Archive for 2010 May

Once they denied relativity; now they deny climate change

The "crackpots," that is.

That's according to physicist Joergen van Dongen, in a fascinating paper for the Institute for History and the Foundation of Science, published last fall, available through ScienceDirect. It's  called "On Einstein's opponents, and other crackpots."

The paper begins with a quote from Einstein that sounds almost as if he could be talking about the issue today — just substitute "climate change" for "relativity theory."

Einstein said:

This world is a strange madhouse. Currently every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.

The quote comes from a letter Einstein wrote three weeks after a huge rally in Berlin against relativity, in which "Einstein was denounced as a fraud and scientific philistine." Despite experiments showing that light was bent by the gravitational pull of the sun, exactly as his revolutionary theory had predicted ten years earlier, "a right-wing rabble-rouser" named Paul Weyland attacked him and his theory of relativity,  and won widespread support.

Summarizing a German book on this phenomenon, van Dongen writes:

…anti-relativists were convinced that their opinions were being suppressed. Indeed, many believed that conspiracies were at work that thwarted the promotion of their ideas. The fact that for them relativity was obviously wrong, yet still so very successful, strengthened the contention that a plot was at play…

Sounds familiar? A new theory by a scientist overturns conventional thinking, and rightly predicts what never would have been guessed before. In Einstein's time, that was the concept that gravity could bend light; in our time, this is the concept that invisible amounts of trace gases will force climate change.

And further, van Dongen notes:

Conspiracy theories tend to do well in uncertain times: they create order in chaos.

True, but as Janis Dickinson predicted in her paper last year on climate change denial, it's also true that as fear rises — in "uncertain times" — so too do people cling more tightly to their existing beliefs, defend them more fiercely, and attack those they see as enemies more bitterly.

In his time, Einstein canceled an opportunity to address a scientific congress in l922, fearing he might be assassinated (as was his friend Walther Rathenau, another prominent Jewish liberal). In our times, the leading proponent of climate change science, James Hansen, has been repeatedly threatened with violence, albeit mostly by, yes, crackpots.

There's nothing new under the sun except, perhaps, increasing amounts of greenhouse gases.

h/t: Andrew Sullivan, Joss Garman

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Why is belief in global warming fading?

In a front-page story, The New York Times rightly features the decline in belief in global warming this spring in the UK. 

The UK is one of the most secular nations on earth, and in the recent past readily accepted the existence of global warming. Just fifteen percent of the populace, according to a poll taken last fall, doubted it. 

Now one quarter of the people in the UK flatly disbelieve that the earth is warming. Although the so-called Climategate story does show up as a reason for that disbelief, a much  bigger cause (83% to 57%) cited in the poll is a cold winter. (Of course, the two possible causes for disbelief are not mutually exclusive, but the numbers nonetheless point towards the weather more than the news as the reason.)

This was the warmest March on record (since 1880, according to NOAA) but that fact apparently hasn't registered. Probably a graph won't help, but what the heck, it's worth a try.   


As mentioned in a past post, the rise in disbelief around the world was predicted last spring in a paper by an ecologist at Cornell named Janis Dickinson. According to her analysis, the connection in the popular mind between global warming and apocalypse (as discussed yesterday by The Onion, below) means that the more people hear about it on the news, the more they will fear it, and the more people fear it the more people will deny it, regardless of the science. 

Okay — for the sake of argument, let's assume that's true. 

Here's my question: How do we test it? What proxy for fear of death can we correlate to global warming and belief? And preferably, what proxies can we compare from existing polls?

Thinking, thinking…

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Satan or Industry: Which will destroy society?

A typically mordant perspective from Onion News Network:

Christian Groups: Biblical Armageddon Must Be Taught Alongside Global Warming

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Love is the engine, but love is not remembered

So writes Charles Bowden, in the award-winning Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing. 

This is an "environmental" book, but I don't believe Bowden ever mentions that word. Yet unlike nearly every other book about nature I can think save a couple written by John Muir or Edward Abbey, this "environmental" book does bring up "love" and/or "sex" quite frequently…and even bawdily. 

Bowden writes:

Love is the engine, the only thing that matters, the sensation that moves the planet down some path that makes today look less than tomorrow. And love is not remembered. The wars, the rich, the blues men beating their women, the long drag off that joint, the killing ground, these get remembered. Along with famines, plague, and those other two horsemen riding death through the duly recorded pages. But not love. It simply moves things. All the forgotten mothers. And lovers. And eager lips facing down history and reaching for warmth amid the cold stars of midnight. 

I believe this. But I cannot clearly tell you what love is. 

Bowden is not being sentimental here; in another passage, he mocks those scientists who would attempt to chalk up every quirk of every creature's behavior by "evolution" or "instinct." He's simply puzzled — and fascinated by love. Reading this book about the natural world, one wonders: why is this so rare?  

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Union of Concerned Scientists misses a climate beat

Rarely if ever in my life have I found fault with the Union of Concerned Scientists on any point, but in a story their site published today about climate change and the American Pika, I think they tell only half the story — the alarming half. 

In their words

Signs of spring are beginning to emerge in many parts of the United
States. After months of darkness, it's a welcome sight. But did you know
that spring arrives distinctly earlier than it did 40 years ago?

Tree budding, the hatching of animal species, earlier blooms, and
other traits of spring show up about 10 days sooner, researchers have
long reported. What's more, the earlier onset of spring has been
directly linked to human-induced climate change.

While a premature spring is embraced by most people, it can be a
mismatch for animals.

All true, and the discussion of phenology deserves attention. The story then transitions to a discussion of the fate of the American Pika, an utterly charming rodent which lives mostly in the mountains of the western United States, and is much beloved by yours truly. 

Let me tell one true story about the pika and me: 

Pika_5972np  Once while totally lost in the High Sierra northeast of Pacheco Pass, I wandered on to a rocky ridge, looked down, and saw roughly 11,000 feet below me the asphalt ribbon of Hwy 395, running through the desert. I had to camp on the jagged plates of granite on the ridge, in a wind, with no fire. A miserable night, unsurprisingly. But when I awoke the wind was gone, the sun was out, and as I sat there on the rocks, making my oatmeal, I saw a darting movement behind me, and glimpsed a darling pika, about the size of a hamster, but thinner and cuter, watching me curiously — and fearlessly. 

In other words, I care about this critter. And although it's true that Eric Beever, who is prominently quoted in the UCS story, published studies this past decade suggesting that the American Pika could be perhaps the first animal in the US driven to extinction due to climate change, more recently Beever published results that he himself admitted question his earlier conclusion. 

To quote his Western North American Naturalist study (available on pdf from the site linked above):

Persistence of pikas in the Hays Canyon Range [in the Great Basin] challenges some of the predictions that resulted from the work of Beever et al. (2003), who found that persistence was best explained by a combination of amount of habitat present, a climatic surrogate (i.e., maximum local elevation of talus to which pikas could migrate), and anthropogenic influences (i.e., presence of grazing and proximity to primary roads).

The man, may I say, is a good and honest scientist. The new research he conducted in 2008 leads him to question his earlier conclusions from 2003. He goes on to suggest that many other factors may come into play, and hints that pikas may in some places be able to adapt to rising temperatures. 

This is just what research from another expert in mountain species has concluded. Connie Millar, a biologist who has spent a great deal of her working life in the Sierra, found in recent research that in these mountains the pika are thriving. She suspects that they have adapted by moving into cold-air pools at the base of talus slopes. (For an excellent discussion of the debate, see Kurt Repanach's Is the American Pika Really on the Road to Extinction Due to Climate Change?

To be fair, it's true that Beever remains concerned about the fate of the critter in the face of climate change, and Millar in a conversation made clear she respected Beever and his work, which mostly focuses on Nevada, not the Sierra. Both of these scientists stress the research to be done (Millar is launching a survey, and asking the public for help) and not grandiose claims. 

So, if the fate of the Amercan Pika is a matter of dispute, how do we decide? Well, the US Fish and Wildlife Service spent a year doing a biological assessment of this very question, and this February published their results. In their words: 

…we conducted a risk assessment to determine if increased surface temperatures would affect the pika and found that although the American pika could potentially be impacted by climate change, we believe the species as a whole will be able to survive despite higher temperatures in a majority of its range. 

Climate change is a reality and a threat to some populations of the pika, in other words, but not a mortal threat to the species as a whole. 

For the Union of Concerned Scientists to ignore this side of the story really is just not right. 

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“Earth is Warming”: The National Academy of Sciences

From the introduction to three new studies released by the National Academy of Sciences

Earth is warming. Detailed observations of surface temperature assembled
analyzed by several different research groups show that the
planet’s average surface
temperature was 1.4 ºF (0.8 ºC) warmer during the first
decade of the 21st century
than during the first decade of the 20th century, with the
most pronounced warming
over the past three decades. These data are corroborated by a
variety of independent
observations that indicate warming in other parts of the
Earth system, including the
cryosphere (snow and ice covered regions), the lower
atmosphere, and the oceans.

Most of the warming over the last several decades can be
attributed to human
activities that release carbon dioxide (CO2) and other
heat-trapping greenhouse gases
(GHGs) into the atmosphere. The burning of fossil
fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—
for energy is the single largest human driver of climate
change, but agriculture, forest
clearing, and certain industrial activities also make
significant contributions.
 Natural climate variability leads to year-to-year and
decade-to-decade fluctuations in
temperature and other climate variables, as well as
significant regional differences,
but cannot explain or offset the long-term warming trend.

Global warming is closely associated with a broad spectrum of
other climate changes,
such as increases in the frequency of intense rainfall,
decreases in snow cover and sea
ice, more frequent and intense heat waves, rising sea
levels, and widespread ocean
 Individually and collectively, these changes pose risks for a
wide range of human and
environmental systems, including freshwater resources, the
coastal environment,
ecosystems, agriculture, fisheries, human health, and
national security, among others.

Human-induced climate change and its impacts will continue for
many decades, and
in some cases for many centuries. The ultimate magnitude of
climate change and the
severity of its impacts depend strongly on the actions that
human societies take to
respond to these risks.

Will read and report back asap. 

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Cartoonist jokes about oil spill, wonders “too soon?”

It's not easy being in the funny business. Jessica Hagy is funny, but wonders if it's "too soon":


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A bit of good news: urban forests enough for migrating birds

With all the bad news from the Gulf of Mexico, yours truly wants a break from disaster, and was relieved to come across this item, from researchers at Ohio State. 

Even tiny patches of woods in urban areas seem to provide
adequate food and protection for some species of migrating birds as they
fly between wintering and breeding grounds, new research has found.

The story in press release-based story in PhysOrg goes on to detail the study, explaining how two researchers attached radio transmitters to a "secretive" relative of the robin called the Swainson's Thrush, and discovered that although the forest-loving birds preferred the woods, they could make do with small patches of woodland in and around Columbus Ohio. 

"These findings suggest that remnant forests within urban areas have
conservation value for Swainson's Thrushes and, potentially, other
migrant landbirds," [Professor Paul] Rodewald said.

"Obviously, larger forest patches are better, but even smaller ones
are worth saving."

Amen, say the birds…here's a picture of an antennae emerging from from a tiny radio transmitter fitted to a Swainson's thrush, taken (naturally) by the researchers. 


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The BP oil spill, according to David Brower

It seems that every time mankind is given a lot of
energy, we go out and wreck something with it.

David Brower 

(Of course, he said that long ago…it's just that it's still true.)

The video of the spill (from BP) is what I can't forget:

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Spring! Once again, but still inspiring

Sorry, I just can't seem to concentrate on all the recriminations (oil spill) and fears (climate bill) this week.We've had too many interesting and unexpected visitors. Everyone's out enjoying the sun.




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