in on the binary, which may validate the initial definition to an undeserved degree. It’s okay as far as it goes -- we just have to remember it only goes so far. Conflicts over meaning thus “attempt to expose repressed terms, to challenge the natural status of seemingly dichotomous pairs, and to expose their interdependence and their internal instability.”

I’d add that, inasmuch as meanings continue to be “constructed through exclusions,” the changing relevance of specific elements in a definition set over time is a particularly interesting question for the historian. What happens when an apparently “natural” category’s definition changes? Especially, when characteristics that were once considered “essential” slip in importance, to be replaced by other characteristics that were less important when the initial dichotomy was formed? Does the binary evaporate? Or does it persist, even though the elements that constituted the initial definition-by-exclusion are no longer relevant?

Scott says academic history is based on “a politics that sets and enforces priorities, represses some subjects in the name of the greater importance of others, naturalizes certain categories, and disqualifies others.” She reminds us that “history, through its practices, produces (rather than gathers or reflects) knowledge about the past,” which means that “history operates as a particular kind of cultural institution endorsing and announcing constructions of” (she says gender, I’m going to substitute) social identity.

What I was thinking, as I read this, was that I could formulate an “outsider history” along some of the same lines Scott used to define gender history. One of the interesting questions would be, what happens when outsiders win? What happens to people and ideas, defined by opposition to something no longer relevant, when they achieve some type of legitimacy.

One of the things I’d want to do, would be to keep it about people and ideas. Not about ideas and categories. Even if the “meanings of concepts are taken to be unstable [and to] require vigilant repetition, reassertion, and implementation,” I keep wondering,
why do people choose to continue expending energy on their maintenance? When you bring people back into the story, you have to start asking about actual choices rather than set theory. I think that leads pretty quickly to the classic forensic question, Cui bono? That's a question that's relevant to the current situation.

Vikings, Climate, and Self-Publishing

Yesterday NiCHE re-tweeted a link from Tina Loo, calling attention to a Guardian article about climate change and the Viking settlement on Greenland. Tina's comment, "Now I have to rewrite my #envhist lecture," struck a chord, because I'm preparing my lectures for Spring semester, and because I've just released Part One of my textbook, which discusses the Vikings, Greenland, and Vinland. My first thought was the same. Am I going to have to revise that chapter the first week the book is out?

tw2

I took a look at
the study the Guardian article was reporting on. After reading it, I don't think I need to rush back and rewrite. The main point of the study seems to be that the Norse were not idiots prone to "maladaptation by an inflexible temperate zone society" as the article puts it, but instead "show greater resilience [and] more willingness to expand sources of TEK [and]...ability to resolve conflicts between climate change and core social ideology" than we have so far, to quote the study's conclusion. The Vikings did manage to survive in Greenland for five hundred years, after all. They must have been pretty tough and pretty smart.

I was hoping the article would say more about fishing and Vinland. But the main thing I was looking for was an explanation for the two headlines I saw:

Vikings were not spurred to Greenland by warm weather, research shows (Guardian)
and
Vikings’ mysterious abandonment of Greenland was not due to climate change, study suggests (Washington Post)

The target of both articles seems to be the "so-called medieval warm period," in the
Guardian's words. The Washington Post goes a bit farther, and uses caps and quotes not only for "Medieval Warm Period" but for "Little Ice Age." The Post goes on to say the article challenges "whether the so-called Medieval Warm Period was really so warm...suggesting that the tale of the Vikings colonizing but then abandoning Greenland due to climatic changes may be too simplistic." Well, yeah. Suggesting that anybody does anything for just one reason is probably too simplistic. But it bothers me just a bit that as you scroll down this Post article, there are three Shell Oil ads inserted into the text, in addition to the big one on the sidebar.

In case you were wondering, the article concludes that although the situation was more complicated than monocausal explanations of the past may have implied, climate played a big role in the Norse experience of Greenland, and probably in the settlement's end. Here are their words:

Collectively, these environmental changes would have degraded subsistence flexibility, decreased environmental predictability, and driven threshold crossing in the marine ecosystems related to the Eastern Settlement. The small Western Settlement (with a maximum likely population of 600–800) failed sometime in the late 14th century. Although the end of the Western Settlement is not completely understood, a likely proximate cause was isolation combined with late winter subsistence failure, plausibly connected to climate change.

So, as far as I'm concerned, a lecture or a textbook that had avoided a simplistic telling of the story in the first place should be okay. I don't have to revise my chapter on European discovery of the Americas.

frontcover

But I think it's worth noting that if the evidence had really contradicted what I had said in that chapter, in a really compelling way, I could have changed it. That's a distinct feature of a self-published text. I would not have had to burn a thousand copies, because there was no press run. The book prints on demand in Amazon's warehouse. Just like most of the paperback books you buy nowadays, actually. But, unlike those other books, I can upload a changed file to Createspace (which is also Amazon) anytime, day or night. My book can change instantly to respond to new discoveries or to comment on new data or interpretations. Or if not instantly, then in less time than passes between the moment you order a copy and the moment it ships. No need to wait a couple years for the second edition.

That's another part of the publishing world I think self-publishing can help shake up. So let's shake things up.

Happy New Year from Eaarth

In the preface to his 2010 book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben begins from the position that “It’s true that we’ve lost that fight, insofar as our goal was to preserve the world we were born into” (p. xv). We grew up, McKibben says, on the planet astronaut Jim Lovell described as “ ‘a grand oasis.’ But we no longer live on that planet” (p. 2). Things have already changed so significantly, he claims, “we’ll need to figure out what parts of our lives and our ideologies we must abandon so that we can protect the core of our societies and civilizations” (p. xiv).

This isn’t academic Environmental History, but I don’t imagine anyone will deny the relevance of McKibben’s claims, even if he's only just a little bit right. And I’ve been particularly interested in working on bringing my American Environmental History syllabus up to the present and engaging students with the issues we face now. So toward the end of the semester, we talk about the science, the propaganda, and what’s at stake in the current debate.

As you might expect, the first part of
Eaarth, where McKibben explains how the old world has been destroyed, is much more detailed than the second part, where he offers some suggestions on how we might move forward. The scientific consensus is alarming: “We now know that the climate doesn’t have to warm any more for Greenland to continue losing ice,” says a climatologist from the University of Ohio (pp. 4-5). There’s a “50 percent chance that Lake Mead, which backs up on the Colorado River behind Hoover Dam, could run dry by 2021 (When that happens, as the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority put it, ‘you cut off supply to the fifth largest economy in the world,’ spread across the American West” (p. 6). And “glaciers could disappear from the central and eastern Himalayas as early as 2035, including the giant Gangotri Glacier that supplies 70 percent of the dry-season water to the Ganges River. That would leave 407 million people looking for a new source of drinking and irrigation water” (p. 7). In other words, we have a solid timetable for the water war.

The oceans are “more acid than anytime in the last eight hundred thousand years, and at current rates by 2050 it will be more corrosive than anytime in the past 20 million years (p. 10). “Coral reefs will cease to exist as physical structures by 2100, perhaps 2050.” If I recall, that’s where pretty much all the ocean’s remaining biodiversity is.

McKibben is famous as the man behind
350.org, but even in 2009 as he was writing this he said “we’re already past 350—way past it. The planet has nearly 390 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We’re too high. Forget the grandkids; it turns out this was a problem for our parents…the last time we had carbon levels this high: sea levels rose one hundred feet or more, and temperatures rose as much as ten degrees” (pp. 15-16). And contrary to what others are claiming, McKibben quotes scientists who believe “changes in surface temperature, rainfall, and sea level are largely irreversible for more than a thousand years after carbon dioxide emissions are completely stopped” (p. 17).

And then there’s peak oil. “One barrel of oil yields as much energy as twenty-five thousand hours of human manual labor—more than a decade of human labor per barrel. The average American uses twenty-five barrels each year, which is like finding three hundred years of free labor annually” (p. 27). Even if some of these labor hours can be saved by switching to sustainable technologies, McKibben’s point that we’ve been getting a free ride and thinking it would last forever is a good one. “So does modernity disappear along with the oil?” he asks (p. 30).

Already, as only the earliest changes were beginning to be acknowledged, the World Bank announced “1.4 billion people, it found, lived below the poverty line, 430 million more than previously estimated. What defines the poverty line? $1.25 a day” (p. 76). The “developed world” sees starving people as a huge future security threat. No wonder “The U.S. military… costs more than the armies of the next forty-five nations combined; the Pentagon accounts for 48 percent of the world’s total military spending” (pp. 144-145). But will that save us at home? According to Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu, “the rapid melt of the Sierra snowpack means ‘we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California…I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going’ ” (p. 156). “And if our societies start to tank, we’ll be in worse shape than those who came before,” McKibben warns. “For one thing, our crisis is global, so there’s no place to flee. For another, most of us don’t know how to do very much—in your standard collapse scenario, it’s nice to know how to grow wheat” (pp. 98-99).

So what does all this mean? At the very least, it suggests we have to stop looking to prestigious, pseudo-academic idiots like Larry Summers for answers: “treasury secretary under President Clinton, now Obama’s chief economic adviser: ‘There are no . . . limits to the carrying capacity of the earth.’ ” (p. 95). I don’t know why anybody would pay attention to this guy—oh, wait! He was president of Harvard! But the problem isn’t just that elite pseudo-academics tend to be tools of the ruling class. Too many Americans still hang on the words of nuts like Jerry Falwell who has announced, “I can tell you, our grandchildren will laugh at those who predicted global warming. We’ll be in global cooling by then, if the Lord hasn’t returned” (p. 12). And liberal politicians have also proven their ineffectiveness. Barack Obama, “speaking about the upcoming Copenhagen climate talks [said] ‘We don’t want to make the best the enemy of the good.’ ” (p. 81). That’s code for “Let’s do nothing and see what happens.”

At the end of the book, McKibben tries to navigate from this laundry-list of disaster to a very short description of localism and community-building. His story ends with a retelling of the 350.org event in October 2009. Maybe he believed at the time this event would lead to a groundswell. Maybe he’s done his job describing the current situation, and it’s up to others to take the next step. But I wonder if it wouldn’t be more effective to describe what’s at stake, rather than leaving to the imaginations of the reader what he means by “dispersed and localized societies that can survive the damage we can no longer prevent” (p. 212). After all, he did mention Mad Max (p. 146), so it’s clear where McKibben thinks the story could go.

What's the Point of Climate Skepticism?

The AGW (anthropogenic global warming) opponents at WUWT posted a review of an article on RealClimate this morning. The gist of the post is that the author (who by the tone of comments is well-known and well-hated) was admitting that "modeled absolute global surface temperatures" are bogus. A closer reading of the article, I think, suggests that the modelers are aware of the shortcomings of models but still believe them to be relevant and useful in some situations. And that they're trying to refine the models and trying not to use them inappropriately.

I commented on a quoted passage where the RealClimate author says “no particular absolute global temperature provides a risk to society, it is the change in temperature compared to what we’ve been used to that matters.” This seems like common sense, if a global surface temperature number is an average. It is easy to imagine that plus 5C, for example, might not be as devastating to human society in the Sahara as it would be on the Himalayan glaciers.

 
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Responding to my comment, a "Jeff Alberts" said "Anyone who expects 'the temperature we’ve been used to' to never change, has no common sense. The question is, are changes we’re seeing due primarily, or even measurably, to human industrial activity. We simply don’t know. CO2 went up, but temps went up and down, and even remained static in many places. Therefore we have no evidence of any even minor impact due to CO2. We have no evidence as to whether today’s temps are unprecedented in any way, none."

But I wonder if that
really is the question? If mountain glacier systems at the headwaters of many of the world's most important watersheds are melting at an alarming rate, does it matter whether the cause is AGW or some natural process? Won't the billions of people depending on that water be equally effected either way? And if the natural processes of climate are as variable as AGW skeptics claim (to be the cause of all the observed changes), is there any reason to believe they'll bounce back right away and remain in a range that's comfortable for us?

If you were a nation depending on glacier-fed rivers, wouldn't it be incredibly irresponsible not to consider the possible continuing reduction of glaciers and the concurrent possible challenge to your national water supply? Would you care whether the cause was AGW or nature? Yes, you would, because if it's AGW, there may be ways to mitigate or reverse the effects - not to mention the potential liability involved. But would you wait until the jury was "in" and nobody was arguing on the cause before starting to think about what to do? I hope not!

Does all this suggest that that one of the goals of AGW skeptics is muddying the water in order to prevent action? I don't know. My free-market friend Bob recently said the skeptics are frustrated because so much money as been poured into this -- in his opinion, down a drain. He mentioned "
$165 billion so far (CBO report)." The number I was able to find for 2014 was $21.4 billion, which is definitely a lot of money. But in perspective, the total federal budget is about $3.9 trillion, so we're talking about a half a percent. And that spending is spread across dozens of government agencies including Defense (the DOD believes climate change is a strategic concern). The DOD budget is about $457 million, out of a total package of over $600 billion. So I don't think studying the climate is bankrupting America.

Real Zombie Apocalypse

According to a report published by the Public Religion Research Institute, reported today in The Atlantic, half of Americans think that Climate Change is a sign of the End Times, the Biblical Apocalypse.

There's a moment in the Doctor Who season finale this year, where the Earth is (predictably) teetering on the edge, and the Doctor says "Don't call the Americans! They'll only pray." THAT is how the rest of the world sees us, and it's because of this type of nonsense.
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A 2014 Pew Research poll found "61 percent of Americans agreed that the earth's temperature is rising, and of that group, 40 percent attributed the warming to human activity."

And according to a recent
Harris Interactive poll, 68% of Americans believe in Heaven and 72% believe in miracles. So why clean up your mess here, if a.) it can be fixed by the wave of God's hand or b.) you're going to a better place anyway. In the same poll, of course, fewer than 50% of the respondents believe in Darwinian Evolution.

What are the implications of this stunning display of American opinion, on any efforts we might want to make to dig ourselves out of the ecological, political, and social hole we're in by any sort of
grass roots, bottom up action?