Blog Archive

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Bill Nye Does Not Speak for Us and He Does Not Speak for Science

by 500 Women Scientists, Scientific American, January 30, 2018

Tonight, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” will accompany Republican Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), Trump’s nominee for NASA Administrator, to the State of the Union address. Nye has said that he’s accompanying the Congressman to help promote space exploration, since, he asserts, “NASA is the best brand the United States has” and that his attendance “should not be … seen as an acceptance of the recent attacks on science and the scientific community.
But by attending the SOTU as Rep. Bridenstine’s guest, Nye has tacitly endorsed those very policies, and put his own personal brand over the interests of the scientific community at large. Rep. Bridenstine is a controversial nominee who refuses to state that climate change is driven by human activity, and even introduced legislation to remove Earth sciences from NASA’s scientific mission. Further, he’s worked to undermine civil rights, including pushing for crackdowns on immigrants,ban on gay marriage, and abolishing the Department of Education.
As scientists, we cannot stand by while Nye lends our community’s credibility to a man who would undermine the United States’ most prominent science agency. And we cannot stand by while Nye uses his public persona as a science entertainer to support an administration that is expressly xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, racist, ableist, and anti-science.

Scientists are people, and in today’s society, it is impossible to separate science at major agencies like NASA from other pressing issues like racism, bigotry, and misogyny. Addressing these issues should be a priority, not only to strengthen our own scientific community, but to better serve the public that often funds our work. Rather than wield his public persona to bring attention to the need for science-informed policy, Bill Nye has chosen to excuse Rep. Bridenstine’s anti-science record and his stance on civil rights, and to implicitly support a stance that would diminish the agency’s work studying our own planet and its changing climate. Exploring other worlds and studying other planets, while dismissing the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change and its damage to our own planet isn’t just dangerous, it’s foolish and self-defeating. 
Further, from his position of privilege and public popularity, Bill Nye is acting on the scientific community’s behalf, but without our approval. No amount of funding for space exploration can undo the damage the Trump administration is causing to public health and welfare by censoring science. No number of shiny new satellites can undo the racist policies that make our Dreamer colleagues live in fear and prevent immigrants from pursuing scientific careers in the United States. And no new mission to the Moon can make our LGBTQ colleagues feel welcome at an agency run by someone who votes against their civil rights.
As women and scientists, we refuse to separate science from everyday life. We refuse to keep our heads down and our mouths shut. As someone with a show alleging to save the world, Bill Nye has a responsibility to acknowledge the importance of NASA’s vast mission, not just one aspect of it. He should use his celebrity to elevate the importance of science in NASA’s mission—not waste the opportunity to lobby for space exploration at a cost to everything else.
The true shame is that Bill Nye remains the popular face of science because he keeps himself in the public eye. To be sure, increasing the visibility of scientists in the popular media is important to strengthening public support for science, but Nye’s TV persona has perpetuated the harmful stereotype that scientists are nerdy, combative white men in lab coats—a stereotype that does not comport with our lived experience as women in STEM. And he continues to wield his power recklessly, even after his recent endeavors in debate and politics have backfired spectacularly.
In 2014, he attempted to debate creationist Ken Ham—against the judgment of evolution experts—which only served to allow Ham to raise the funds needed to build an evangelical theme park that spreads misinformation about human evolution. Similarly, Nye repeatedly agreed to televised debates with non-scientist climate deniers, contributing to the false perception that researchers still disagree about basic climate science. And when Bill Nye went on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to "debate" climate change in 2017, his appearance was used to spread misinformation to Fox viewers and fund raise for anti-climate initiatives.
Bill Nye does not speak for us or for the members of the scientific community who have to protect not only the integrity of their research, but also their basic right to do science. We stand with others who have asked Bill Nye to not attend the State of the Union. Nye’s complicity does not align him with the researchers who have a bold and progressive vision for the future of science and its role in society.
At a time when our ability to do science and our ability to live freely are both under threat, our public champions and our institutions must do better.
[The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.]

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Friday, January 26, 2018

Ben Santer: Our Coastlines Are Eroding, Along with Our Democratic Norms and Institutions

Civility and decency are crumbling on a daily basis, undercut and weakened by language emanating from the White House

Our Coastlines Are Eroding, Along with Our Democratic Norms and Institutions
Cliff erosion in Pacifica, California. Credit: Brocken Inaglory Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0) 

by Ben Santer, Scientific American, January 2018

About 15 years ago, a friend of mine—let’s call him Peter—bought a house in a coastal town north of San Francisco. The house is on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. The location is spectacular. Ospreys commute past it, carrying fish for breakfast. The steady background noise of waves on the beach is interrupted by the strange cries of seals. The view of the Pacific changes with the season and with the vagaries of light and weather. The view is never the same. It is always beautiful.
That physical beauty is why Peter and his wife bought the house. They made a bet. The bet was that they’d be able to enjoy the house for the rest of their lives. As a climate scientist, Peter understood that the gradual erosion of the cliff’s edge would be exacerbated by human-caused increases in sea level. The risk was visibly evident. A neighboring house closer to the cliff’s edge was already partly suspended over the void, awaiting the inevitable transition from the horizontal to the vertical.
Having seen the view from the house on the cliff, watched the ospreys, and listened to the seals, Peter and his wife took a risk that seems acceptable. We all need things of beauty in our lives.
Erosion does not gnaw away at their cliff at exactly the same rate each month, each season and each year. Heavy rains affect the stability of the cliff’s soil. High tides and large waves can take big bites out of the beach protecting the cliff. Given the complexity of erosion, it’s not possible to make a confident prediction about the lifetime of the house. But one prediction can be made with absolute certainty. Human activities are warming the world’s oceans, raising sea levels and bringing the Pacific Ocean closer to Peter’s front door.
Over the past year, the United States has witnessed a different kind of erosion. There has been an erosion of our democratic norms and institutions, with attacks on the legitimacy of courts and judges, the professionalism and integrity of intelligence agencies, and the fairness and patriotism of the press. Protections on clean air, clean water and human health are crumbling before our eyes. The boundaries of our national parks are eroding. The borders between what is real and what is imaginary are eroding, caving in to the relentless assault of “alternative facts,” outright lies and declared reality. Civility and decency are eroding on a daily basis, undercut and weakened by language emanating from the White House.
Trust is eroding. The rest of the world no longer trusts our word. They no longer believe that the United States is committed to solving the problem of global warming—a problem for which our country bears primary responsibility. Trust in our fellow citizens is being eaten away, undermined by the rhetoric of fear, of otherness, of “American carnage.” And trust in our political systems is eroding: achieving desired political ends seems to justify any means, and any meanness.
In the political world, as in the physical world, erosion creeps up on you. One day the United States is signing the Paris climate accord, part of the community of nations working to ensure the long-term habitability of this planet. A year later our country is alone, isolated, mistrusted, mocked for the ignorance and irrationality of our leaders. We are an object of pity and concern. Other countries witness this erosion of our centuries-old democracy and wonder how close the United States is to the cliff.
Peter and his wife had to decide whether they were comfortable living with coastal erosion. Soon, we must all decide whether we are comfortable living with a very different kind of erosion, which threatens something far more important than our houses—who we are, what we value and what type of world our descendants will inherit. 
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Please sign petition: Bill Nye thinks he can convince nominated-for-NASA-head, climate-denier Brindenstine of the science

Bill Nye thinks he can convince nominated-for-NASA-head, climate-denier Brindenstine of the science, but we all know that's impossible (or about as much chance as the sun exploding tomorrow).


Tell Bill Nye: Don’t support the Trump administration’s disastrous climate denial agenda


Your letter will be delivered to Bill Nye the Science Guy:
Thank you for all of your important work standing up for science, fighting back against climate denial, and being a critical ally in the climate fight! I was greatly disappointed to find out that you are planning on attending the State of the Union on January 30 as a guest of climate denier Jim Bridenstine. I urge you to cancel these plans.

Jim Bridenstine is a fossil fuel industry-funded politician with no science background who denies the reality of climate change. He has no business running NASA.  As you know, NASA performs critical climate science research and if the Senate confirms Bridenstine's nomination he could work with President Trump to end NASA's earth science missions and ground essential research satellites.

Please do not support the Trump administration's disastrous climate denial agenda by attending the State of the Union as Jim Bridenstine's guest. I hope that you will cancel this unfortunate plan and instead speak out against this dangerous nomination.
News just broke that Bill Nye, the “Science Guy,” is planning to attend the State of the Union address on January 30th as a special guest of Trump’s anti-science, climate-denying NASA nominee Jim Bridenstine. Bill Nye has been a critical ally in the climate fight. We hope he’ll continue to be, and if he hears from enough of us we’re sure he’ll wisen up and cancel this unfortunate plan.
Bill Nye has been a stalwart voice against the Trump administration’s climate denial in the past year. Meanwhile, Jim Bridenstine is exactly the opposite: a climate denying, fossil-fueled politician who has no business running NASA. As a member of Congress from Oklahoma, Bridenstine has already racked up $170,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry. Even though he refutes the science of climate change and has no scientific background, he just moved one step closer to becoming the head of NASA.
NASA performs critical climate science research, and if the Senate confirms Bridenstine's nomination he could work with Trump to end NASA's earth science missions, and ground essential research satellites. In fact, in 2013 Bridenstine demanded that President Obama apologize for spending money on climate change research.
With his controversial nomination heading soon to the Senate floor, Bill Nye’s tacit endorsement could be just what Bridenstine needs to get enough votes to be confirmed. We have to stop this in its tracks.
Tell Bill Nye today: Don’t support the Trump administration’s disastrous climate denial agenda by attending the State of the Union as Jim Bridenstine’s guest.

Maize, rice, wheat: alarm at rising climate risk to vital crops leading to widespread famine

A villager lifts up fallen corn plants after a flood at a farm in Jianhe county, Guizhou province, China in July 2017.

by Robin McKie, Observer Science Editor, The Guardian, July 15, 2017
Governments may be seriously underestimating the risks of crop disasters occurring in major farming regions around the world, a study by British researchers has found.
The newly published research, by Met Office scientists, used advanced climate modelling to show that extreme weather events could devastate food production if they occurred in several key areas at the same time. Such an outcome could trigger widespread famine.
The scientists, led by Chris Kent, of the Met Office, focused their initial efforts on how extreme weather would affect maize, one of the world’s most widely grown crops. Heat and drought were the prime risks, although flooding was also included in the analysis.
The group found there is a 6% chance every decade that a simultaneous failure in maize production could occur in China and the US – the world’s main growers – which would result in widespread misery, particularly in Africa and south Asia, where maize is consumed directly as food.
“The impact would be felt at a global scale,” Kent told the Observer. “This is the first time we have been able to quantify the risk. It hasn’t been observed in the last 30 years, but the indications are that it is possible in the current climate.”
An example of the kind of disaster that could occur is provided by the maize harvests that failed last year in Africa. Communities in Zambia, Congo, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Madagascar were affected and six million people were left on the brink of starvation. A joint failure of China and America’s maize harvest would have a far greater impact.
Having studied the risks facing maize production, the group is now following up this work by studying climate impacts on the world’s other staple crops – in particular rice, wheat and soy beans – in order to assess how weather extremes could affect their production.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, maize, rice and wheat together make up 51% of the world’s calorie intake. Billions of people rely on these crops for survival. Any disruption to their production would have calamitous consequences.
The trouble is that crop-growing methods and locations have changed considerably over time, as has the climate and the probability of extreme events, Kent told the Observer. “This means the number of relevant observations to the present-day growing of stable crops has been reduced, and that limits our ability to have useful estimates of the risks to the growing of these crops.”
To get round this problem, the team ran 1,400 climate model simulations on the Met Office’s new supercomputer to understand how climate might vary in the next few years and found that the probability of severe drought was higher than if estimated solely from past observations. The scientists concluded that current agricultural policies could considerably underestimate the true risk of climate-related shocks to maize growing and food supply.
The particular risk outlined by the study envisaged simultaneous catastrophic disruptions in China and the US. In 2014, total world production of maize was around 1 billion tonnes, with the US producing 360 million tonnes and China growing 215 million. If production in these two countries were hit by simultaneous extreme weather events, most likely droughts, more than 60% of global maize production would be hit.
A double whammy like this has never happened in the past, but the work by the Met Office indicates that there is now a real risk. In addition, there may be risks of similar events affecting rice, wheat or soy bean harvests. These are now being studied by the Met Office, which is also working with researchers in China in a bid to understand climate risks that might affect agricultural production.
“We have found that we are not as resilient as we thought when it comes to crop growing,” said Kirsty Lewis, science manager for the Met Office’s climate security team. “We have to understand the risks we face or there is a real danger we could get caught out. For now we don’t have the means to quantity the risks. We have to put that right.”

Lenders' Guide for Considering Climate Risk in Infrastructure Investments, January 2018

AcclimatiseClimate Finance Advisors (CFA), and Four Twenty Seven have released a new guidance document to increase the climate resilience of large infrastructure investments. The “Lenders’ Guide for Considering Climate Risk in Infrastructure Investments” clearly breaks down the ways in which physical climate risks might affect key financial aspects of prospective infrastructure investments. 

This guide provides a framework for questioning how revenues, costs, and assets can be linked to potential project vulnerability arising from climate hazards and draws attention to the potential opportunities emerging from resilience-oriented investments in infrastructure.

Ten sub-sectors, including airports, marine ports, gas and oil transport and storage, power transmission and distribution, wind-based power generation, data centers, telecommunications, commercial real estate, healthcare, and sports and entertainment, are analysed and illustrated with topical examples.

To learn more about this document, please visit our website and download the publication here.

Download the guide at this link:

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Climate Code Red: What we learned about the climate system in 2017 that should send shivers down the spines of policy makers

by David Spratt, Climate Code Red, January 15, 2018

Much of what happened in 2017 was predictable: news of climate extremes became, how can I put it … almost the norm. There was record-breaking heat on several continents, California’s biggest wildfire (extraordinarily in the middle of winter), an ex-tropical cyclone hitting Ireland (yes, Ireland) in October, and the unprecedented Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria that swept through the Atlantic in August. The US government agency, the NOAA, reported that there were 16 catastrophic billion-dollar weather/climate events in the USA during 2017.

And 2017 “marks the first time some of the (scientific) papers concluded that an event could not have occurred — like, at all — in a world where global warming did not exist. The studies suggested that the record-breaking global temperatures in 2016, an extreme heat wave in Asia and a patch of unusually warm water in the Alaskan Gulf were only possible because of human-caused climate change,” Reuters reported.

At both poles, the news continues to be not good. At the COP23 in Bonn, Pam Pearson, Founder and Director of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, warned that the cryoshere is becoming “an irreversible driver of climate change.” She said that most cryosphere thresholds are determined by peak temperature, and the length of time spent at that peak, warning that “later, decreasing temperatures after the peak are largely irrelevant, especially with higher temperatures and longer duration peaks.” Thus “overshoot scenarios,” which are now becoming the norm in policy-making circles (including all 1.5 °C scenarios) hold much greater risks.

As well, Pearson said that 2100 is a misleading and minimizing measure of cryosphere response: “When setting goals, it is important to look to new irreversible impacts and the steady state circumstances. The end of the century is too soon to show that before but inevitable response especially for sea level rises.” Pearson added that: “What keeps cryosphere scientists up at night are irreversible thresholds, particularly West Antarctica and Greenland. The consensus figure for the irreversible melting of Greenland is at 1.6 °C.”

So what did we learn about the climate system in 2017? Here’s three that stand out, that should send shivers down the spines of policy makers. 

1.  2017 was the second hottest year on record and the hottest non-El Nino year on record

Whilst not all sources have yet released data on annual warming for last year, the Copernicus Climate Change Service, the first major international weather agency to report global 2017 temperatures, said they averaged 1.2 °C above pre-industrial times. 2017 was slightly cooler than the warmest year on record, 2016, and warmer than the previous second warmest year, 2015, Reuters reported.

Other organisations have unofficial figures which either agree with this assessment, or say that 2017 has tied with 2015. And last year was Australia's third-warmest year on record.

It is no surprise that the last three years have been the hottest on the instrumental record. What is remarkable is that 2017 was as hot, or hotter than 2015, because 2015 and 2016 were both El Nino years, and the evidence shows that El Nino years are, on average, about 0.15 °C warmer than La Nina years.In fact, a remarkably hot 2017 crushed the old record for hottest non-El Niño year (2014) by an astounding 0.17 °C.

The underlying temperature trend is being driven by continuing high levels of climate pollution: The UN says carbon dioxide levels grew at record pace in 2016. The atmospheric carbon dioxide  averaged 403.3 parts per million (ppm) over the year, up from 400 ppm in 2015. The growth rate was 50% faster than the average over the past decade.

And global carbon emissions are headed up again after three years in which human-caused emissions appeared to be leveling off. A 2% increase is projected overall, with the highest rise coming in China, according to new research presented at the climate talks in Bonn.

In 2017, we also learned that there was no pause in global warming: the so-called ’slow down' in climate change between 1998 and 2012 was caused by a lack of data from the Arctic.

2. It is likely to get hotter than we think

Two significant pieces of work released towards the end of 2017 suggest that warming is likely to be greater than the projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), on which climate policy-making and carbon budgets are generally based. 

This is because what is called Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity (ECS), an estimate of how much the planet will warm for a doubling in the level of greenhouse gases, is higher than the median of the IPCC’s modelling analysis. 

In “Greater future global warming inferred from Earth’s recent energy budget” published in Nature in December 2017, Brown and Caldeira compared the performance of a wide range of climate models (raw model projections) with recent observations (especially on the balance of incoming and outgoing top-of-the-atmosphere radiation that ultimately determines the Earth’s temperature), in order to assess which models perform best.

The models that best capture current conditions (the “observationally-informed” models) produce 15% more warming by 2100 than the IPCC suggests, hence reducing the “carbon budget” by around 15% for the 2C target.

 For example, they find the warming associated by the IPCC with RCP 4.5 emissions scenario would in fact “follow the trajectory previously associated with (higher emissions) RCP 6.0” scenario. 

They also find that the observationally-informed ECS prediction has a mean value of 3.7 °C (for a doubling of the atmospheric greenhouse gas level), compared to 3.1 °C used in raw models, and in the carbon budget analyses widely used by the IPCC, the UN and at climate policy conferences.

In “Well below 2C: Mitigation strategies for avoiding dangerous to catastrophic climate changes,” published in September 2017, Xu and Ramanathan look at what are called the “fat tail” risks. These are the low-probability, high-impact (LPHI) consequences (“fat tails”) of future emission scenarios; that is, events with a 5% probability at the top end of the range of possible outcomes. 

These “top end” risks are more likely to occur than we think, so “it is important to use high-end climate sensitivity because some studies have suggested that 3D climate models have underestimated three major positive climate feedbacks: positive ice albedo feedback from the retreat of Arctic sea ice, positive cloud albedo feedback from retreating storm track clouds in mid-latitudes, and positive albedo feedback by the mixed-phase (water and ice) clouds.” 

When these are taken into account, the researchers find that the ECS is more than 40% higher than the IPCC mid-figure, at 4.5-4.7 °C. And this is without taking into account carbon cycle feedbacks (such as melting permafrost and the declining efficiency of forests carbon sinks), and increase methane emissions from wetlands, which together could add another 1 °C to warming be 2100. 

This work complements other recent work which also suggests a higher climate sensitivity:
  • Fasullo and Trenberth found that the climate models that most accurately capture observed relative humidity in the tropics and subtropics and associated clouds were among those with a higher sensitivity of around 4 °C.
  • Zhai et al. found that seven models that are consistent with the observed seasonal variation of low-altitude marine clouds yield an ensemble-mean sensitivity of 3.9 °C. 
  • Friedrich et al. show that climate models may be underestimating climate sensitivity because it is not uniform across different circumstances, but in fact higher in warmer, inter-glacial periods (such as the present) and lower in colder, glacial periods. Based on a study of glacial cycles and temperatures over the last 800,000 years, the authors conclude that in warmer periods climate sensitivity averages around 4.88 °C. Professor Michael Mann, of Penn State University, says the paper appears "sound and the conclusions quite defensible."
  • Lauer et al. found that climate models that most accurately simulate recent cloud cover changes in the east Pacific point to an amplifying effect on global warming and thus a more sensitive climate. 
And the bottom line?  If this work is correct, then the pledges made under the Paris Accord would not produce warming of around 3 °C as is widely discussed, but a figure closer to and even above 4 °C. And the total carbon budget would a quarter smaller than is generally accepted, or even less.

3. Climate models under-estimate future risks

This year, the Breakthrough Centre for Climate Restoration in Melbourne, published What Lies Beneath, on the scientific understatement of climate risks. The report found that human-induced climate change is an existential risk to human civilization, yet much climate research understates climate risks and provides conservative projections. Reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that are crucial to climate policymaking and informing public narrative are characterized by scientific reticence, paying limited attention to lower-probability, high-risk events that are becoming increasingly likely. (Disclosure: I was a co-author of this report.) 

But don’t take my word.  At the climate policy conference in Bonn, Phil Duffy, the Director of the Woods Hole Institute, explained the scientific reticence regarding the biggest system feedback issues:

"The best example of reticence is permafrost…  It’s absolutely essential that this feedback loop not get going seriously, if it does there is simply no way to control it… The scientific failure comes in because none of this is in climate models and none of this is considered in the climate policy discussion… climate models simply omit emissions from the warming permafrost, but we know that is the wrong answer because that tacitly assumes that these emissions are zero and we know that’s not right…"

And the problems of underestimation of future climate impacts from current models was explicitly recognized by the US government in its Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment. In a chapter on “Potential Surprises: Compound Extremes and Tipping Element,” two key findings were:

Positive feedbacks (self-reinforcing cycles) within the climate system have the potential to accelerate human-induced climate change and even shift the Earth’s climate system, in part or in whole, into new states that are very different from those experienced in the recent past (for example, ones with greatly diminished ice sheets or different large-scale patterns of atmosphere or ocean circulation). Some feedbacks and potential state shifts can be modeled and quantified; others can be modeled or identified but not quantified; and some are probably still unknown. (Very high confidence in the potential for state shifts and in the incompleteness of knowledge about feedbacks and potential state shifts).
  • While climate models incorporate important climate processes that can be well quantified, they do not include all of the processes that can contribute to feedbacks, compound extreme events, and abrupt and/or irreversible changes. For this reason, future changes outside the range projected by climate models cannot be ruled out (very high confidence). Moreover, the systematic tendency of climate models to underestimate temperature change during warm paleoclimates suggests that climate models are more likely to underestimate than to overestimate the amount of long-term future change (medium confidence).
  • The problem is that the notion that future climate changes may be faster and hotter than those projected by climate models is one rarely understood by climate policy-makers, and rarely discussed by those who do understand.
If climate policymaking is to be soundly based, a re-framing of scientific research within an existential risk-management framework is now urgently required. This must be taken up not just in the work of the IPCC, but also in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations if we are to address the real climate challenge.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

2017’s costly climate change-fueled disasters are the ‘new normal,’ warns major reinsurer Munich Re

“We have a new normal” thanks to climate change, explains leading reinsurer.

by Joe Romm, Climate Progress, January 4, 2018

Hurricane Harvey Impacts. CREDIT: Getty Images

It turns out 2017 was a uniquely disastrous year in more ways than one, evidenced by German reinsurer Munich Re’s recently released review of the year’s global catastrophes.
Led by massive, climate change-fueled hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, 2017’s natural disasters will cost insurers a record $135 billion. Adding in uninsured losses brings the total global damages to $330 billion, which is second only to 2011.
“We have a new normal,” Munich Re’s Ernst Rauch told Reuters. Rauch, who runs the group tracking climate change risks, pointed out that “2017 was not an outlier” in having more than $100 billion in insured losses (see chart below). “We must have on our radar the trend of new magnitudes,” Rauch said.
The big reinsurers like Munich Re make their money by insuring the companies that directly insure your property. Those smaller companies are often required by law to buy reinsurance because they lack the capital resources to pay out if there is a major disaster, like superstorm Harvey for instance.
Since the reinsurers must pay out billions and billions of dollars for such mega-disasters, they have a unique incentive to understand and predict trends in mega-disasters. That’s why companies like Munich Re and Swiss Re have been at the forefront of warning businesses and the public about the rise in extreme weather events due to climate change.
Indeed, back in September 2010, another year of stunning warming-driven extreme weather events, Munich Re issued a release noting it had analyzed its catastrophe database, “the most comprehensive of its kind in the world,” and concluded, “the only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change.” 
Then in October 2012, the company released a massive 274-page report, “Severe weather in North America,” analyzing weather catastrophes and related losses since 1980 to understand trends and their causes, including man-made climate change.
Munich Re found that the number of weather-related loss disasters has been rising much faster in North America than anywhere else, and concluded, “Climate-driven changes are already evident over the last few decades for severe thunderstorms, for heavy precipitation and flash flooding, for hurricane activity, and for heatwave, drought and wild­fire dynamics in parts of North America.”
Prof. Peter Höppe, who heads Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research unit, said at the time, “In all likelihood, we have to regard this finding as an initial climate-change footprint in our U.S. loss data from the last four decades.”
And last April, Munich Re published an article on “rapid attribution,” which explained that we can now rapidly determine how much intensity or frequency of some extreme weather events is affected by man-made climate change. Learning that, for instance, climate change has sharply increased the chances of individual extreme rain and flooding events – such as devastating August 2016 deluge and flooding of Baton Rouge, Louisiana – allows communities to do better planning and Munich Re to do better risk management.
The latest annual report amplifies the message that humans are changing the climate, boosting the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, and that the longer we dawdle, the higher the costs we will incur. The only question is, is anyone listening?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Ed Hummel: thoughts on the state we're in and what is to come

by Ed Hummel, google group thread, August 12, 2107

This thread has got me thinking again about some things that have to do with humanity's place in the Universe and our perceptions of that place.  For the past 10,000 years, humans have embarked on a vast enterprise of trying to make our lives much more comfortable and secure by using as many resources from our surroundings in as many ingenious ways as we can think of.  Over this time, the gradual evolution of our global civilization has led the vast majority of us to come to believe that a comfortable civilization is the normal condition for humans that somehow sets us apart from the rest of life forms on this planet.  We have developed cultures and religions that help to solidify this perception and make it into an assumed truth.  But in reality, it's become the ultimate delusion!  The following summary is based on all the latest understanding of where we came from, along with some of the conclusions that I have come up with based on all the latest science. 

Modern humans have been around for approximately 200,000 years since our branch differentiated from the general hominid line in eastern and southern Africa, and for the next 190,000 years we basically lived as any other animal did.  Every day was an adventure with death lurking behind every tree and bush and rocky outcrop.  We also lived through approximately two whole Milankovitch cycles with all the climate variability that occurred during that time.  Our ancestors had no illusions about their place in the scheme of things, and their ways of thought were passed down through the ages in various forms that became manifest in the cultures of so-called indigenous peoples that have survived to the present day.  Our ancestors understood that life was fleeting and a process that could end at any time and for a variety of reasons.  They accepted death as just another part of life which was in turn an integral part of the whole Earth system.  They understood that there was a fundamental relationship among all the various parts of the Earth and that they couldn't deal with just one part without dealing with the whole thing.  There was a profound wisdom in the way our ancestors viewed the world and how it worked, as well as their place within the whole thing.

But 10,000 years ago, some groups of humans in a few parts of the world discovered that they could domesticate certain animal and plant species by partially controlling how they behaved and get some additional benefits from this partial control.  One of the benefits of this control was acquiring the ability to stay put in one relatively comfortable place since the food supply could now be kept within easy reach.  Village life soon evolved and the whole enterprise of civilization took off and became firmly established by 6,000 years ago in a few areas of the globe that were especially favorable for such things, such as the Middle East, China and India, and later on in Central and South America, as well as parts of Africa and Europe.  However, as civilization became more pervasive and led to the alteration of more and more land and sea environments, some humans could see that there were dangers ahead, especially as more people started to accept a civilized life as the ideal that should be attained by all humans, even if by violent methods.  The authors of Genesis seemed to sound the alarm more than once with their stories about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden once they had eaten a fruit from the tree of knowledge, and about the great punishing flood that saw Noah and his family as the sole survivors to try again and do things right.  The ancient Greek playwrights, the authors of the Baghavad Gita in India, and the writings and sayings of Lao-Tse, the Buddha and Jesus were all filled with warnings about the excesses and flawed pathways of civilization and the way humans were behaving.  But the overall charge into the future where humans would come to control everything seemed to trump all warnings to beware of where we were going with our increasing delusions of power over Nature and our incessant drive to become the Rulers of the Universe.

One of the major flaws of civilization, in my view, has been the idea that humans should make our lives as easy and comfortable as possible by taking advantage of all the resources we can extract from any place we can find them for as long as they last and then move on with "substitutes" once they are gone.  I have to admit that all animal species have a tendency to do the same thing, since their main aim in life is to survive long enough to pass on their genes to their descendants and do everything they can to make sure that happens.  And so, a herd of elephants will eat and destroy all the edible vegetation in a certain area and then move on to another area and do the same thing over and over again to make sure they have enough food to keep their huge bodies healthy enough and long enough to produce a new generation and raise that new generation to adulthood.  But there are enough natural constraints on their activities as part of the whole ecological system of which they are a part to make sure that their numbers don't overrun the various areas within their range before certain areas have a chance to regenerate before the next onslaught.  Meanwhile, various other species take advantage of the transition periods within those areas and do their thing before the elephant returns for another round a few years or even decades later.  The same thing happens over and over again at various scales of time and place all over the globe, with all the millions of species taking part in a continuous dance of life forms interacting with each other and with other features such as the rocks and oceans, etc.  But the key to allowing this to happen is that all the species have constraints that keep their numbers and activities reasonable.  Death for individuals and sometimes for whole populations becomes necessary to allow this relatively balanced dance to continue indefinitely.  However, the problem with civilization, the way humans generally tend to view it, is that there are no constraints on human activities; we take what we need and also what we want because we're humans and we can.  And one of the major results of civilization has been the removal, at least temporarily, of as many constraints as we can possibly manage so that nothing interferes with our quest for Universal domination.  This includes the removal of all predators that might prey on us or our domestic animals, the eradication of all diseases that could sicken and kill us, and the removal or modification of all ecosystems that interfere with our desires for comfort and an easy life, as well as anything that could shorten our lives from the exceptionally long period that we have come to assume is normal for humans.  In fact, we strive to find ways to make it even longer and possibly even eternal, if such a thing were physically possible.  Our hubris knows no limits!

But the reality is that "shit happens,, whether we want to admit and accept it or not.  The Universe doesn't care about human sensibilities and desires.  We're just one more life form that just so happens to have an extraordinary ability for manipulation and reflection, not to mention self-delusion.  As far as we can tell, the physical Universe just keeps on truckin' and doing its occasionally violent things because of the way energy is transferred and transformed around the whole thing.  Any time one of these inevitable violent things occurs near human activities, we pay a price, sometimes a very dear price, and there is nothing we can do about it in the long run.  We think we can learn more about certain phenomena to be able to predict them and ultimately control them, but it's definitely a fool's errand, if there ever was one!  It turns out that blocking the effects of some small-scale hazard to save a few lives over the course of many centuries has allowed the human population to explode to a point where nothing we do is going to make any difference in the long run to save civilization and possibly even our species and a lot of our companion species, too.  It's been said that the present human population has become a cancer afflicting the Earth since a cancer is an uncontrolled growth that keeps using up all available resources until the whole system collapses and, in the case of a body, it dies.  I think such a description of humanity living in an unconstrained "civilized" society is about as perfect a description as can be conjured up.  When any force in the Universe grows to such a point where it overwhelms everything around it, catastrophe inevitably occurs, at least for the structure involved, while the rest of the systems in the Universe just continue on as before until some overwhelming force grows again and destroys or "remodels" another system for as long as the Universe exists.  If we think we can interfere with this ultimate game that the Universe plays with itself, we are really living in a fantasy land.

Of course there is the possibility that a species with our level of intelligence might be able to heed the warnings of its prophets and doomers before it's too late to let Nature take its course and "correct the unstable situation" (in other words, kill us off).  After all, we do have the capacity for constructing amazing things in the arts and sciences, all of which makes being human quite rewarding.  But the arts and sciences, which by the way don't need civilization to flourish (!), aren't the only things that keep humans occupied, and for most of us in this present world are not even on our radar.  The overriding drives for food and sex predominate for us, just as they do with all animals, and in fact for all eukaryotic organisms (everything not a bacterium or other prokaryote).  And being social animals, the drive for power over others also predominates, especially among the elite few who manage to make it to positions of leadership at all scales of social order.  I have the feeling, if we were somehow able to override these base instincts for food, sex, and power and concentrate on the wonders available to us through the arts and sciences, we might be able to have a more fulfilling existence with much less impact on the whole Earth system and therefore a much better chance not to "fuck things up beyond all recognition" (FUBAR).  Of course, that still doesn't mean that an asteroid, comet, gamma ray burst, or other such occasional cosmic force couldn't do a FUBAR on us anyway.  But at least we would accept that as part of being alive and acknowledging that death comes to all in some way or another, usually when we least expect it.  Otherwise, it should come as no surprise that our grand enterprise of an ever-expanding civilization with an exponentially growing population extracting more and more resources from a finite planet should lead to the looming "clusterfuck" that we see lurking in the coming years.  The prophets and doomers have been trying to warn us for the last 10,000 years, and yet we still find ourselves on this precipice on the verge of falling off as the cracks in the ledge we're on get larger and longer.  The current generation of such prophets are really trying hard to alert humanity to what's to come in the near future now that we've most likely finally passed the point of no return (probably some time over the last 200 years, though that's probably still up for debate until well past the event if there's anyone left to debate it).  I see Bill McKibben, Joe Romm, Jim Hansen, Eric Rignold, Jason Box, Al Gore, and all the others as trying as hard as they can to wake up the masses to the physical realities that we face now and in the near future.  But I also have the feeling that they know deep inside that it's probably a losing battle and all they can do is go down swinging until that reality floods over us and leads to the largest mass casualty event that humans have ever faced in our relatively short time on this little world.  I also see our little group as being something that helps all of us cope with what we're certain is going to be a very tragic affair.  Being social creatures, having such a group to fall back on is good for our mental well-being, no matter how dark things get.

As you all know, I've gotten to know Alder Fuller quite well over the last few years, and he's helped me understand things from a systems and complexity perspective much better than I have before.  But despite his conviction that it's already way too late to stop the abrupt climate change that's already started because of the way complex systems operate, he still manages to remain positive and even optimistic in the face of the near certain disasters that wait us.  He feels that humans made it through the trials and tribulations of a volatile climate during the Pleistocene (though our numbers were small and there was plenty of room to roam around in search of "greener pastures").  So, he's convinced that some of us will probably survive what's coming and those survivors will hopefully learn from our past mistakes.  His favorite saying is that the coming changes are "not a catastrophe, but an adventure."  I tend to be a lot more pessimistic than he and probably most of you are since I'm convinced that our collective human nature won't allow the vast majority of us to actually learn from our mistakes unless most of any survivors tend to be the outliers among us that I've referred to in the past and which include all of us in this group. 

I don't know if you remember a hypothesis which I came up with a few years ago based on the complexity idea that the Second Law of Thermodynamics can be thought of strictly as the tendency for all energy gradients to dissipate by the most efficient means possible.  I also tied it in with Fermi's Paradox which said if there are millions of intelligent life forms out there, where are they?  According to complexity theory, the emergence of life is an inevitable consequence of Nature's search for the most efficient ways to dissipate energy gradients since the more complex a system is the more efficiently it uses and transforms energy from an ordered state to a disordered state (the growth of entropy in classical physics).  As far as we can tell, the most complex systems in the Universe are living systems that use an astounding array of complex chemical and physical processes to function while using enormous amounts of energy per unit of activity.  And of all living systems, those organisms with large brains and high intelligence seem to be the most complex of all and so the most efficient at processing energy and dissipating gradients.  Therefore, it's probably true that intelligent life is common in the Universe since Nature strives for more complexity in order to more efficiently dissipate the innumerable energy gradients that have been scattered around the Universe since the great expansion of the Big Bang.  However, one of the corollaries of high intelligence is the ability to manipulate the home planet to the extreme the way humans have done over the last 10,000 years, and such manipulation inevitably leads to the destruction of the planetary systems and the ultimate dissipation of energy gradients with high efficiency.  Therefore, to answer Fermi's question, whenever an intelligent species reaches a certain level of intelligence that allows it to manipulate and exploit its home world's resources to the extreme (that's where we are right now), that species destroys itself and most if not all of its home world to provide the ultimate in gradient dissipation for that particular corner of the Universe.  I guess that's the ultimate in doomer porn!! 

Personally, I feel that if people are receptive for one reason or another, we can tell them about what we see coming based on all the latest research.  If they're not receptive, why even bother wasting our time.  The life we have left is too precious to waste on beating our heads against a brick wall.  The best thing we can do is love and respect all those we care about including family and friends and resign ourselves to the fact the chances for avoiding disaster have become vanishingly small, to use a mathematical term which implies approaching zero.  There are still a lot of amazing things we can do and experience, and we should while they're still available to us and they don't conflict with what we're trying to do. 

There was a very poignant scene in "Saving Private Ryan" toward the end of the film where the small American Ranger patrol has hooked up with the remnants of a paratroop unit in an abandoned French village in Normandy that controls a very important bridge needed by both the Americans and the Germans.  The American group knows that they are way understrength and the chances of holding off a much larger and more powerful unit of the German army located nearby are "vanishingly small" unless they are quickly re-enforced, which is also not very likely.  But they know they must protect that bridge from German use or else destroy it before the main American force can make it to that spot, and so they prepare their defenses as well as they can with whatever is available to them.  Once they've finished their preparations, they can only wait for the inevitable German attack.  But in the meantime, they all relax and try to make the best of the short time they have with stories and jokes and general good feelings about what they've done and the lives they'd left back at home.  I found that to be one of the most powerful scenes in a very powerful movie about all the extremes that humans are capable of, both the good and the bad.

I guess one can say that I've become a stoic and a fatalist in my old age.  I still take full enjoyment from all the wonders I see around me, but I also am under no illusions about what is likely to happen, and I've become very accepting of whatever our fate may be.  That's not to say that I've given up, it's just that as a soldier in an impossible battle situation I've come to understand the phrase, "Que sera, sera!"