Friday, February 04, 2011

Real Snow, Unreal Paradox

The storms of snow and ice that blanketed much of the U.S. this week became another disinformation occasion for professional Climate Crisis denialists. The cold and snow proves that global heating is untrue, they say. Of course, when intense summer heat waves sweep across the nation with largely unreported death tolls, or kill people by the thousands in Europe and other parts of the world, they deny this is evidence that the globe is heating. They charge that climate scientists are trying to have it both ways, when they are clearly trying to have it both ways.

But people with more of an open mind and actual curiosity rather than fear-based prejudice are learning that the apparent paradox is not much of one. Everyone who has lived in a place that gets cold in the winter, and has paid any attention to the world outside their cars and buildings, has reason to know that when it gets really really cold, it's usually "too cold to snow," as the saying goes. That's folk wisdom, and informed common sense.

The science is also pretty clear in relation to the Climate Crisis, and consistent with models that predict more precipitation, some in the form of snow. So it's been the occasion for explanations, such as this one in England, this one from December which is more complicated but seeks to explain the relationship of global heating to extreme cold with a real world focus, and most recently this one applied to the latest U.S. winter storms.

Since Al Gore went on Bill O'Reilly in the brave but futile attempt to get past the ignoramus mocking and talk about the science in regard to snow and cold and climate change, the charge has been made that while Gore says this is consistent with what climate scientists have predicted for years, there's nothing about it in Gore's Inconvenient Truth. Granted that since pretty much the whole picture was new to much of the American public, this wasn't as emphasized as polar ice melting, sea level rise, or the relationship to bigger and more frequent hurricanes and storms like the one that just devastated a chunk of Australia. But snow is mentioned in the book as a form of precipitation that is likely to increase in some places, particular in big one-time events that leads to flooding (in the book, the section on precip and storms begins at page 92 and continues to 121.)

That these storms are so widespread, that Dallas is so cold, that these snowstorms in the U.S. are happening at the same time as heavy rain and flooding plus a huge storm in Australia, none of it alone proves anything. But in the pattern of extreme weather over time, it's evidence of climate instability (as meteorologist Jeff Masters says), and together with all the other data, it adds mightily to the reality of the Climate Crisis. But even if it alone doesn't prove the Climate Crisis is upon us, it sure doesn't prove the opposite.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Egypt and Media

It's one of those rapidly changing events that takes on a life of its own. At the moment, the Friday demonstrations are close to their scheduled beginning, and there are fears that the Egyptian government is planning a violent suppression.

There's a story going around, originally from the New York Times and apparently confirmed elsewhere, that the U.S. is working to get Mubarak to step down immediately, perhaps Friday. (Even if that happens, I'm skeptical--that v.p. doesn't seem much of an improvement, and the rest of the apparatus is still entrenched.)

But the other story that's getting less play, and is to me also pretty significant, is quoting State Department sources as saying that the attacks on journalists the past 24 hours were organized by the government. That it's the State Department speaks volumes about the Obama Administration U.S. position. It's not on the side of the current government.

For those of us who remember China, who remember the fall of the Wall, the fall of the Shah in Iran etc., the TV pictures are eerily familiar, though these examples show the range of what might yet happen. I haven't watched much TV coverage until today, but a couple of things are different in potentially very bad ways--I mean about the coverage. Most obviously there is FOX that covers this only from a predetermined ideological perspective, with talking parrot heads pushing an extreme rabid right agenda that they partly seem to have cooked up themselves. They've got their vocabulary set, and their "experts" on board, who have remarkable little to say that's different one from the other. For those who think they're getting their news from FOX, and instead they're getting one or more paranoid alternative realities, it's a sad and potentially destructive situation.

The other quite noticeable difference is the absense of the channel that the world used to watch for coverage of these events: CNN's Headline News. It used to be that Headline News did the hard news coverage, while CNN provided longer and more in depth stories. You could switch from one to the other. Now when you switch from CNN to what's now called HLN, you go from Egypt to celebrity chitchat and tabloid crime. It's very jarring, and pretty depressing.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Future in Mind

The future is a very big place. That's one reason we can't handle it. We can't even deal with the present, and the future is many times bigger than that, because it is comprised of possibilities that fill many presents.

In times when change is quick and apparently unpredictable--as is graphically apparent in Egypt at the moment--we are reminded of this. We see unexpected events with possibly large but utterly unknown effects. We see the conditions of the present changing before our eyes, but we don't know how much, or how little will change, or when, or how.

There's been a fitful but fairly long history of trying to anticipate the future, to help guide present actions. The last time it was a big concern was the 1970s, when there was a wide range of people and organizations convinced that studying the future was the key to managing change so it would be for the better. There was a lot of excitement about applying computers to make sense out of all the myriad possibilities--to enumerate the possibilities, assign probabilities to each, and create scenarios based on how individual possibilities would interact with each other and the given world.

But the number of possibilities and probabilities, their many possible interactions, the range of possible, probable and desirable futures--the future of many possible presents--was too big even for computers. In part, because people had to imagine so much and decide so much in order to instruct the computers on what data to consider and how to handle it, and it was all just dizzily overwhelming.

But one legacy of this period of futures studies was the idea that all kinds of data and many explanations ought to be considered. Today however we cling to single explanations for the present, or at best a few. We like simple and familiar explanations, especially those inculcated by the most powerful influences, the most persistent explainers. Most often it's the explanation overtly and covertly sponsored by the rich and powerful, backed by the dominant religious institutions. In recent centuries, something called science has gotten in on the act, though most successfully when allied with the rich and powerful, which it has been much of the time.

Sooner or later a consensus explanation will emerge for what's happening in Egypt. At the moment that consensus hasn't yet been reached, but one fairly new explanation--or at least contributing factor--is at least in the mix. It is climate: Unrest in the Middle East is emerging in part because of rising food prices, due in part to climate change.

When it's all said and done that's very unlikely to be the consensus explanation, the conventional wisdom. But it might well be true. Is it the whole explanation? Very unlikely. But it may be a strong contributing factor. And it should not be automatically ignored. Food prices are rising faster in some parts of the world, but they are rising everywhere. One big reason is extreme weather affecting crops that supply food for large regions and even the entire world. If those events are increasing in frequency and severity, they could be the result of the Climate Crisis, as scientific models have predicted. Various studies by think tanks, some affiliated with the U.S. military, predict political unrest due to food prices and shortages, among other effects of the Climate Crisis.

Though at the moment climate may be a politically toxic word in the U.S. and elsewhere, the historical role of climate in the rise and fall of civilizations is gaining more credence, most recently in relation to the Roman Empire. It's not a new idea--James Burke made the case in his brilliant television program of the late 1980s, "After the Warming." But it is heard more often these days. It's not that it is the only explanation--though some probably sound like they mean it to be. But centuries of a relatively stable and beneficent climate have blinded us to the possibility. It's not something we automatically consider. But if it was so, and if the extent and length of climate change happening now is caused by greenhouse gases that continue to be spewed in great quantities, then it is a factor shaping the future.

Yet the habits of mind, plus the relentless shaping of opinion by powerful interests with lies, plus how we are currently using our latest communication technologies to fill all available time and space with commercialized trivialities, blinds us even to the evidence of the present. Here in the U.S. we don't know and don't much care about the recent devastating floods in Australia, let alone what scientists are saying about the evident relationship to the Climate Crisis.

The idea that we're vulnerable to climate change, that even seemingly small changes in climate can change everything, is hard to grasp when we're not experiencing its extremes. But many people are, and more will be. The best science predicts that climate change now underway will not end up being small and local. It's going to be big.

What also makes the Climate Crisis so big is that it affects so many other factors, and how they interact. It's as big as the future. Our climate science is good enough to tell us that it's happening (through measurement and observation) and where things seem to be going (through models as well as applying the rules of such sciences as chemistry, physics and biology), as well as basically why it is happening. But it's not good enough to tell us exactly what will happen and when. It can tell us in general what we need to do to prevent the worst and deal with the inevitable effects, but not specifically. A lot of that has yet to be ascertained or at least fully evaluated.

We should at the very least be having those discussions, those arguments, together, all the time. Instead we're ignoring what's likely to be the major determinant of our future. And that future has already begun. We should be applying even our limited knowledge and skills to this problem. Instead we're running from it, although it is clearly gaining on us. You can tell by the relentless ferocity of the opposition (though that is also partly due to the big pots of money supporting the opposition.)

What the history of the future does suggest is that all these possibilities and factors can only begin to be sorted out into whole futures by acts of the imagination. The proper use of the imagination in this sense is to see the possibilities as fearlessly as you can, match them with what you know from experience and instinct about people and the living world, and develop a sense of the future, perhaps as a range of probabilities, or perhaps as a story.

We all have a story about the future that we live by, even if we don't think about it in those terms. I think about the role of climate, and I see it defining conditions of the future, as it is beginning to define conditions of the present. This has led me to think more and more about what characteristics of human beings will help get them through this future, perhaps even about what organized human activity might be like.

But for the moment, this is the point I want to stay with: I look at the present as it unfolds with the climate and the Climate Crisis in mind, as a key to this present and especially, to the future. My sense is that more and more people are doing that, even if they aren't the ones making the most effective noise.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Emerson for the Day

"I am defeated all the time; yet to victory I am born."