Archive for 2011 July

Why deniers cling to the “global cooling” myth: a theory

At Boing Boing, Maggie Koerth-Baker does an excellent job of retelling the myth that global climate change deniers adore. That's the myth that scientists widely feared global cooling in the l970's.

According to the standard version of this story, everybody in the 1970s thought that the Earth was actually getting colder, and that we were in for a new Ice Age. Animals like armadillos were migrating southward, fleeing the encroaching cold. The Arctic ice pack was unexpectedly thick. Scientists warned of massive crop failures, and wrung their hands over the fate of the millions who would die in our frozen future. They urged governments to take action, either by stockpiling food, or with more disturbingly drastic measures–such as intentionally melting the Polar ice caps. All the same people who, today, tell us that the Earth is heating up were, once upon a time, singing a very different tune. The implicit message about scientists that people get from this story: You just can’t trust ‘em.

It would be nice if the myth of global cooling were a fringe belief. But it’s not.

Influential, big-name talkers push the story. Lots of average people listen to them. The author Michael Crichton worked it into his last novel. Senator James Inhofe told the tale in Congress. Rush Limbaugh believes in the myth. So does George Will. And, consequently, so does at least one of my uncles.

But they’re all wrong.

In reality, global cooling was never a broadly accepted Theory. It’s reasonable to assume that a good chunk of Americans never heard about it at all. And global cooling never had the support of most climate scientists, let alone scientists in other disciplines, like biology and public health, which are linked to climate change in many important ways today.

We know all of this thanks to the work of two scientists, Thomas Peterson and William Connolly, and a journalist, John Fleck. In 2008, they published a detailed history of this myth in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. So that’s another thing that makes the myth of global cooling stand out from the pack. Unlike a lot of myths, the path from fact to fiction is very well-documented.

But why has this exquisitely well-documented and thought-through paper made no impact on the George Wills of the world? Koerth-Baker doesn't really have an answer for that question; in fact, she doesn't really take it on, sticking to the science of the matter.  

An interesting blogger named Steelweaver has a wild theory to explain this clinging. which he outlines in a post called Reality as a Failed State. He writes: 

What many techno-scientists fail to understand – and thus find most frustrating – about dealing with climate change deniers is that the denier has no real interest in engaging at the scientist’s level of reality.

The point, for the climate denier, is not that the truth should be sought with open-minded sincerity – it is that he has declared the independence of his corner of reality from control by the overarching, techno-scientific consensus reality. He has withdrawn from the reality forced upon him and has retreated to a more comfortable, human-sized bubble.

In these terms, the denier’s retreat from consensus reality approximates the role of the cellular insurgents in Afghanistan vis-a-vis the American occupying force: this overarching behemoth I rebel against may well represent something larger, more free, more wealthy, more democratic, or more in touch with objective reality, but it has been imposed upon me (or I feel it has), so I am going to withdraw from it into illogic, emotion and superstition and from there I am going to declare war upon it.

So, from this point of view, we can meaningfully refer to deniers, birthers, Tea Partiers and so forth as “reality insurgents."

Steelweaver has his own lingo, which is not scientific, nor psychological, nor often even comprehensible to outside readers. It's Pynchonesque and a little paranoid. But surely emotional he's right to sees deniers and birthers and Tea Partiers as rebels against a state of reality, and it makes sense that as the state totters under the weight of an economic collapse and political divison, climate change denialism rises.

h/p: Metafilter 

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The older you get, the more unemployed you are likely to be

Or, as Matty Iglesias puts it, perhaps (we can hope) overstating it: "There will be no recovery."

The Pew Center, graphing census data for the visually oriented, appears to have the stats to back him up, at least for the long-term unemployed:


In short — the older you get, the more unemployed you are likely to be. 

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Socrates, Environmental Working Group: Eat Less Meat!

The Environmental Working Group brought out a report recently that definitively showed the high cost of meat. Not the cost in the store, but to the planet, and to our health. (Indeed, the one statistic I wish the report had that it didn't would be the full calf-to-plate cost of meat.) Much remarked was the report's central graph, showing the cost of types of meat in terms of emissions:

Overlooked was the report's discussion of the health effects of eating meat, which focused on red meat, but may actually have been a little too kind. In The China Study, medical researcher T. Colin Campbell makes a compelling argument not against just red meat, or against saturated fat from animal products, but against animal products, period. His numbers show real harm to health from eating meat, period, not just red meat, not just butter, but animal protein — including chicken, fish, and shellfish.


But as Campbell points out, this dietary issue has been debated for centuries, going back to Plato's Republic. Socrates touts a simple civic life, of foodstuffs of wheat and barley, with relishes of salt, olives, cheese, onions, cabbage. What we might call a Mediterranean diet. His debate partner Glaucon wants to eat meat, but Socrates points out that this will require land, not to mention a great number of "medical men," and will result in diseases, war, and litigation. 

Instead, Socrates argues, if citizens eat a bread and plant-based diet, with nuts and fruits and wine in moderation, their lives will be far improved, in many many ways.  

Passing their days in tranquility and sound health, they will, in all probability, live to an advanced age…

Campbell's numbers back Socrates up — 2500 years later. 

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It’s not the heat, it’s…

From Rob Rogers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

In some cases of denial, it's stupidity. In some cases, it's insanity. But as Rogers said:

The heat dome that has been gripping the nation has been unbearable. It is almost as unbearable as people who still refuse to believe in climate change. While one hot summer is no indicator of global warming, the extreme weather and increased warming in recent years does point to change. It is real.

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Television and the weather: some good news

Television for decades has been considered a vast wasteland, as public television advocate Newton Minnow famous characterized it in the early l960's, but these days television is, well, cliche defying. It's often surprisingly good. 

This is true both for dramatic mini-series such as the much-lauded Glee and Mad Men (which are far more ambitious and imaginative than approx 99% of Hollywood movies) and in coverage of the weather. 

A good example is Heidi Cullen, of The Weather Channel fame. Cullen has been talking about climate and global warming to a national audience for years, and recently brought out a book on The Weather of the Future. She told a scientific conference in December that she had been working on this book on nights and weekends for going on two years; her grasp of the subject shows in this editorial she recently wrote on the heat wave that has settled over much of the country. 

Yes, it has been a very hot summer after one of the most extreme-weather springs on record. It’s time to face the fact that the weather isn’t what it used to be.

Every 10 years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recalculates what it calls climate “normals,” 30-year averages of temperature and precipitation for about 7,500 locations across the United States. The latest numbers, released earlier this month, show that the climate of the last 10 years was about 1.5 degrees warmer than the climate of the 1970s, and the warmest since the first decade of the last century. Temperatures were, on average, 0.5 degrees warmer from 1981 to 2010 than they were from 1971 to 2000, and the average annual temperatures for all of the lower 48 states have gone up.

Not your average weather forecaster? True, but not as far from the norm as you might think, as this recent story points out – 

As the nation moves through a year of remarkable floods, drought and its deadliest tornado season in half a century, the broadcast meteorologist has emerged as an unlikely hero.

Increasingly, the weather is becoming a bigger part of the national conversation. As scientists explore the implications of climate change and severe weather’s effect on everything from crops to urban infrastructure, broadcast meteorologists like Mr. Burns [of Atlanta, a local hero for his tornado warnings] are the ones who bring it home every day in eye-popping computer graphics.

“The weather is more extreme, the floods are wetter and the droughts are drier,” said Chris Vaccaro, a spokesman for the National Weather Service. “That’s going to have real implications on society, and it elevates the need for more information and a need for those on-air personalities. It’s beyond what to wear for the day or do I need to carry an umbrella.”  

Heck, on Wednesday even former weatherman David Letterman was talking about global warming:

You know when you hear that phrase "global warming?" I wonder if that's what's happening now. Because it's just hotter than it ought to be. Or is it fine? Are we comfortable with 110 degrees?    

Doesn't look too comfortable:



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The master of raw life: Lucian Freud

Lucian Freud, the greatest painter of our times, has passed on. In a profile of him in The Guardian a few years back, a writer compared him to the old masters, the likes of Titian or Velázquez, and noted:

The sensuality of Freud is of chilly underheated studios, dirty rags, London. 

Exactly so. And that rawness, that appetite for reality, maybe explains why in an exhibit of Freud at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art a few years back, organized by Tate Britain, this (below) was the most beautiful of his paintings, because it was the simplest, the purest, the most elemental.

Freud Lucian_77

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Ghost forests of the 21st century

Some have wanted to label the pika, a charming little mountain creature, as the first species likely to be driven to extinction by climate change, but a typically excellent story by Elizabeth Shogren of National Public Radio lays out a much more horrifying possibility: the whitebark pine.

SHOGREN: Do you think it's a forgone conclusion that this tree will go extinct?

Dr. [AMY] NICHOLAS, [US Fish and Wildlife Service]: Yeah, I do. Or at the very least, there might still be some trees scattered here and there and left on the landscape, but the tree is functionally, probably, going to be extinct.

SHOGREN: But instead of putting whitebarks on the endangered species list, her agency added them to a list of candidate species. Nicholas says the federal Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't have the money or resources to protect the trees. Experts say what's so tragic about the tree's fate is they literally created the habitat in the high mountains, and they provide lots of services to nature and people.

They grow at high altitudes where no other trees can survive. Their nutritious seeds feed grizzly bears and lots of other animals. And shade from their broad canopies retains the snow in the mountains longer, keeping streams running fuller and cooler in the summer.

Dr. NICHOLAS: So that impacts everything. That impacts us. It impacts agriculture. It impacts fisheries. 

Here's a picture of what some call the "ghost forests." This is from Yellowstone, where 82% of the whitebark pines are estimated (by Jesse Logan, quoted in Shogren's story) to be unhealthy, dying, or dead. 


ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Scientist Jesse Logan was the first one to predict that global warming would allow a major outbreak of mountain pine beetles in whitebarks. But last week when he hiked near the northwest corner of Yellowstone, he was astounded. Where he expected to find green trees mixed in with dead ones, every mature tree was a dead gray skeleton.

Dr. JESSE LOGAN (Scientist): You'd think I get used to it, but it's always a shock when you go into these beautiful, vibrant forests that are no more. 

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If Murdoch is disgusting, what is the NSA?

Ted Rall points out that when it comes to spying, Rupert Murdoch is a piker:RupertMurdochisdisgusting

Not much of an exaggeration, unfortunately. It's old news that the NSA is monitoring your email. Heck at a recent launch of a satellite from Vandenberg AFB this year, I asked a public information officer how many satellites this year had been launched. He said that four "national security" satellites had been launched this year, some on enormous rockets, at a cost of a billion dollars each. 

Where is the outrage about this government intrusion into our private lives? 

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Harry Potter: the early Isherwood version

Back in the l930's, Christopher Isherwood published a fascinating quasi-memoir about his years at university called Lions and Shadows. Isherwood was a brilliant student, but — surprise, surprise — an outsider. With a fellow student named Chalmers he formed a sort of secret literary society opposed to what they called "the poshocracy." 

Isherwood and Chalmers together invented an imaginary magical world to dramatize their feelings about this schooling they partly loved and mostly hated. It's not the same as Harry Potter, by any means, but has some curious similarities — like Hogwarts, it's a sinister place, grand to look at, but steeped in dark magic, portents and threats, ruled by the grimmest of villains. They called it Mortmere

Isherwood and Chalmers for literally years talked of turning their dire creation into a novel, but never succeeded. Isherwood ultimately decided that was the point — "As long as Mortmere remained unwritten, its alternative possibilities were infinite."

But they were on to something, as J.K. Rowling has, in her own way, definitely proved. Even she, however, might be impressed by their "utterly fantastic" plans for a deluxe edition of the book: 

It was to be illustrated, we said, with real oil paintings, brasses, carvings in ivory or wood; fireworks would explode to emphasize important points in the narrative; a tiny grammophone sewn into the cover would accompany the descriptive passages with emotional airs; all the dialogue would be actually spoken; the different pages would smell appropriately, according to their subject-matter, of grave-clothes, manure, delicious food, burning hair, chloroform or expensive scent. All copies would be distributed free. Our friends would find attached to the last page, a pocket containing banknotes and jewels; our enemies, on reaching the end of the book, would be shot dead by a revolver concealed in the binding. 

Now there's a book I want to read. I think. 

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Americans increasingly doubt global warming: Harris Poll

A Harris poll on disasters released yesterday shows that fewer Americans than ever believe in global warming: just 44%, down from 75% ten years ago. 

Harris tries to see the positive in this, pointing out that:

These numbers do not suggest, however, that a majority now do not believe in global warming—just over one-quarter say they do not believe in it (28%) and the same number say they are not sure. Fittingly, among those who say there have been more natural disasters recently, there is no consensus whether this is a result of global warming or not (38% say it is, 28% say it’s not and 34% are not sure).

But as scientists like to point out in discussions of environmental indices, the trend over time is what matters, and the trend in this instance is clearly negative. The determination to see an American belief in global warming on the basis of this poll is peculiar, to put it politely.

Yes, in theory those who are not sure about the "theory" of global warming could be convinced, could join the plurality who do believe in global warming, and we could see an uptick in support for emisions-restraining measures. But one has to ask what it will take to convince us.

Hot years? Ten of the twelve hottest years ever occured in the last decade, according to NASA

The melting of mountain glaciers? Glaciers are in retreat worldwide, and will be virtually gone from Glacier National Park by 2030, according to the US Geological Service.  

Sea level rise? The rate of SLR has doubled in the last decade. 

On the other side of the coin, philosopher Gary Gutting at Notre Dame points out that critics of the "theory" of global warming have a problem — the experts are in agreement. 

There is, moreover, no denying that there is a strong consensus among climate scientists on the existence of A.G.W. — in their view, human activities are warming the planet.  There are climate scientists who doubt or deny this claim, but even they show a clear sense of opposing a view that is dominant in their discipline.   Nonexpert opponents of A.G.W. usually base their case on various criticisms that a small minority of climate scientists have raised against the consensus view.   But nonexperts are in no position to argue against the consensus of scientific experts.   As long as they accept the expert authority of the discipline of climate science, they have no basis for supporting the minority position.  Critics within the community of climate scientists may have a cogent case against A.G.W., but, given the overall consensus of that community, we nonexperts have no basis for concluding that this is so. 

The consensus position was shown graphically here, from Skeptical Science, based on a 2010 accounting of peer-reviewed climate scientists. 


Three different surveys, using different methods, all found a remarkably strong consensus on the question — over 97% of climate scientists believe in global warming.

Yet the American conclusion seems to be: Experts? We don't need no stinking experts!

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