Sunday, October 14, 2018

Climate catastrophe: The median is NOT the message

Anyone who has followed the climate change issue in the last 30 years knows that official forecasts provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are quickly upended by developments and have often been obsolete before they were issued.

The latest report from the IPCC is the first, however, to abandon the measured tone of its previous ones and foretell what it considers a climate catastrophe for human civilization unless the world makes an abrupt U-turn and begins dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions almost immediately.

And yet, even this forecast is probably too conservative in its pronouncements. That's according to Michael Mann, a climate researcher whose famous "hockey stick" graph has been central to understanding the rise in global temperatures and has been replicated again and again using other measures of historical worldwide temperatures.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Taking a short break - No post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, October 14.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

U.S. government embraces climate catastrophe, but is it a 'crisis'?

The United States government has now officially embraced climate change as a catastrophe in the making. Only it contends that the catastrophe is now inevitable no matter what humans do...and so, we should do nothing at all since whatever we do won't matter much.

That, at least, was the justification offered for freezing fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles after 2020. For the National Transportation Safety Board which issued a report containing the justification, the phrase "Every little bit helps" has morph into "Every little bit won't matter."

The problem, of course, is that if this becomes the attitude of everyone trying to mitigate climate change, almost nothing will get done.

But the report does highlight one very important problem for those who desperately want to address climate change: Climate change is no longer a "crisis."  As French thinker Bruno Latour reminds us in his book Facing Gaia, climate change is not really a "crisis," at least not anymore. A crisis comes and goes. Climate change isn't going anywhere except toward a place which is much worse. It isn't going to pass. It is going to endure.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The problem with models...is getting stuck on just one

Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics, first uttered what must now seem like a well-worn phrase: "The map is not the territory." And yet, I don't think this view has yet been well-incorporated into human culture.

In a time when social media outlets are trying to sort what is "fake" from what is "genuine" or "true," very little thought is being put into what we even mean by "fake," "genuine" or "true." Facebook, for example, has resorted to third-party fact-checkers, a mix of news organizations and fact-checking nonprofits. It is also hiring thousands of new employees to check what it calls "non-news" information posted on Facebook pages.

A lot of checking revolves around whether someone said or did what is claimed. That's not too hard. The next level involves the effect of a policy or position. That's more difficult since some of the policies in question aren't in effect and even for those that are, it is always hard to trace cause and effect from a policy to a specific result.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

'The Expanse' is a story about systemic ruin

"The Expanse" is a popular science fiction television series (based on a book series of the same name) that at first seems to follow a predictable storyline: essentially the Cold War revisited, only in this case with warlike Mars (previously settled by people from Earth) pitted against Earth as the two planets vie over the resources of the asteroid belt (which is a stand-in for today's so-called less developed countries).

But quickly we are drawn into a mystery that implicates a non-state actor with interests so important that that unknown actor has its own warships which are superior to those of Earth and Mars. While I made some fun of "The Expanse" previously for its assumptions about energy, after watching the entire series I've come to appreciate the nuanced manner in which it deals with the systemic risk that unfolds as the story progresses.

Here I must issue a spoiler alert for those who have not seen the series and wish to see it unhindered by foreknowledge of the plot.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

A kinder, gentler GMO; what could possibly go wrong?

The so-called CRISPR technique for editing the genes of plants and animals is being hailed as a more acceptable face of genetic engineering. After all, it doesn't rely on the insertion of genes from one species into another—which is what previous techniques allowed and what alarmed critics.

No, this technique can cut out precisely an offending gene and let the cell sew things up like new afterwards. No chance of strange interspecies complications. No random mutations created by gene guns that can never shoot straight by design. Just a little editing of an existing gene to subtract what we do not want from a plant or animal (including ourselves).

Hence, the breathless coverage.

But as with practically every biologically driven endeavor these days, we are forgetting first principles as explained by pioneering ecologist Garrett Hardin who tells us that "[t]he science of ecology is founded on this generalization: We can never do merely one thing."

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Climate change, water and the infrastructure problem

I was watching an episode of the science-fiction noir thriller "The Expanse" recently. Set hundreds of years in the future, the United Nations has now become the world government and its main rival is Mars, a former Earth colony. The UN is still in New York City and a new fancier UN building is now tucked safely behind a vast seawall that protects the city from rising water resulting from climate change.

It's a world that looks like an extension of our own, but one that has survived the twin existential threats of climate change and resource depletion. But will it be so easy to update our infrastructure to overcome these threats?

The naive notion that we can, for example, "just use more air conditioning" as the globe warms betrays a perplexing misunderstanding of what we face. Even if one ignores the insanity of burning more climate-warming fossil fuels to make electricity for more air-conditioning, there is the embedded assumption that our current infrastructure with only minor modifications will withstand the pressures placed upon it in a future transformed by climate change and other depredations.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Seawalls for oil refineries and other ironies of climate change adaptation

A friend of mine includes a saying with each of his emails that goes like this: "It shouldn’t be easier to imagine the end of civilization than the end of air conditioning." But in most depictions of the end of civilization at the cinema these days, the air conditioning (or heat, if it is winter) is going full blast until the very moment of civilization's demise.

What he is alluding to, of course, is that we can't imagine ourselves giving up much of anything even in the face of the biggest man-made threat to human survival ever, namely, climate change. To make sure that we don't have to, the oil industry is championing a plan that will use federal money to build a seawall along the Texas coast in order to protect—you guessed it—oil refineries, a large number of which are located near the water's edge.

It will protect a lot of other stuff as well. But the irony is not lost on the reporter of the linked piece who in droll understatement writes: "But the idea of taxpayers around the country paying to protect refineries worth billions, and in a state where top politicians still dispute climate change's validity, doesn't sit well with some."

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Artificial intelligence, fake images and crumbling trust in our narratives

In a piece I wrote in 2014 I opined, "If you want to corrupt a people, corrupt the language." I added, "Once it becomes impossible to say the truth with the language we have, it will ultimately be impossible for us to adapt and survive."

In that piece I was complaining about what I dubbed "oil Newspeak," an Orwellian lexicon created by the oil industry to deceive policymakers, investors and the public.

Of course, back then I concerned myself only with words. But with the increasing power of artificial intelligence (AI) enhanced software which is now available to average computer users, practically anyone can alter and/or create images and audio recordings that seem real, but which are entirely concocted. It means that comedian Richard Pryor's famous line—"Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?"—may very well morph from a joke into a serious question.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Climate, politics and the narrow vision of futurists

Most people know the tale of the blind men and the elephant. Each describes a part of the elephant. The elephant is said to be like a pillar by the blind man touching the elephant's leg. The one touching the elephant's tail says the elephant is like a rope and so on.

Now, let's substitute so-called futurists for blind men in this tale and you get something even less reliable. Futurists are the soothsayers of our age. Of course, futurists have eyes to see at least. But they, like the blind men, almost never see the whole picture.

And, in this case they are giving us a description of something that is not even there for them to examine. The future doesn't exist. It's a mere concept. Unlike the blind men, futurists aren't really describing part of a whole.