Tuesday, December 29, 2009

10 Dumbest quotes of the decade

There were a lot of dumb things said in the 2000s. These are the winners, based on their feculent combination of overweening confidence and total empirical misassessment:
  1. "Stocks are now in the midst of a one-time-only rise to much higher ground--to the neighborhood of 36,000 on the Dow Jones Industrial average." - James K. Glassman, November 2000
  2. "One of my highest priorities is to restore investor confidence in Enron. This should result in a significantly higher stock price." - Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, 21 August 2001
  3. "Don't worry, it's a slam dunk." - CIA Director George Tenet, referring to the intelligence indicating that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, 21 December 2002
  4. "It's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would to take to conduct the war itself and secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army. Hard to imagine." - U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, 28 February 2003
  5. "There is no presence of American infidels in the city of Baghdad" - Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf (AKA "Comical Ali," AKA "Baghdad Bob"), 7 April 2003
  6. "You go to war with the army you have." - U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, 8 December 2004
  7. "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job." - U.S. President George W. Bush, addressing FEMA coordinator Mike Brown, as the New Orleans levees are failing, 31 August 2005
  8. "The fundamentals of the economy are strong." - U.S. Senator John McCain, 15 September 2008 (the day Lehman Brothers collapsed)
  9. "All of 'em, any of 'em that have been in front of me over all these years." - Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, unable to name a single newspaper or magazine she reads, interview with Katie Couric, CBS News, 1 October 2008
  10. "This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity." - U.S. President Barack H. Obama, describing the Afghan war, 17 August 2009

Friday, December 18, 2009

Designing appropriate responses to the security threat posed by climate change

Determining the appropriate policy response to the security threats posed by climate change requires properly identifying the nature of the threat, so that the correct sort of security knowledge and technology can be mobilized to counter the threat. Critics of the “securitization” of the climate change impacts debate are not entirely wrong that the debate itself, if misconceived, has the potential to misdirect security resources away from the security platforms in most urgent need of shoring up in the face of climate change.

Specifically, the security platforms in most urgent need of attention in the face of the climate change threat are ones related to vital systems and population security, and only secondarily to sovereign state security. The most immediate security threats posed by climate change will involve acute insults to and chronic compromising of critical infrastructure, including energy production and delivery systems, transportation networks, agriculture, and water supplies. Just as severe will be the threats to population security, above all to public health and economic well-being, some of which will happen because of the direct effects of a hotter, more volatile climate, and some of which will be a second-order result of the damaging effects of climate change on critical infrastructure.

These climate-related threats to vital systems and population security should be the highest priorities for governments. This means redoubling investment in the technology designed to address these threats: improving preparedness, resiliency, and redundancy in the case of vital systems; and more effective development programs in the case of population security, including investment in biosurveillance, health care delivery programs, and programs to improve economic growth. In addition, a great deal of attention should be paid to ensure that the anticipatory adaptations, by both the private sector and governments, focus on delivering Pareto-efficient benefits, rather than simply on redistributing the risks and threats associated with climate change.

In the longer run (toward the second half of this century) the threats to vital systems and population security may become so severe that they indeed begin to seriously impact sovereign state security of large, populous nations. Already we have the foretaste of that future by examining the fate of small island nations. These pioneers of the brave new climate future only show to the economically and technologically more advanced nations the image of their own future. Mass refugee crises and environmentally failed states, each of which for different reasons may seem to necessitate the intervention of armed forces, will become an increasingly pressing possibility as the century advances. And the environmental conditions under which these armed forces will be forced to operate will be increasingly harsh.

It is thus crucial that security analysts be able to correctly characterize the different threats posed by climate change, and above all not to assume that the military should be the primary vehicle for addressing these threats. Using soldiers to improve civilian preparedness and the resiliency of vital systems not only is obviously inefficient, but also is likely to be ineffective. Likewise, asking the military to address the ongoing climate change threat to the health and well-being of the population will not work well. Nor does it make sense only to invest in upgrading military response capacity at the expense of improving vital systems security and population security technologies. The armed forces are only well-suited for dealing with climate change threats once they have cascaded into sovereign state security threats. Ultimately, using the military to address vital systems and population security threats is as inefficient as using emergency rooms to provide primary care, and to invest in military systems as a way to deal with the climate change threat, at the expense of improving public health and the resiliency of critical infrastructure, is akin toa state that neglects to provide primary care, only to deal with a much more dire and expensive crisis in emergency rooms. It is therefore crucial that security planners learn to correctly identify and differentiate the different sorts of threat posed by climate change, and design and fund threat-appropriate responses, rather that assuming that a single class of preparation will be sufficient.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Why Copenhagen will go nowhere

Gwynne Dyer explains why the Copenhagen climate summit will go nowhere:
Everybody involved knows what the one really fair and effective deal would look like, although they feel doomed to settle for something much worse. In this case, the fair and effective deal would take full account of the history, and it would look like this.

It would require the rich, industrialised countries to take really deep cuts in their emissions: 40 percent by 2020, say, and another 40 percent by 2035. The developing countries would cap the growth in their emissions at a level not much higher than where they are now—but they must be allowed to go on growing their economies, which means that they will need more energy.

All that extra energy has to be clean, or else they will break through the cap. They will therefore have to get their new energy from wind farms or solar arrays or nuclear plants, all of which are more expensive than the cheap coal-fired power plants they rely on now. Who pays the difference in the cost? The rich countries do, by technology transfers and direct subsidies.

What makes this lopsided deal fair is the history behind it. Emissions in the developed countries have stabilised or declined slightly (except for Canada, where they continue to soar), but they are still at a very high level. Indeed, what has made these countries rich is burning fossil fuels for the past 150-200 years—and in doing so, they have taken up almost all the available space.

In the early 19th century, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air was 280 parts per million. It is now 390 ppm, and four-fifths of that extra CO2 was put there by the ancestors of the one billion people who live in the developed countries. The point of no return, after which we risk runaway warming, is a rise in average global temperature of two degrees Celsius. That is equivalent to 450 ppm of carbon dioxide.

All we have left to play with is the distance between 390 ppm and 450 ppm, and on a business-as-usual basis we’ll cover it in less than 30 years. All the economic growth of rapidly developing countries like China, India, and Brazil—3-4 billion people—has to fit into that narrow band of 60 ppm that the developed countries left for them.

That is why the post-Kyoto deal must be lopsided—but it is still politically impossible to sell that deal to people in the developed countries, most of whom are (wilfully) ignorant of that history.
Dyer, like virtually all liberals on this topic, fails to grasp the nettle here. The truth is that a two-thirds reduction in global emissions, which has got to be the long-term goal, means -- indeed, requires -- a radical revolution in economic expectations: it will mean not just smaller cars, but less travel, less air conditioning (in an ever hotter world, ugh), less heating, less housing, less clothing, less meat, less procreation... in general, it means LESS.

Such a shift would entail a most profound political transformation: for at least the last sixty years, and arguably the last two hundred, modern governments (of whatever ideological stripe, from Lenin to Hitler to Thatcher) have staked their claims to legitimacy on the premise and promise of delivering MORE. This ideology of endless growth -- call it "development" or "modernization" or whatever you'd like -- is the common assumption across all political systems; it is the fundament of how modern societies and polities understand what we are all about.

The Republicans are alas not wrong when they say that a serious effort to restrain greenhouse gases means a full-scale assault on "the American way of life." Few climate-change liberals are actually willing to admit this openly, even to themselves. (Nick Stern's line that, "Oh, it's only going to cost us 1% of GDP" is just hooey.)

Abandoning the ideology of endless growth means nothing less than a revolution in the meaning of government and society. Pace Dwyer, that is the real reason why it is "politically impossible to sell that deal to people in the developed countries" -- not because the masses are "wilfully ignorant of history," but because elites (political and economic) have no idea how to legitimate themselves absent the promise of endless growth.

Until we abandon the ideology of endless growth, there will be no popular will to significantly curb GHG emissions, nor any elite will to do.

Eventually, of course, the ideology of endless growth will give way, as all ideologies eventually do. But personally, I doubt that it will happen voluntarily. Rather, as the impact of global warming starts to become severe, smashing cities and dessicating countrysides, it will make further growth impossible. What will replace it will be a focus on saving what we can of what we have left.

Happily, I also doubt that any of this will happen in my lifetime (then again, I don't give myself that much time), but I think it's very possible that this transformation will begin to take place toward the end of the century.

Then again, if humanity has kept burning coal/oil in a BAU manner for another half century, then the amount of baked-in climate change the planet will be in for is truly scary to contemplate.

Louis XIV famously remarked, "Après moi, le déluge." Our generation is rendering this prediction literal.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

An open letter to so-called 'climate change skeptics'

As I've been posting recently on climate change-related issues, I've been getting a lot of flak from wingnuts who are claiming that climate change is a cult, some kind of a modern environmentalist religion, bent on encouraging reckless and unnecessary governmental interventions into the economy and society. More recently, the denialists have felt emboldened by the revelation that a few scientists at the Hadley climate research unit in Britain have been fooling around with some of their data. They claim that this represents the "nail in the coffin of anthropogenic climate change". They claim, further, that it is they, the climate change deniers, who are in fact the true bearers of the properly skeptical scientific method, whereas all the thousands of other actual scientists who have been involved in climate research for decades are just a bunch of socialist conspirators.

Now, in general it's a waste of time to argue with people who are ignorant, insane, or deliberately mendacious -- which are really the only three possible ways to explain these opinions. But since this political movement is feeling its oats this week, I think it's worth writing an open letter to the self-styled "climate change skeptics." Here goes:
I should begin by confessing: I was a skeptic for many many years myself -- for most of the 1990s, in fact. I just didn't think that the puny human race could possibly affect something as mighty as the planetary climate. Could we humans actually be a geologic force? It seemed absurd on its face.

Then I sat down and actually read the third IPCC report (2001). Have any of you high-minded "skeptics" have actually read any of the IPCC Reports, or any other serious climate science studies? (Or do you learn all your "science" from the op-ed pages of the WSJ and talk radio? Just askin'.) If not, I recommend it. Because I have to tell you, it's impossible to read that report and come away unconvinced that our fossil fuel-based civilization faces anything other than a very serious long-term problem with the climate.

In truth, I would mainly feel sorry for you skeptics, if your political effect weren't so pernicious. It's like you're a bunch of kids sitting on the beach who've built a huge sand castle at the water's edge at low tide. Along comes another kid who says -- hey, you guys are going to have a serious problem when the tide comes in. It's not "dogma" or "religion" on his part that makes him say that. Nor does it make you clever to argue that the parents disagree about just how high the tide is going to be; or to holler about the local fisherman lied last week about the tidal schedule; or to tell your little brother, who's crying about the impending doom to his castle, that a "tidal wave" isn't actually caused by tides; or even to observe that the local tides have been a lot lower than expected the last few days. All those sorts of argument -- which are precisely the kind that you deniers generally make -- is mere sophistry, and it would be simply laughable if the problem weren't so serious.

But it is serious, and you guys are a bunch of ostriches.

Let's be absolutely direct: the statement that human civilization faces a very serious long-term climate problem isn't a matter of dogma, and it isn't religion -- even if, as you rightly point out, some people treat it as such. Rather, it's simply a matter of reading the evidence. That evidence is incredibly broad-based, and has been produced by literally thousands of scientists working in more than a dozen fields, ranging from atmospheric chemistry to glaciology to palynology to ecology to archaeology.

Are there some liars and frauds among these? No doubt. Are there a few individual credentialed scientists who deny the theory of climate change wholesale? No doubt. But that proves literally nothing about the collective body of evidence -- a body which points entirely in the same direction, even if all the precise feedback mechanisms of this incredibly complex thing called "the climate" are not fully understood in all their interrelated detail.

The bottom line is simple: if humans keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at the rising rate we're doing now, then the planet's climate is going to change as radically as it did at the end of the Pleistocene. Will that mean the end of homo sapiens? Highly unlikely. Will it mean the end of modern civilization? Almost certainly.

Now, with that said, there's plenty of room for debate about what is to be done about this challenge, who should do it, how fast it needs to be done, and so on. I'm actually with Bjorn Lomborg (and if you don't know who he is and what he says, then you don't even belong in this conversation) on a lot of his criticism of the more alarmist wing of the climate change debate.

But to deny the fact of anthropogenic climate change itself is criminally insane or ignorant.
In truth, allowing deniers to have a voice in the policy debate about what to do about climate change makes as much sense as allowing Christian Scientists to have a voice in health care reform. Alas, there's a huge constituency that desperately wants to believe that climate change science is bunk, because they (very rightly, in my opinion) realize that dealing seriously with GHG emissions will require dismantling or at least radically scaling back their fossil-fuel-intensive way of life. But that motivation doesn't make their beliefs honorable, much less correct.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The lived experience of climate change

What will be the lived human experience of climate change? To date, most answers to this question have tended to succumb to one of two characteristic kinds of cognitive biases. The first sort of bias is to assume that the impact will unfold gradually and steadily, perhaps even below a level at which it will be noticeable within a single human lifetime. Humans have developed this bias on the basis of several millennia of an unusually stable global climate. Insofar as the climate has changed in the last four or five thousand years, the shifts have been minor and slow, barely noticeable as such to the inhabitants at the time. For example, the Little Age, which lasted about from AD 1450-1850 made some marginal farmland less cultivatable (most notably killing off the Norse settlement in Greenland), but was not formally observed by those who lived through the period, but instead was only reconstructed by paleoclimatologists in the twentieth century.

However, recent climate science has shown definitively two fundamental facts. The first is that the rate of increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is unprecedented, perhaps in the entire geological history of the earth, and that such atmospheric shifts have in the past always resulted in a radically changed climate on the earth. The prospects are alarming: should humans burn all remain fossil fuels over the course of the next couple of hundred years (or if warming of the arctic tundra incites a feedback mechanism releasing large amounts of methane), then absent some radical carbon sequestration or geoengineering, CO2 atmospheric carbon levels will reach levels that have not been seen since the Eocene (~50 million years ago) – when sea levels were 150 feet higher and palm trees shaded crocodiles on Alaska’s North Slope.

The second important recent scientific discovery is that the climate stability of the last five or six millennia is in fact relatively unusual. During many phases of the last two hundred thousand years since homo sapiens emerged there have been wild swings in the climate from century to century or even decade to decade. Despite this history, however, scientists (including the IPCC scenarios) tend to forecast incipient climate change as a steady, continuous (albeit perhaps rapid) ascent to a hotter and more hydrologically active Earth. We see this in innumerable steadily upward sloping curves that show increases in carbon load, temperature, rainfall, and so on. Only rarely is it considered that in fact the lived human experience of these changes may be something quite different.

In meteorological terms, it may be reasonable to depict climate change as a steady progression towards a warmer Earth. In fact, the lived human experience of climate change is likely not to be one of steady continuous change, but rather will take the form of a series of bone-jarring discontinuities: climate change will be experience as a series of sudden "events" that radically destabilize existing physical infrastructure, political institutions, and human lives, in each case producing sudden phase shifts from one state to another, akin to the physical shift that H2O experiences at 0°C from ice to water, or at 100°C from water to vapor. Stewart Brand quotes me on this point in his new Whole Earth Discipline:
"While a single extreme event may be relatively easy to withstand, a second in succession is likely to be far more devastating, as normal resiliency measures are built to deal with one but not multiple consecutive extreme events." Governments, [Gilman] concludes, "will experience climate change not as a smooth transformation, but rather as a series of radical discontinuities—as a series of bewildering 'oh shit' events. Environmentally failed states are a nontrivial possibility."
The severity and rapid succession of these weather events are likely to test the systems that support our nations like nothing we have seen in modern history.

In fact, not only at the first-order level of changes to the weather, but also (perhaps even more so) at the level of second order impacts, the changes being wrought on by global climate are likely to take the form of abrupt, phase shifts. For example, at the first-order level of the weather, a coastline may remain more or less stable and constant for decades, and then suddenly and permanently shift abruptly back by hundreds of meters in the aftermath of s single massive storm surge. At the second-order level, likewise, a civilization may remain more or less stable, even in the face of repeated weather-related crisis, before finally tipping over into full-blown collapse. As Brand explains:
Repetition knocks you down; duration kills you. Complex societies can handle drought, but not multi-decade drought. That's the historic civilization killer, says archaeologist Brian Fagan. It brought down the ancient empires of West Asia and Central America. When the rains fail, agriculture fails, the cities convulse and empty, and what’s left of the society builds shacks in the ruins of its former glory. In this century the effects of rising sea levels, catastrophic as they may be, could look temporary and fixable compared to the effects of permanent drought.
If one sort of cognitive bias is to assume that climate change will be experienced as a steady, progressive event, then an equally pernicious cognitive error is to assume that the impact of climate change will be sudden and extreme, involving the total collapse of human civilization virtually overnight, such as that depicted in the (alas, quite silly) movie “The Day After Tomorrow”. As with the previous sort of cognitive error, this view does contain a kernel of truth, as a corrective to the cognitive bias that assumes that climate change will be a smooth, gradual process, one that will give individuals, corporations, and governments plenty of time to plan and adjust. However, the image of human civilization flipping wholesale from our currently allegedly stable climax state to a globally synchronized civilizational collapse is deeply misleading, at two levels.

In the first place, as population ecologists have long known, collapse usually is not an overnight event where a population moves from a climax state to total annihilation. Rather, collapse more typically happens as a phased process, taking the form of what be might described, to invert the phrase of Stephen J. Gould, as a series of "punctuated equilibria." For example, the environmentally-induced "collapse" of New Orleans is in the process of taking place in just such a phased manner. The first crisis took place with Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, which destroyed half the city, of which only a fraction was rebuilt. Today, New Orleans has restablized as a smaller, less complex urban environment. However, when the inevitable next major hurricane hits, again a major portion of the city is all but certain to be destroyed, of which again only a portion (if any) will be rebuilt. And this cycle may repeat itself several times before the city is eventually abandoned altogether. Each of these hurricanes forms a "punctuation mark" that marks a phase shift to a new (lower) level of organizational complexity and size, which itself will remains largely stable until the next punctuating event. And of course, in the meanwhile, life continues more or less normally in the rest of the United States, albeit with significant impact on surrounding communities that are absorbing climate refugees from Louisiana.
The second way in which the specter of radical and total collapse is misleading is that it usually assumes that the impact will take place uniformly, that is, that civilizational collapse will affect everyone equally everywhere. Nothing could be further from the truth. William Gibson is often quoted as saying, "The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed" and he's absolutely right. But what's less frequently remarked is that this insight applies not just to the cool gizmos and innovative forms of social organization and other similar romantic objects of futurists, but just as much to the nasty impacts of burgeoning global public bads, including those produced by climate change. Thus the victims of vast cyclones in the Ganges and Irrawaddy deltas, or unending droughts in Yemen and Darfur, or cataclysmic brushfires in Australia are all "living the future" just as surely as the whiz kids of Silicon Valley or Bangalore.