Monday, May 4, 2015

visual impact

As climate change moves from the future into the present, it gains visual reality. A compelling photographic testimony is the disappearance of the Sierra Nevada snowpack. A webcam of the Yosemite Conservancy captured the following pics of Yosemite Half Dome, each taken a year apart, on March 19, from 2011 to 2015.

2011, before the drought:

2012, at the same place, after one year of drought:

2013, at the same place, after two years of drought:

2014, at the same place, after three years of drought:

And 2015, at the same place, after four years of drought:

On its climate change impacts page, the U.S. Forest service states: "Here in our National Forests and Grasslands, these shifts include:
  • More frequent wildfires that burn larger areas
  • More severe problems with ... diseases threatening trees and crops
  • Snowpack decline in mountainous regions ... 
  • Plant and animal ranges shifting northward ... 
  • Threatened watersheds ..., increased pest and fire severity, and shifts in ecosystem health."
And what does this all mean? Well, for one thing, something simple that even climate deniers know about their potted plants. If you don't water them, they wither and die. An aerial survey conducted by the U.S. Forest Service in April 2015 revealed that the California drought has already killed 12 million forest trees.

There's a not-quite-new area of research out there related to the cultural dimension of climate change, and it's called cultural cognition. This is short for the cultural cognition of risk, and it seems to have started in 2010 at Yale with a programmatic paper by Kahan et al. on "The Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus". The opening sentence of this paper reads:
Despite the steady and massive accumulation of scientific evidence, the American public is as divided about climate change today as it was ten years ago.
The abstract of another paper, by the same group, on "The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons," explains the troubling rationale for cultural cognition research:
On the whole, the most scientifically literate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate ones. More importantly, greater scientific literacy were associated with greater cultural polarization: Respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy increased. 
This explains the oddity of the skeptical friend mentioned in an earlier post. He teaches at a college of education; he has an advanced degree and keeps doing research; he is neither mentally disabled nor insane. Yet something is wrong with his brain. Strangely, he even sat through several lectures and workshops about the risks of climate change. Hence teaching more information alone won't do. And the analysis of the roots of the American Disenlightenment won't do the trick either.

But perhaps it would work to just take a look at a picture or five ...

Monday, April 13, 2015

consensus vs. doubt

I was profoundly surprised when I learned that an old friend is still in denial. He concedes the reality of climate change, admits that it has anthropogenic causes, but maintains that "science is still undecided over whether this poses a threat". This may have accurately described the status of climate science in 1975, but forty years later it's just false. Surprising about this declaration of doubt is that this friend is holds a Ph.D. from an excellent university in Scotland and is a senior faculty (full professor) in the humanities. Despite his sterling credentials, he indulges in a skepticism that is nothing but scientific illiteracy.

What can one do with this prejudice? Any rational discussion would have to center on the exact location of doubt. The friend maintains that "according to some scientists, climate change may be good for us." There are two aspects to this. The one is the question of benefits of climate change, and the other is the question of some scientists saying so. Now, it is true that climate change will have positive impacts on some regions, as in the northern latitudes, and in some ways, as over the length of the growing season. But such positive impacts are only of a regional kind and are outweighed by negative impacts not only everywhere else but also in the very regions that partly benefit from the warming climate. Negative impacts in the far north range from direct harms to nonhuman life (disruptions of indigenous ecosystems and extinctions of indigenous species) to indirect harms to local human populations (whose territories will become targets of mass migrations and military annexation when climatic conditions worsen in the south.) If one takes the contention of benefits as an argument, its flaw lies in confusing limited local impacts, which can be positive, with the overall, global, or net impact, which is decidedly negative.

The other aspect is the identification of climate science with "some scientists" who tout the benefits of climate change.  The flaw here is the confusion of individual viewpoints (the notorious three percent of deniers across the sciences) with the collective sum of viewpoints, the scientific consensus. Both confusions are identically flawed; they commit the pars pro toto fallacy, the error of reasoning to mistake a part as the whole.

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration maintains a wonderfully lucid climate site. The drop-down menu under the heading "facts" in the upper right hand corner leads to NASA's page on the consensus. It cites statements on climate change from 18 national scientific associations. The statements by the largest organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and by specialized professional societies, as the American Chemical Society (ACS), the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the American Medical Association (AMA), and the American Physical Society (APS), all express the consensus that climate change is "a growing threat to society" (AAAS); that it is "potentially a very serious problem" (ACS); that it is "negative" (AGU) or "adverse" (AMA); and that it threatens "significant disruptions" (APS).

For philosophers and other colleagues in the humanities, it would be prudent to take these unanimous joint statements at face value. Don't deny the consensus.

Monday, March 30, 2015

different sensibilities

Today's Der Spiegel, the largest European newsmagazine and leading German weekly, has a story about an upcoming solar eclipse this week and what it'll do to the German electricity grid. The maximum capacity of solar power in Germany is 39 GW, which is equivalent to 35-40 mid-size nuclear power plants. The Moon will eclipse the Sun by 82 percent Friday mid-morning to noon. If there are no clouds that day, then the electricity load of the grid will shift pretty wildly. First it'll plummet as the Moon moves in front of the Sun, and then it'll bounce back, and even higher than before, because then it'll be noon. From one hour to the next, load capacity will vary by 15 GW.

Solar power input 3/20 at cloudless sky in gigawatt

Germans are doing this because decarbonizing the economy is the only way to mitigate the impact of climate change. The national consensus is that climate change is real, our fault, and bad.  On February 21 Der Spiegel had a front cover on the topic. Translated, it reads: Planet wasted--how greed for growth destroys our climate.

Coverpage of largest European weekly 2/21/2015

Compare this to the political discourse on climate change in the US and Florida. On February 27, Republican Senator J. Inhofe appeared on the Senate floor with a snowball in hand to demonstrate that climate change cannot be real. Remarkable is that an American politician can do this in an official setting in front of an audience that represents the establishment, and in this setting no one laughs. Intriguing from an anthropological point of view is that Inhofe is no random American Senator, no; he is the chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in the United States of America in 2015.

Senator Inhofe (R, Okla) shows snowball to prove climate hoax
In Florida, finally, the American Disenlightenment takes a censorious twist. Since disenlightenment consists in disconnect from scientific information, it is logical that the Florida state government had an unwritten policy of discouraging state employees from using the words "climate change," "global warming," and "sustainability". Miami Herald broke the story March 8.

It is fascinating is how polarized things have become. There are now profoundly different cultural sensibilities on the topic. While the scientific consensus is as hard as it can get, and a number of nations is taking action--in such tangible form that German utilities now need to worry about solar eclipses (that must be a first!) and that, globally, in 2014 carbon emissions did not increase--the powerful exponents of the American Disenlightenment are doubling down.

Florida Governor Rick Scott (R)