What does slavery have to do with climate change? Here’s how Andrew Hoffman, an engineer who teaches sustainable development at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, makes the connection in an email exchange with John Broder at the NYT:
Just as few people saw a moral problem with slavery in the 18th century, few people in the 21st century see a moral problem with the burning of fossil fuels. Will people in 100 years look at us with the same incomprehension we feel toward 18th-century defenders of slavery?
I’ve had a running argument with Steve Bloom over this analogy, who raised it over a week ago, but his comparison was more politically oriented:
the history of abolition of slavery in this country, and in particular the U.S. Senate’s role in it, is highly instructive. Our political system was designed to have a hard time producing a solution to the slavery problem, and it’s ironic in the extreme that the dead hand of the slaveholders continues to exert such an influence in the present.
Now I can be a pretty righteous guy. I browbeat litterers in the street, run after renegade bicyclists who ignore red lights and nearly run over me and my two little boys in a crosswalk. And I’m sensitive to human barbarity; Nicholas Kristof columns make me want to weep. Some of my own work as a journalist (see here and here, for example) has social justice undercurrents. I also get that there is an ethical component to the climate change issue.
But for some reason, I’m not getting this abolition analogy, especially the one made by Professor Hoffman. Slavery (and then lynching) in the United States was an institutionalized evil, a heinous crime against a class of people made even more heinous because it was normalized by society. So it was happening in full view; people had direct knowledge of it.
I don’t see the burning of fossil fuels as an equivalence, unless you are making a pollution argument, in which you are then saying that people today are dying because of pollution related diseases from coal emissions, etc. But that’s a different argument, and one with plenty of evidence.
That’s not the abolition analogy. The way I read that argument is that our descendants who get hit with climate change will wonder why we were so morally bankrupt for continuing to burn fossil fuels when we full well knew the dangers it posed to our children and grandchildren. The problem for me is that climate change is not present the way slavery was and there are no heinous images of its existence that future generations will regard with the same abhorrence that is elicited today by visual reminders of slavery’s past.
For these reasons, I cannot grasp the slavery analogy, but I’m open to persuasion.
UPDATE: Andrew Hoffman sent me an email. He has permitted me to reproduce his response to the lively comment thread:
No where in the NYT article did I equate climate skeptics with supporters of slavery. I didn’t mention skeptics at all. Nor, did I equate climate change with slavery in all its components. That is never possible (as Pascvaks rightly points out). The point I was making was that:
(a) At its core, the problems and solutions of climate change are organizationally and culturally rooted. While technological and economic activity may be the direct cause of environmentally destructive behavior, individual beliefs, cultural norms and societal institutions guide the development of that activity. To properly address climate change, we must change the way we structure our organizations and the way we think as individuals. It requires a shift in our values. But, the magnitude of the cultural and moral shift around climate change is as large as that which accompanied the abolition of slavery.
(b) The similarity arises in scale because (b) Today, we live in a fossil fuel-based economy. Fossil fuels are our primary source of energy and support our entire way of life. As scientific evidence mounts that this critical institution is causing changes to the global climate, we are faced with a technological and social dilemma.
(c) few people at the time saw a moral problem with this critical institution. People simply did not believe, as we do today, that all people have a right to freedom and equality. Slavery was seen as the natural order of things, unquestioned and even supported by many through the words of the Bible. (LCarey makes this point well at the beginning of his/her statement, but I don’t follow the logic to the end).
So, (d) Calls to end our dependence on fossil fuels are being met with the same kind of response as did calls to end our dependence on slavery: such a move would wreck the economy and the way of life that is built upon it.
This assessment leads to a conclusion that a value shift is required for humankind to come to terms with a new cultural reality.
(e) The first piece of this reality is that humankind has grown to such numbers and our technologies have grown to such a capacity that we can, and do, alter the Earth’s ecological systems on a planetary scale. It is a fundamental shift in the physical order “” one never before seen, and one that alters the ethics and morals by which we judge our behavior as it relates to the environment around us and to the rest of humanity that depends on that environment.
(f) The second piece of that reality is that we share a collective responsibility and require global cooperation to solve it. The coal burned in Ann Arbor, Shanghai or Moscow has an equal impact on the environment we all share. The kind of cooperation necessary to solve this problem is far beyond anything we, as a species, have ever accomplished before. International treaties to ban land mines or eliminate ozone-depleting substances pale in comparison. Looking at climate change through the parallel of slavery helps us to see the magnitude of the issue before us.
(g) In the end, just as few people saw a moral problem with slavery in the 18th century, few people in the 21st century see a moral problem with the burning of fossil fuels. Will people in 100 years look at us with the same incomprehension we feel toward 18th-century defenders of slavery? If we are to address the problem adequately, the answer to that question must be yes.
If people want to debate about what I wrote, they can argue about points (e), (f) and (g). Points (c), (d) and (e) seem to me to be evident, although people can debate them if they wish. Point (a) is merely my overarching statement.
Now, if someone doesn’t beleive climate change is real, this whole discussion may be moot. Or they can argue that we can’t alter the environment on a planetery scale (e), or that we do not share a collective responsibility towards protecting it (f). If those are true then there is no moral argument (g). Similarly, (skeptic or convinced) people might argue that we will never see a moral problem with emitting CO2 (g); we all do it everyday when we breath. I think this is simply a matter of scale. I think that once the damages of gross pollution become visible, we begin to put apply a moral lens to it. For example, if I owned a company and told one of my workers to dump a flatbed of drums of organic chemicals in the river in back, I think many people would have a moral problem with that. The implications are known. Will we get there on CO2? I really don’t know. To me, that’s the big question.
In the end, however, this debate has become like “abortion politics” in Roger Peilke’s terms. We live in a time where people don’t debate your ideas, they debate your motives.
Last June, I explored the blogospheric polarization of the climate debate in this conversation with two climate bloggers who consciously avoid hyperbole. Naturally, their readership is tiny compared to WUWT and Climate Progress.
I think part of the problem (and, frankly, the retrenchment among some scientists) is how monochromatic climate science has been cast. You are either a warmest or denier; you either believe every word of the IPCC or believe all of climate science is a scam. Any flaw or criticism gets trumpeted as “bringing down the house of cards” or “driving the final nail in the coffin of AGW”, and this tends to create an environment poisonous to good skeptical science. These strawmen do not reflect the way the majority of scientists think (or people in general, I would hope), but tend to be overwhelmingly present in blog discussions.
Its quite possible to criticize parts of the IPCC (hello working group III”¦) or how uncertainties have been systematically understated by media reports and advocacy groups while still being concerned by the facts that doubling CO2 would increase radiative forcing by ~3.7 watts per meter squared and that the vast majority of evidence we have collected to date suggests that climate sensitivity is positive.
The lack of a basic foundation of agreement to argue upon has the unfortunate effect of making many blog discussions something of an exercise in futility.
A similar point was made in a comment over at Roger Pielke Jr’s blog, in a thread that also pertained to Judith’s “Heresy” post. The reader asserts that,
those who disagree seem to be unable to even find a venue that they can debate in. You and Curry want to do it in blogs that are dominated by dogmatists who don’t even accept the basics that you and Curry do, and you expect them to wade through that. They want you and Curry to do the debate in traditional journals. You and she do that to some degree, but your efforts in your blogs fall on deaf ears in their community for the most part.
I don’t know what the answer to all of this is, and I’m not saying it’s ALL your and Curry’s fault. But it certainly isn’t all the IPCC/RC crowd’s fault either. We live in a partisan world and that partisanship undermines rational debate in many areas, not just the explicitly political.
In other words, we’re doomed.
Seriously, I don’t see any way around this. Judith Curry wants to talk about “climate models” and “climate sensitivity” in this environment? If the blogospheric debate is so thoroughly dominated by partisans and dogmatists who snipe at each other from opposite sides of the climate divide, then what is the way forward?
To fully understand the enduring Judith Curry Phenomenon, you have to appreciate the power of a storyline that is not much discussed: Curry as climate apostate.
I realized this last year, after seeing some of the incredulous response to my first Q &A with Curry, which is why I immediately followed up in a second Q & A, asking her to explain why people such as Joe Romm felt like she was no longer the Judith Curry he thought he knew. (A third and final Q & A, trying to make sense of all the criticism of her prompted by the first two interviews, shortly followed.)
The latest blogstorm involving Curry is triggered by this Scientific American article by Michael Lemonick, who explores “two competing” storylines: whether Curry is a well-intentioned peacemaker in the climate wars or a “dupe” of climate skeptics. Understandably, the focus was on climate science issues; after all, the piece appeared in Scientific American. And this emphasis is reinforced by Lemonick’s ending:
It is perhaps unreasonable to expect everyone to stop sniping at one another, but given the high stakes, it is crucial to focus on the science itself and not the noise.
But that’s not likely to happen anytime soon, because there is a compelling human angle to this Judith Curry story, one which can only be truly grasped in a New Yorker or New York Times magazine type of piece. After Judith wrote her response to the SciAm article, one reader correctly identifies this third, enduring storyline:
IMO the heat you are feeling from the establishment, and its intensity compared with that directed at other “heretics” such as Dick Lindzen, is mainly due to your being seen as an apostate, rather than merely a heretic. Some in the mainstream camp clearly feel betrayed.
How so? Well, as Judith acknowledges in her latest post, she has undergone a metamorphosis in recent years, from”high priestess of global warming” to “critic of the IPCC” and respectful sparring partner of skeptics. I think that the sense of betrayal felt by some of Judith’s colleagues would not have turned so bitter had she not continued to vocally criticize the climate science community since “Climategate.” The anger might have been fleeting, akin to what British journalist George Monbiat experienced after writing this column and several others that were also critical of climate scientists last November. But Monbiot let the issue go after a few months, and besides, his larger worldview on the severity of the threat of climate change remains fundamentally unchanged.
Judith’s case, in contrast, strikes me as having more in common with the kind of political apostasy ascribed to Christopher Hitchens earlier this decade and more recently to David Frum and Christopher Buckley. (To understand the power of the apostasy storyline, look no further than this 2006 New Yorker profile on Hitchens.) All these guys have come down with a serious case of buyers remorse, to varying degrees. And they haven’t been shy about taking on the side they were formerly aligned with. Hence the blowback. As Buckley quipped after he came out for Obama:
the only thing the Right can’t quite decide is whether I should be boiled in oil or just put up against the wall and shot. Lethal injection would be too painless.
Fortunately, I don’t think Judith is engendering quite that level of rage. But the thinly veiled disgust some of her colleagues express towards her is palpable, and I’m not sure she is coming to grips with why. For example, in her current post, in which she tries to understand what is causing all this fuss over what she says in the media or the blogosphere, she seems not to recognize her own apostasy (my emphasis):
So the Judith Curry ca 2010 is the same scientist as she was in 2003, but sadder and wiser as a result of the hurricane wars, a public spokesperson on the global warming issue owing to the media attention from the hurricane wars, more broadly knowledgeable about the global warming issue, much more concerned about the integrity of climate science, listening to skeptics, and a blogger (for better or for worse). . .
Judith, you may be the same scientist, but some of your core assumptions of climate science and the IPCC have changed. That has changed you. Five years ago you were characterized as the “high priestess of global warming.” In the public arena that is inhabited by people who care passionately about climate change, that would put you on the side of the angels. But now that you’ve become the climate science community’s resident in-house critic, you’ve been cast over to the “dark side.”
It is this metamorphosis that is infuriating to your detractors and enthralling to your admirers.
On one thing David Roberts and I agree on: Grist has a sucky comment software.
Seriously, David has written what he promises to be his last post on Climate Hawks, linking in a roundup to all the approving nods he got in the blogosphere, and the tiny minority of dissenters. Woe to ThingsBreak for sharing a lonely, distant star with me.
I can’t promise this will be my last post on the topic, but I am going to make a prediction: Climate Hawks never gets off the ground (and by that I mean beyond the fantasy stage) unless journalists start using it as shorthand and/or Thomas Friedman inserts the term in three columns within a three month period. (Krugman the dove can’t get it to fly.)
There is, of course, a related Judith Curry angle to this discussion of climate hawks, courtesy of John Rennie, the former editor in chief of Scientific American. (Roberts, in his latest post, thanks Renne for expanding his “understanding of the term.”) In the second of two posts applauding the Climate Hawk coinage, Renne explains why he believes it’s a useful term:
“Climate hawk” is a statement about one’s stance on policy, not on the science.
One of the problems that has muddied climate discussions is that there has not been a simple way to separate people’s positions on the science from their positions on the appropriate policy response. Having such labels is extremely useful””arguably, essential””not only as a way of hemming in individual discussions (“Are we debating the science or the policy response?”) but also as a way of clearly pegging exactly what people stand for.
Then, after noting how Judith Curry has become a hero to skeptics for her vocal criticism of climate science, Renne suggests that Curry might be good test case for the utility of the Climate Hawks moniker:
Curry seems to have misgivings about the uncertainties in the climate science, but she agrees that we need to cut CO2 emissions and take whatever other steps are necessary to head off possible climate disasters. Indeed, if she feels a policy response is required, then it seems clear that whatever problems she has with the state of the science, they aren’t big enough to negate that conclusion.
Understanding this much about her position and being able to state it clearly is therefore huge in policy discussions that invoke her name. If Curry identified herself as a climate hawk (a purely hypothetical possibility at this point), then her usefulness to those who would cite her to undermine proposals to cut CO2 emissions plummets. She could also probably make peace with many of her scientific colleagues who think she is willing to be a pawn of the climate denialists. On the other hand, if she doesn’t want to call herself a climate hawk, it clearly opens up a discussion about why.
If Renne is correct, then it stands to reason that Judith can put an end to the cold war between herself and many of her esteemed members of the climate science fraternity by simply taking the pledge: I am a climate hawk.
And if she refuses, well..either way, I’m sure some interesting discussion will ensue.
I’ll follow up with an email to Judith after I post this and see if she would like to take the pledge.
UPDATE: Curry declines.
Talk about someone being tough as nails.
Over the weekend, photojournalist Joao Silva stepped on a mine in Afghanistan and was severely injured. He was on assignment for the New York Times. He and NYT reporter Carlotta Gall (who was unhurt) were embedded with a U.S. patrol. Army medics got to Silva within seconds and apparently were able to stabilize his wounds, before getting him onto a helicopter and transported to a military hospital. Here’s the incredible part of the story:
“Those of you who know Joao will not be surprised to learn that throughout this ordeal he continued to shoot pictures,” said Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, in a memorandum to the staff.
As Andrew Exum writes here, Silva’s devotion to photojournalism can’t be measured in pictures alone.
There’s a big profile of Judith Curry by Michael Lemonick in the November issue of Scientific American that, thankfully, is not behind a paywall. The piece is very well done–it’s actually more a dispassionate examination of what Lemonick calls “the two competing story lines” of the “Judith Curry phenomenon,”
which are, on the surface at least, equally plausible. The first paints Curry as a peacemaker””someone who might be able to restore some civility to the [climate change] debate and edge the public toward meaningful action. By frankly acknowledging mistakes and encouraging her colleagues to treat skeptics with respect, she hopes to bring about a meeting of the minds.
The alternative version paints her as a dupe””someone whose well-meaning efforts have only poured fuel on the fire. By this account, engaging with the skeptics is pointless because they cannot be won over. They have gone beyond the pale, taking their arguments to the public and distributing e-mails hacked from personal computer accounts rather than trying to work things out at conferences and in journal papers.
The piece goes on to explore whether either (or both) of these story lines have any merit. My modest contributions at this blog are acknowledged by Lemonick:
There is no question Curry has caused a stir; she is frequently cited by some of the harshest skeptics around, including Marc Morano, the former aide to Senator Inhofe and founder of the Climate Depot skeptic blog. It is not just the skeptics: Andrew C. Revkin, the New York Times‘s longtime environment reporter has treated her with great respect on his Dot Earth blog more than once. So has Keith Kloor, who runs the militantly evenhanded Collide-a-Scape blog.
To me, the most interesting parts of the SciAm article come next:
What scientists worry is that such exposure means Curry has the power to do damage to a consensus on climate change that has been building for the past 20 years. They see little point in trying to win over skeptics, even if they could be won over. Says Gavin A. Schmidt, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City and proprietor of the RealClimate blog: “Science is not a political campaign. We’re not trying to be everyone’s best friend, kiss everyone’s baby.”
To Curry, the damage comes not from the skeptics’ critiques themselves, most of which are questionable, but from the scientific community’s responses to them””much as deaths from virulent flu come not from the virus but from the immune system’s violent overreaction. Curry remarks that she has been a victim of this herself, spurned by her colleagues for her outreach efforts (although she adds that she has not been damaged professionally and continues to publish). “She’s been hugely criticized by the climate science community,” McIntyre says, “for not maintaining the fatwa [against talking to outsiders].”
Some disinterested commentators agree. One is S. Alexander Haslam, an expert in organizational psychology at the University of Exeter in England. The climate community, he says, is engaging in classic black sheep syndrome: members of a group may be annoyed by public criticism from outsiders, but they reserve their greatest anger for insiders who side with outsiders. By treating Curry as a pariah, Haslam says, scientists are only enhancing her reputation as some kind of renegade who speaks truth to power. Even if she is substantially wrong, it is not in the interests of climate scientists to treat Curry as merely an annoyance or a distraction. “I think her criticisms are damaging,” Haslam says. “But in a way, that’s a consequence of failing to acknowledge that all science has these political dynamics.”
The whole piece is well worth reading, so go have a look and come back with any reactions.
In a clever thought experiment earlier this week, David Roberts at Grist asked:
What should we call people who care about climate change and clean energy?
Too bad he asked the wrong question.
It should have been: What do we call people who care about climate change or clean energy?
More in a minute on why that would have been better.
The whole point to Roberts’ exercise was to “detach” the association of environmentalism to climate change and clean energy advocacy. The underlying logic is similar to an older debate involving what to call people who care about pollution/sustainability issues and wilderness/biodiversity/wildlife. Those who care strongly about the former are comfortable being called environmentalists. But a subset of people who care about the latter refer to themselves as conservationists.
For example, consider the membership of Ducks Unlimited. Hunters typically don’t think of themselves as environmentalists, yet many have a strong conservation ethic. They have proven to be committed advocates for the preservation of wildlife populations and ecosystems, which makes them an ally of traditional environmentalists.
Roberts envisions a similar kind of overlap for climate change, but with decarbonization being the common cause. The problem is that climate change advocacy has become too closely affiliated with a larger environmentalist agenda, which not everybody who cares about clean energy wants to sign up for. As Roberts notes:
Not all people who care about climate change and clean energy are environmentalists.
Hence the campaign for a catchy label that unifies both groups under a banner they are each comfortable with.
On Wed, Roberts unveiled his choice: climate hawk. For my non-U.S. readers, what you need to know here is that in the U.S. political lexicon, hawk is a widely used term. It connotes aggressive action and a vigorous defense, so we have these sub-identities known as defense hawks and deficit hawks. This means that Roberts, in choosing the climate hawk totem, has limited the applicability to a U.S. audience, something he belatedly acknowledges in the Grist comment thread.
Roberts also consciously included another limiting factor when he decided not to pick a label that emphasized the clean energy component he wants to fold under his banner. The explanation Roberts offers in his post is revealing (my emphasis):
Why not “clean energy hawk”? For one thing, two words are snappier than three and easier to write. For another, it’s important to keep the threat of climate change at the center of the conversation; clean energy is one way of fighting back against that threat, but there are many others.
It didn’t take long for a Grist commenter to point out the lost opportunity to broaden support for a common goal:
Climate. Is there really such a large group of people who care about climate change and believe in the science on anthropogenic climate change but don’t consider themselves environmentalists? It seems unlikely to me. On the other hand, there are great numbers of people who support clean energy and moving away from fossil fuels, but who aren’t environmentalists…These people include those interested in national energy security, those who believe it’s a smarter investment for the future of our economy (the global race to develop green energy technology), those worried about traditional pollutants from fossil fuels including those who view it as a public health issue, those worried about oil spills and mountaintop removal mining, and those who want to stick it to the Middle Eastern oil producers. Maybe this wasn’t your purpose – maybe you just wanted to describe people who accept that anthropogenic climate change is real – but the clean energy crowd is a MUCH bigger potential coalition that would help you get to the end goal of avoiding climate disaster.
Whatever Roberts’ purpose was, truly broadening the coalition for decarbonization was not one of them. Otherwise he wouldn’t have insisted on keeping “the threat of climate change at the center of the conversation.”
In recent posts, I’ve wondered aloud if the stalled policy and political action on climate change presented a window for alternative proposals to gain a fresh hearing. After all, as Tom Yulsman, noting the groundhog day element to the most recent global talks, asks:
Who was it who said that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”?
I sense that many people close to this debate are prepared to risk insanity rather than consider an alternative approach to decarbonization. I base this in part on some of the negative reaction to a bipartisan proposal floated last week, and to the exchanges that emerged in this thread, which boiled down to a why would an energy innovation centric framework be any more viable than a cap and trade or a carbon pricing centric framework? What’s the evidence the former would do any better than the latter?
Fair questions. But what I was trying to get at is whether or not a new approach was something that could even be debated in good faith. That requires one prerequisite: being open to a completely different mindset on how to best tackle climate change. Or to put it another way: being willing to reject the existing mindset because it is not winning the day and shows no evidence it can do so anytime soon.
Over at Dot Earth, one reader, recognizing the failure of the existing “narrative” to carry the day, shows he’s open to something new (my emphasis):
The depth or irrationality and hostility over climate science has me pretty convinced that it is futile to try and further refine a narrative or sales pitch about the rising risk for climate change. It just seems like a Sysiphean task when we are dealing with a large part of the population that believes our President practices the Muslim faith and might not actually be a native born American despite his birth certificate. People believe what they want to believe, not reality. I’m not suggesting the scientific community stop their work and talking about it and arguing with the deniers. Unfortunately that has to go on at some level.
It seems like we need to change the subject and develop a narrative about why it’s a positive thing to move to a green energy future and economy; it’s not only for climate. The other post about the Kansas experiment is a good example of this. Maybe once people get past their fear that all this climate change talk is a threat to the “American Way of Life”, then they will be able to view the science rationally. Ultimately, the positive argument has its limits it would seem. My sense is we have to have some kind of regulatory system that puts a price on carbon. I’m not sure a positive vision is enough, but I think it’s an essential step that might make it possible for other steps to follow.
This last remark about a “positive vision” I highlight because it’s similar to the logic that we often heard with respect to the congressional cap and trade bill, and which I was sympathetic to: just get the ball rolling and other steps (domestically and internationally) will follow.
Well that ball is dead. There’s no longer a game. There’s not even the pretense of a game on the global stage. So all those progressive steps that were promised by the legislation’s supporters are not going to happen. Where does that leave them?
Well, why not try a new ball with some life in it and get another game going? For that, let’s go to one of the willing players: Teryn Norris, president of Americans for Energy Leadership and a former senior advisor at the Breakthrough Institute.
Norris, in response to a question that Andy Revkin posed earlier this week to an email group that included him, wrote (and I’m excerpting, with his permission):
I think [Ezra] Klein’s analysis was relatively accurate in describing how the politics of an energy innovation agenda could be significantly stronger than cap and trade. The reasons are many, and I won’t attempt to review all of them here, but suffice it to say that while cap and trade is most centrally about climate change, energy innovation speaks to a much broader and more powerful set of public concerns: economic competitiveness, national security, job creation, and technological development (and the potential for cheaper forms of energy).
With sufficient investment, we can move renewable technologies along the cost-curve to the point where they can actually compete with (heavily-subsidized) fossil fuels… In the process, the U.S. develops home-grown energy sources that lessen our dependence on fossil fuel imports, creates new clean energy sector jobs, reaps the savings of improved energy efficiency, and recaptures its technological competitiveness in the global economy. Who can argue with a proposal like that?
It’s no wonder that federal investment in clean energy technology consistently polls higher than any other single energy policy proposal. As I wrote in National Journal, “Even before the Gulf oil spill, a poll by Pew Research in March found that 78% of the public favors increased government funding for research into clean energy technologies. When compared to alternatives such as carbon pricing, technology investment fares as the most popular energy policy proposal.”
Regardless, cap and trade is dead for the foreseeable future, and the type of proposal outlined in “Post-Partisan Power” offers one of the best possibilities for substantive reform. Al Gore, Reed Hundt, and John Podesta may also be heading in this direction, having adopted their own slogan similar to make clean energy cheap, “lowering the cost of clean.” This is just the beginning of a shift that may take years to complete. But in my view, those who would attack this possibility from the outset — especially those within the climate movement — are being short-sighted at best and intentionally destructive at worst.
Here’s the way I look at it: there’s no game in town right now. Norris and his team see an open court and are starting their own game, with their own ball. Some people are starting to come by and watch what unfolds. The other guys who held the court before don’t like that. Well you lost and got kicked off. What are you going to do now? Hurl insults from the stands, or take on the new guys?
Drought, like global warming, is a slow motion event that humans can’t get seem to get ahead of. Or properly grasp. For a good historical case study examining how the Maya, the Vikings, and the U.S. (in the lead-up to the Dust Bowl) each responded to drought, see this paper by Ben Orlove, who observes:
From the comparative history of the past, it can be seen how fragile human societies can be and how resistant they can be to changing established patterns of action; it can also be seen that most people somehow survive in both a biological and a cultural sense.
The big difference today, obviously, is that we know this history and also have some ability to see into the future, as this new study suggests:
The United States and many other heavily populated countries face a growing threat of severe and prolonged drought in coming decades.
What’s notable about this research by Aiguo Dai, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, is that there’s a global warming angle:
The detailed analysis concludes that warming temperatures associated with climate change will likely create increasingly dry conditions across much of the globe in the next 30 years, possibly reaching a scale in some regions by the end of the century that has rarely, if ever, been observed in modern times.
Before going any further, it’s important to point out that modern times (especially in the U.S.) are not the best measuring stick, which this definitive paper succinctly explains in its abstract:
Severe drought is the greatest recurring natural disaster to strike North America. A remarkable network of centuries-long annual tree-ring chronologies has now allowed for the reconstruction of past drought over North America covering the past 1000 or more years in most regions. These reconstructions reveal the occurrence of past “megadroughts” of unprecedented severity and duration, ones that have never been experienced by modern societies in North America.
This in no way diminishes the threat of natural occurring droughts worsened by anthropogenic global warming, which NCAR’s Dai lays out in his new study. Those findings are bound to make a splash in the media and blogosphere today. To understand why, here’s Dai in an early MSNBC report:
We are facing the possibility of widespread drought in the coming decades, but this has yet to be fully recognized by both the public and the climate change research community. If the projections in this study come even close to being realized, the consequences for society worldwide will be enormous.
So it’s a safe bet that the hook to this story is going to be climate change. Fair enough. Dai makes that explicit in his paper (which people should read). But he also concludes on this note:
Given the dire predictions for drought, adaptation measures for future climate changes should consider the possibility of increased aridity and widespread drought in coming decades.
I don’t expect that message to be emphasized in the spot reporting of the study or much discussed by climate bloggers, but given the history of prolonged droughts and civilization, here’s hoping it echoes in the halls of policymakers and planners.
The collapse of U.S. cap and trade legislation and the irrelevance of global climate talks means there’s a narrative vacuum that needs to be filled. That would be the Where Do We Go From Here narrative.
Make no mistake: there will be a bloggy blood bath over who gets to shape this narrative. And it will be largely internecine, between liberal and climate-concerned bloggers.
This dynamic was foreshadowed last week, when some critics wasted little time in shooting down a proposed paradigm shift floated in a bipartisan white paper. This week brings the WaPo’s Dana Milbank suggestion that geoengineering be pondered as a “plan B for climate change.” Before anyone in the Climate Progress posse gets too riled up, they should continue reading what Milbank says:
None of this means giving up on carbon reduction, which remains the only sure way to prevent man-made climate change. But as the failure in Congress to reach consensus slows progress toward an international agreement, the wasted time could be used to create a fallback plan.
What’s the rationale?
This would prevent other nations from gaining a lead in geoengineering technologies (while perhaps providing some focus to our aimless space program) and at the same time put some cap-and-trade foes on the spot. Those who profess to care about global warming but balk at putting a price on carbon would have no justification for opposing geoengineering.
According to Milbank,
Makings of a cross-ideological coalition have emerged. At the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Samuel Thernstrom wrote this year that “ignoring geoengineering is potentially dangerous and irresponsible.” At the liberal Center for American Progress, Andrew Light tells me that because “research is already starting in some parts of the world, we would be foolhardy not to be looking into it.”
I suspect that Andrew Light is going to take issue with his quote being conflated with what appears to be an argument for geoengineering. I also suspect that this guy is going to take issue with the whole Milbank column.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the coming weeks and months will turn out to be a fertile intellectual period, in which various ideas for a new direction in climate policy and politics will be allowed some sunlight. Time will tell.