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“The Ministry for the Future” review

OK, well judging from the book’s cover, another review is utterly unnecessary, but here we are and GG can’t resist.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction writings have had an interesting trajectory. His Mars trilogy was in many ways treading a path through areas where much science fiction has roamed, though his view was not to take some moment from some terraforming of the planet as a setting for a story, his was the story of how the Red Planet might be made blue and green. You kind of wonder if Elon Musk read this (though the politics are wildly different). The next grand solar system level novel, 2312, saw humanity spread through the system, though in this case Robinson returned to a more traditional narrative framework. But Earth made something of an appearance here, hinting at books to come. Seemingly wanting to tamp down enthusiasm bred from the previous expansive books, especially the terraforming of Mars, came Aurora, whose interstellar journey ended with disaster. The optimism in Robinson’s works came through again, as rather than the more likely end of the mission in the deaths of all, he engineers the return of the craft with some of the crew’s descendants, allowing them to decry the decay of Earth and seek its restoration. The focus finally shifts to Earth in New York 2140, which seems quite bleak as global warming has wreaked havoc and New York City is partially flooded. And yet people persist in seeking solutions and making life better. In this novel, interludes from an omniscient observer of the general situation puncture the narrative, providing backdrop, context, and political commentary damning the authors of this calamity. We’ll pass over Red Moon, which in many ways is an investigation of how China works in some future, and come up to The Ministry for the Future, which carries Robinson into that most fraught time frame for science fiction: tomorrow’s headlines. This is perilously close to being a non-fiction book…

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Too Much Attribution?

NB: Added a pp on wester US drought story, 2/14/22

Pick a natural disaster, any natural disaster, and these days, odds are good you’ll also find a story or two or twenty saying “this is a manifestation of climate change.” This is quite the sea change from not that long ago when the role of climate change was not brought up, not even by climate researchers. While the consideration of climate change is welcome, the broad-brush assumption that it is behind every disaster is getting to be questionable. This runs the risk of overlooking other contributors that can be very important if not dominant in some situations.

The problems most easily attributed to climate change, with very little argument, are heat waves and droughts. Attribution studies often approach this by running climate simulations with and without the extra CO2 we’ve put in the air and heat in the ocean and seen how often a given heat wave or drought emerges. Lots of times they are really rare in the pre-industrial climate but common in modern conditions. From this you can get relative odds: a heat wave that might show up in 1 of 1000 pre-industrial simulations but shows up in 20 of 1000 modern simulations would suggest that heat wave was 20 times more likely because of climate change.

Precipitation is a lot chancier.

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Torching the Giants

Probably all of us who have spent time in the Sierra Nevada of California are familiar with the giant sequoias. And all of us have been wounded by the unprecedented demise of so many of these trees in fires the last couple of years. The most common explanation is like that from the LA Times:

With their towering canopies and thick bark, giant sequoias are adapted to withstand low-intensity fire, and even need it to reproduce. But ferocious climate-change-fueled fires of recent years have proved fatal to the trees that experts once thought were impervious to flames.

Wildfires killed thousands of sequoias in southern Sierra Nevada,” Los Angeles Times, 19 November 2021.

GG, being a bit of a contrary sort of person, would like to examine this a bit. There is certainly some truth to blaming climate change, but there might be more to the story.

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War on Science: Fallout Edition

When the curtain fell on the Trump administration, there was hope that science would again be consulted as government struggled to address societal issues where scientific knowledge is helpful. But the punitive actions of the Trump administration struck deep into the scientific staffs within the federal government. As the New York Times reports, lots of people left as they refused to bow to political pressure or had their positions uprooted and moved across the country. And having had that perception that science was above politics ripped away, a lot of those who left (along with younger scientists seeking employment) are skeptical of entering governmental service. In general, governmental work pays less than private industry, so the perks are generally considered to be continuity (typically the government doesn’t fail the way a company might) and the opportunity to help society move forward. While political appointees are used to the revolving door of Presidential administrations, this has not been the case for scientists and other professionals (e.g., diplomats).

This underscores the profound asymmetry between tearing down something and building it up. Although there were civil service protections where many of those who left couldn’t be fired, when people were assigned to jobs they were ill-suited for, or told they had to move, or told that their work had to be revised to fit the outlook of political appointees, they decided that their job wasn’t worth their time. As a result, the scientific expertise to address a lot of the concerns the current administration has is simply not present, at least not in sufficient numbers to answer all the calls for expert input.

Now some of you might be thinking, well, every administration bends the science to their policy goals, and this isn’t that special. From conversations GG has had with colleagues, the magnitude of meddling from political appointees was far, far greater from 2017 to the start of this year than ever before (and there certainly had been some meddling in previous administrations). Previous administrations might try to spin the scientific results in a direction; the Trump administration sought to have a void of scientific results so that they could fill that void with their own illusions.

How will the Biden administration deal with this? While it sounds like they hope to hire more people, one possible route for now is to convene some expert panels for specific challenges. This isn’t as good as having permanent, in-house staff who can provide continuity, but such a route would let experts participate without feeling like they were risking their careers in going back into government service.

This whole experience shows just how fragile the presence of science in government really is. This was most obvious to the public when the CDC was cut out of pandemic communication (a change that still seems to have left the agency stumbling), but also became clear when the former president wanted to revise storm warnings to soothe his ego at having misspoken. The playbook for getting rid of pesky scientists has now been written in large block letters. The only question will be, will we elect another administration eager to use it?

Does hyperbole and misattribution really help fight climate change?

GG occasionally gets annoyed with the New York Times over their provincial view of the West, and this extends to essays they publish. The latest is from a woman who spent a glorious summer in Yosemite in 1993 and returned this year to find a sooty husk of the place she remembered. The reason? Climate change, she says, and all the comments online echo this melancholy.

However, this is at minimum exaggeration and at worst misdirection, and the shallow understanding of ecosystems becomes painfully clear in the certitude of many commenters. Of course the forest having experienced beetle kill is from climate change. Of course the fires are from climate change. Of course the drought is from climate change. And if you disagree, you are a tool of the evil carbon fuel industry.

GG is no tool, but hates to see bad arguments made for good causes, and this is a bad argument. First, the basis for the article is that she remembered a very wet Yosemite and it isn’t that right now. Well, welcome to the west: 1993 was a pretty wet winter, and 2021 follows a pretty intense drought. So yeah, it is a lot drier.

We’ve known for decades that the west suffers from megadroughts and that the twentieth century was unusually wet. Attribution studies found that the recent series of California droughts were made more intense by extra heat pulling moisture from soils, but the dearth of precipitation may be more typical of the natural system, though the 2015 low snow year might be quite exceptional in the past 500 years. [This is very much moving target territory, and if you have better intel, please make a comment below].

In contrast to uncertainty there, there is a lot of certainty about other factors. Native Americans regularly burned the forests and meadows in the Sierra in low intensity fires. The cessation of that activity c. 1860 led to a century and a half of accumulating debris that would make for far more intense fires. Pollution stress has been a major issue in the Sierra, though it is increasingly overlooked because of other threats. But widespread browning of needles from ozone (which tends to hang out at the top of atmospheric inversions) has been seen for decades; how much of the insect infestations were because of stressed trees? GG doesn’t know, but it seems a potential issue (here in Colorado, though, a lot of infestations were a combination of cyclical issues and winters lacking a killing cold, so climate change could be a player here). And a few studies have pointed out that weather systems associated with fires in California (Sundowner, Santa Anas and the like) did not produce widespread fires in the prehistoric past. But today we have lots of ignition sources (especially in California, PG&E power lines) that start fires in these conditions.

Look, *people* are the problem, and there certainly is a problem. That much is easy. But if the issue is the Sierra forests, just how people are messing things up remains unclear. If you want to write about places where climate change is clearly the singular cause of change, have at it: there are places in Greenland, heat waves in Europe, bleached reefs in Australia, Alaskan towns falling into the ocean–even the forest fires in the boreal forests–all that have the fingerprints of climate change as the main cause. But when you take a complex story and boil it down to “climate change” you miss the chance to really understand how the system works. The irony of course is that it wasn’t long ago when *nothing* could be attributed to climate change, and now it seems *everything* can. Reality is in between, maybe closer to the latter than the former.

The Power of Denial

As we in the U.S. stand at the brink of our fifth (!) wave of COVID-19, it is worth taking a moment to ponder what this says about society as a whole and our chances of reining in climate change.

First up, why a fifth wave? Unlike the previous four (March-April 2020, mid summer 2020, late fall 2020, spring 2021), this one is one that should have been prevented. An irony is that the Trump administration put all its eggs into one basket marked “vaccine”–and it paid off–and yet the people who are most disdaining of the vaccines are Trump’s supporters. Because we are increasingly living in politically uniform communities, the result has been some communities where nearly nobody has gotten vaccinated and others where nearly everyone has. With the delta variant rolling along (it has been responsible for most Colorado cases for well over a month), case numbers have returned to rising. In places like Boulder, this is a rise from very small numbers of cases to small numbers. In places like Branson, MO and Grand Junction CO, it is a rise from kind of OK to oh-my-gosh. It seems clear that we’re headed for a long haul of COVID kind of rumbling around, flaring up in unvaccinated areas while just steaming a bit on corners of well-vaccinated communities.

The first and obvious lesson is that even experience isn’t enough to fully educate some fraction of the populace. Lincoln supposedly said that you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. With dying patients spitting in the eye of nurses who are telling them they have COVID and people who spent many days in ICU saying that COVID isn’t that big a deal, it is pretty clear we have identified the people who can be fooled all the time. The science is about as crystal clear as it gets: COVID-19 is a transmissible disease that can be made far less infectious and far less dangerous through the use of vaccines. Everything else is quibbling.

So it is clear that no number of hurricanes or droughts or forest files or king tide floods or historic heat waves are going to convince some people–probably close to 30-40%–that climate change is a real problem. There will not be a hosanna moment when we all unite to defeat the scourge of climate change. After all, if we can’t unite to defeat a fatal disease by getting one or two shots, how likely is it that we’ll be willing to unite behind a realignment of society’s energy system?

So we’re doomed?

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Risk and Responsibility

Awhile back, GG speculated that the closest historical analog to the present situation in regards to global warming was what transpired in the Sierra Nevada in the last half of the nineteenth century. As a reminder, hydraulic mining in the Auriferous Gravels of the Sierra was flooding downstream properties, and for many years the farmers losing their fields to floods of mud and debris felt powerless. The farmers took all the risk, though they felt the miners were responsible. And then a court case got some traction, and the entire hydraulic mining business was shut down in the Sawyer decision that found the mines responsible for all the debris covering fields. In doing this, the court effectively stranded millions of dollars of assets owned by the mines.

The question has been, if (and when) something similar might come through in regards to climate change. And this past week has seen a lot of legal action suggesting that global legal and economic balances are shifting against the oil and gas titans. Between a Netherlands court case demanding that Shell accelerate its shift into a carbon-neutral company, a skeptical hedge fund group getting a couple of people on Exxon’s board, and a host of smaller actions around the globe, the perception is growing that the days of “drill, baby, drill” are about over. And something similar had happened in the Sierra in the run up to the Sawyer decision. Miners working at the hydraulic mines, seeing the writing on the wall as things progressed, stopped contributing to the mines’ legal funds and started to move on to other places or other careers well before the Sawyer decision was handed down.

After roughly a half century of dismissal of climate change in the halls of government and corporate board rooms, it seems that tables are turning. And probably the most encouraging part of this is those economic forces coming into play: investors, including large institutional investors, are feeling that their money is threatened by a head-in-the-sand approach to climate change. Investors had already forced companies to downgrade the value of their known reserves under the logic that those reserves might remain in the ground. How fast might the turnaround in oil and gas occur? While inertia of the massive infrastructure society is built on guarantee these companies a few more good years, when the economics turn south, change is in the wind.

We are still a long, long way from turning the corner and having a sustainable energy mix. But the prospects are improving, from the low price for new solar and wind power to a massive shift in the auto industry to electric cars. It can’t come fast enough, as residents of the Arctic are witnessing, but come it will.

War on Science: “Don’t Let the Door Hit You On the Way Out” Edition

Honestly, you’d think with just over a week left to the Trump administration, and with a few other distractions in the air, that the years of denying science might have already ended. No such luck.

Perhaps the most desperate move was to take a number of climate-denier essays and plop them on official letterhead of a part of the government that didn’t actually review these documents. These weren’t even posted on a government site. Ars Technica has more details, which includes that the postings might be illegal and that it is unlikely that they can be considered official government documents. Terms like “laughable” and “fifth-grade-level” show the kind of respect these documents are attracting.

The more dangerous move was the establishment of a rule essentially codifying the HONEST act of Lamar Smith from several years ago. While some earlier rules put forth made it harder to prove that certain chemicals were harming humans, this rule actually can prevent the use of more direct scientific evidence simply because there are privacy issues that prevent satisfying the terms of the rule. While this particular rule might well be rescinded by Congress, saving the Biden administration from formal efforts to repeal it, other rules will continue to be challenged in court or require new administrative efforts to change the rules. The New York Times compiled a list of climate and environment related rules the Trump administration made that will bedevil the new administration for some time. While many of these are more political footballs than science policy issues, there are several that reflect both a willingness to ignore settled science and a desire to prevent scientific research from influencing policy decisions.

So as we bid adieu to an administration that arguably was more at war with science than almost any other part of American society, we can expect that repairing the damage will take some time. What is less obvious is the longterm impact of the Trump administrations approach for future GOP administrations: will they adopt “science as enemy” or return to a more mainstream approach when they return to power?

Climate v COVID: Personal Choice?

Previously GG pointed out how it seems that the closer coronavirus gets to a community, the more they are willing to double down on dangerous behavior. And this behavior suggests that fighting climate change may well run into the same mindset, where a shifting perception of “normal” combined with partisan messaging would lead the U.S. to stall out on any climate mitigation. While GG feels there is some merit to this pessimistic view, there is another side to this that might just make a fight against climate change easier.

There are two parts: economics and the role of personal behavior. Let’s take the second first. In a pandemic, if you decide you are going to go out, get sick, and spread the disease, you yourself might not pay much of a price, but your actions extend the pandemic farther forward. At this point in the U.S., slowing the virus is entirely on the backs of individual Americans.

In contrast, personal choice has far less of an impact on climate change mitigation. You really have very little choice in where your electricity comes from; if a state has mandated that some fraction will be from renewables, you can’t exactly opt out. If auto fuel efficiency standards are tightened, your new car might get better mileage even if you’d rather it didn’t. Sure, you can find some old beater car or refuse to put solar panels on your roof, but derailing the entire country isn’t really possible. This is, ironically, the flip side of how powerless individuals are in stopping climate change.

The second side is economics. There is little doubt that a lot of the avoidance of complying with public health rules is driven by fear of economic disaster. Even as many economists argue that we really need to shut down the pandemic to have a healthy economy, the immediate threat to a personal business has created political pressure that results is ridiculous rules contrary to evidence-based regulations. For instance, the most dangerous place in this pandemic is indoors in a restaurant. The very first thing that should be shut down are restaurants and bars, yet they are often staying open even as less dangerous targets like schools shut down. Politically driven demands to reopen the economy reached receptive ears of those being hurt financially.

But for climate change, at least at this point in the battle, economics is increasingly on the side of shedding carbon-based businesses. This is most obvious in the electrical power industry, where renewables are now as cheap or cheaper than fossil fuel power sources. Utilities are finding that becoming more nimble in storing power and using distributed power sources makes their bottom line look better. And when the government puts in place incentives for electric cars or carbon-storing farming practices, lots of folks will change their behavior; the laggards won’t prevent progress.

The top-down nature of the energy economy makes it more likely to overcome minority resistance to change; this is different than the pandemic, where the bottom-up nature of transmission empowers individuals to scuttle progress made by a majority. Of course, if a majority decides to prevent progress, then indeed progress will be difficult–but we’ve already seen an attempt to bring back coal as a source for electrical power, and it failed to gain any traction.

If the coronavirus pandemic does, in the end, increase trust in scientific evaluation of risks, and this in turn strengthens the majority that favors addressing climate change, then failures in keeping people alive and free of infection won’t necessarily doom us to an ice-free and drowned coastal future.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

11/17 update. Seems either Paul Krugman reads this blog, or GG is clairvoyant or this is just really obvious…

Many (including GG) have pointed out the parallels between coronavirus and global warming, suggesting that being forced to see science as useful in confronting a previously marginalized hazard will pave the way for the public to embrace fighting an even less immediate threat. And, well, could happen. But it is worth considering what is going on right now with the coronavirus in large parts of the U.S. As documented in a New York Times article, plenty of people encountering the virus at fairly close range are shrugging it off. God’s will, or “most people recover” seem the most common refrains. Of course others lean the other way, becoming more careful and protective. What does this bode for fighting climate change?

In general, the public is in favor of doing something about climate change. But the thing about human beings is that we kind of adopt as “normal” the climate from some point in our personal past. Since we all have finite lifetimes, the cultural “normal” will slide forward in time. This has the effect of reducing the emotional impact of a changing climate. So when we see folks shrugging off a fatal disease kicking around the neighborhood, it seems even more plausible that folks might start to accept drowned cities, frequent hurricanes, floods and droughts as just part of “normal.”

We have already crossed many red lines. We’ve been partially rescued from the very worst that could have happened by the fruition of seed money planted years ago in wind and solar power but also by the technological advancement that brought forth sufficient natural gas that coal plants are quickly vanishing. If the public pushes to lighten our impact on the planet–or even if they are just willing to go along with it–there is hope for preventing more dire outcomes. But get complacent, say “eh, no big deal” as some are to the coronavirus, and we’ll enter a world we aren’t really prepared for, and one likely to be far less diverse in fauna and flora than today. Being jaded and stoic in the face of these crises is perhaps as much an obstacle as industries being shunted to the side.