Climate Illogic: Appealing to history to predict the future is often illogical

When the conditions today are significantly different from conditions in the past, relying on the past to predict the present or the future is an illogical appeal to history.

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EPICA ice core data (image source: antarcticglaciers.org)

There are a lot of illogical arguments made by climate disruption deniers (those who deny the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the reality of industrial climate disruption). One of the most common illogical arguments is that increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) today can’t cause global warming because CO2 increased after global warming had already started when previous ice ages were ending. This argument sounds reasonable, but it’s actually a logical fallacy known as a “predictive appeal to history” (also known as an “appeal to tradition“). It’s the wrong same argument as “we’ve always done it this way, so we have to keep doing this way.”

To illustrate the issue with this argument, let’s look at an apocryphal story told by Richard Quinnell to engineers:

In the early 1940s, so the story goes, the Army wanted a dependable supply of llama dung, as required by specifications for treating the leather used in airplane seats. Submarine attacks made shipping from South America unreliable, so the Army attempted to establish a herd of llamas in New Jersey. Only after the attempt failed did anyone question the specification.

Subsequent research revealed that the US Army had copied a British Army specification dating back to Great Britain’s era of colonial expansion. The original specification applied to saddle leather. Great Britain’s pressing need for cavalry to patrol its many colonies meant bring together raw recruits, untrained horses, and new saddles. The leather smell made the horses skittish and unmanageable. Treating the saddle leather with llama dung imparted an odor that calmed the horses. The treatment, therefore, became part of the leather’s specification, which remained unchanged for a century.

The moral of the story is that, since airplanes don’t need to be calmed down, the llama dung was unnecessary. Something had changed that rendered the historical knowledge irrelevant. Continue reading

Climate Science for Everyone: How do scientists measure the temperature of the Earth?

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Figure 1: Weather station (image credit: Blundells.org)

Before we answer the question in the title above, I’m first going to ask and answer a different question: how do you measure the temperature of a glass of water?

I’m guessing that most people will answer the question with some variation of “use a thermometer.” Stick a digital or glass thermometer into the cup, measure the digital reading or look at the colored bar inside the glass, and write down the number. Done, right?

Wrong.

We didn’t measure the temperature of the cup of water at all. We measured the temperature of the water that was next to the thermometer at a time just before we looked at the thermometer. But when we put the thermometer into the water, that act changed the temperature slightly as energy flowed between the thermometer and the water.

We can try again, of course. Let’s put the thermometer into the water again and let it sit for a little while, until we think that the probe and the temperature of the water have equalized, write down the number, and we’ve got it, right?

Nope, I’m afraid not. We’re still only measuring the temperature of the water that’s next to the thermometer. Continue reading

A daring young man … and a documentary dependent on his survival

Alex Honnold is a remarkable young man. He may be the foremost rock climber in generations.

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Alex Honnold

That his most recent feat was done entirely ropeless — meaning he’d die if he fell — adds to his impressive résumé.

Honnold, 31, climbed the Freerider route on the 3,000-foot granite monolith El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in just under four hours. (See the illustrated route map in The New York Times.) Just try to imagine it: He scaled vertical, sometimes overhanging granite, often using fingernail-sized handholds, with only his talent, control over fear, and sheer will protecting him from a fatal fall.

A life as a full-time, professional rock climber, such as Honnold, requires financial support. Honnold’s website points this out: “These are the companies that allow me to climb all day every day,” he writes. His sponsors include mountaineering equipment suppliers Black Diamond, Maxim Dynamic Ropes, La Sportiva, and North Face as well as GoalZero and Stride. (Ironic, isn’t it, that a climber who shuns the protection of a rope has rope manufacturers as sponsors …)

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John Oliver’s beatdown of DaVita reminds us: Richard Nixon was an American liberal icon

Noam Chomsky, of all people, has called Tricky Dick “America’s last liberal president.” Sadly, he couldn’t have been more right.

Way back in 2008 I said this:

If he were a candidate in the 2008 presidential election, Richard M. Nixon would be more progressive than either the Republican or Democratic nominees.

What a ludicrous thing to say, right? I mean, Nixon was as twisted and corrupt as any president in US history. Hunter Thompson said “Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning.” He got caught with said pants down in l’affaire Watergate and had to resign. He’s the reason anything remotely scandalous has to have a name ending in “-gate.”

Worst. President. Ever. A fixer of the first order. All of which attached, by association, to the Republican Party, making his name synonymous with the rank evil of the American conservative polity.

That he was congenitally shady is unarguable, but the conservative part probably isn’t fair at all. Continue reading

Export U.S. coal to Asia? Not so fast, say three West Coast states — and Canada?

Coal-Train-300x268It appears Canada may no longer be a willing partner for American coal companies wishing to export coal to Asia. No economically feasible alternatives to get coal to Pacific Rim markets exist for those companies, either.

News item from October 2016:

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A coal company with mines in Montana and Wyoming said Thursday that it’s begun exporting fuel to Asia through a Canadian shipping terminal, after its years-long effort to secure port access in the U.S. Pacific Northwest has come up short.

That’s not surprising. The use of coal in America, as S&R explained last year, has stalled — and it’s not going to rebound despite President Donald’s promise to revive the coal industry. So the owners of big coal mines in Montana and Wyoming are looking to export coal to Asian markets to shore up revenues.

But the states of California, Washington, and Oregon have opposed coal export terminal projects in Oakland, Calif.; Bellingham, Gray’s Harbor, and Longview, Wash.; and Port of Morrow, St. Helens, and Coos Bay, Ore. So coal corporations have decided to ship through Canadian ports on its western coast. For now, maybe.

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Above the madding crowd: a brief note on the artistic process

I posted a different version of this shot a few days ago. I loved the explosion of color but it lacked focus. The eye wanted to look everywhere at once, which can be confusing and tiring. This one has been cropped and I pulled the light in tighter around the upper left third – note that purple bloom standing higher than the rest? – for greater impact. Sometimes I wonder if any work of art is ever absolutely, positively finished…

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Anniversary journalism? Well, mostly it just sucks.

In early April 1970, I walked into the newsroom of my hometown newspaper and asked the editor if he knew anyone at the state department of natural resources. I’d just received my undergraduate degree in geology. I could do that kind of work for a while before I returned to university for master’s and doctoral degrees and to eventually live happily in Alaska as its state geologist.

best-earth-day-poster-ideas-pictures-2016I walked out of that newsroom as a journalist. (I lied about being able to type.) The editor needed another sportswriter but couldn’t hire one full time. He needed an environmental writer (the first Earth Day was two weeks away) but he couldn’t hire a full-time one.

I could do both, he judged. He hired me. I wrote about Sen. Gaylord Perry’s first teach-in on April 22. For the next six weeks, I wrote “green” and follow-up Earth Day stories in the afternoon, and local sports in the evening.

But come June, the editor asked for fewer “green” stories and more sports stories. By July, I’d more or less become a full-time sports writer.

In March 1975, five years later, I was asked to produce a slew of Earth Day anniversary stories. Then, a few weeks after Earth Day, no more stories. Ditto 10 years later and 15 years later.

That introduced me to anniversary journalism. I witnessed that with the rise of fall of Earth stories every five years in my newspaper and many, many others.

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Some helpful suggestions for the New York Times

I just learned of the editorial kerfuffle going on over at the New York Times regarding the hiring of some git or other who shall remain nameless here. Don’t worry, he’s named all too often at the link. I apologize that the link is to HuffPo, because I ordinarily don’t waste my time with them, and shouldn’t waste yours with them, but they’re relevant this time. HuffPo apparently had something to say to and/or about the Times. The Times replied to HuffPo. So I kinda have to cite them. Bummer. Continue reading

What does it mean to be a “good ancestor”?

usa-2074What is a good parent? What is a good grandparent? These terms don’t mean what they used to.

I heard a comment a few weeks ago about someone who wanted to be thought of as a “good ancestor.” It has stuck with me, and I have been wrestling with what, if anything, is meant by the phrase. It’s a serious attempt to capture something that up to a decade or two ago would never have been in question. Up until recently, ancestors generally were good in the same way. They tried to make a career and livelihood for themselves that could be passed on to their children, or to equip their children with the tools necessary to survive and, hopefully, to prosper. My grandparents took this responsibility seriously—this is why some of them emigrated to America from Germany. And this sense of responsibility preceded them by generations, and was passed on to their children, who tried to, and sometimes even succeeded in, passing it on to my generation. Leaving the world a better place was a given.

But the world has changed. All of this took place in a world that seemed to have no limits—natural capital, if it was thought about at all, was thought to be inexhaustible. But we know now that this is not true. Not only is natural capital, the foundation of the global economic system, exhaustible, some parts of it (such as water) are being depleted at a more rapid rate than anyone could have anticipated. Continue reading

Potholes and the Law of Attraction

By Tamara Enz

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It’s spring in Ashland, Oregon. Winter in the west has been long, cold, and snowy. Most people are over it.

pothole-damageWalking through town yesterday, I stopped to enjoy the magnolia blossoms that are about to explode. They have escaped their protective bracts, but are uncertain about fully opening to the tepid sun. A massive camellia tree stands next to the magnolia. Camellia flowers are a color never seen anywhere else, red and pink and raspberry, but none of these.

As I stood admiring the tree, a man walked up next to me and commented on the flowers. I responded, “They’re beautiful.” He impulsively reached over, snapped one off, and handed it to me. Continue reading

The Mature Society, pt 2: politics and leadership in the age of anti-science

Part 2 in a series.

by Dr. Michael Tracey

How stupid are Americans, anyway? And how much worse are our leaders?

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) explains climate change

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) explains climate change

Numerous events and curious beliefs – large and small – caught the eye, even before the election of 2008 and certainly beyond. Consider:

  • a CNN discussion on October 10, 2005, featuring the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, addressed the subject of whether recent climate events – the Christmas 2004 tsunami in Asia, hurricane Katrina in the late summer of 2005, an earthquake in Asia – actually presaged the end times, the Rapture and the second coming of Christ; Continue reading

Wendell Berry goes global, sort of

The Essential Wendell BerryPaul Kingsnorth is a British writer, of both fiction and non-fiction. His fiction includes The Wake, nominated for the Booker a few years ago, which involved him creating a variant of Old English to tell the story. His non-fiction includes Real England, published more than ten years ago, but still topical in its description of the alienation even then afflicting England’s middle and working classes—much like the US. More recently, he has been involved in establishing a group, Dark Mountain, which describes itself as “a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.” That’s a pretty good description of where many of us are these days.

We have been led to believe a raft of stories about ourselves that turn out to be, well, just not true. Capitalism will kill us, it’s pretty clear. Globalization has helped a number of countries pull themselves up, but it turns out to be more of a zero-sum game than predicted, and the environmental consequences of unbridled capitalism are rendering places actually unlivable now. The neoliberal project brought us two of the most undesirable US presidential candidates in history, and the morass of US politics shows every sign of deteriorating even further. Continue reading

How to know what to trust in the age of fake news

With so much noise and misleading information out there, how can we make sure what we read is reliable?

In the era of Trump, journalism has become a fragile and imperiled enterprise. When we can’t tell “fake news” from actual events or “real news”from satire, the whole project of democracy is on shaky ground. But I haven’t caved to cynicism yet. As a media studies scholar once upon a time, I learned a thing or two about how to critique the news. And while that task has become exponentially more taxing in recent times, with the explosion of false stories going viral on social media and audiences willing to jettison critical thinking or a belief in facts, it’s still possible to vet a news story. I invite you to see how it’s done.

Here’s the backstory: I posted this article, a Jan. 9, 2017 story from the New York Times Science section entitled “Human-Driven Global Warming is Biggest Threat to Polar Bears, Report Says,” two days ago. Continue reading

A dreary walk in the woods … then magic

Saturday dawned gray, cold, and wet. A light mist eased through the forest at my university. But a day walking in the woods with a camera is a good day, no matter the weather, right?

The university was on holiday break. Students had fled home to give thanks with family and friends. I did, too, but returned early.

The deeply overcast sky dictated a flat, low-contrast aspect to the trees and trails in the forest. I looked down. At least I can shoot leaves, now wet and trodden. I like to shoot leaves. A little Photoshop would add hue and color contrast to them, I thought.

But the gray and the cold and the mist cut into my coat and mind. I shivered. Bummer. A dark day growing darker. Melancholy arrived and tapped on my shoulder. I turned and shuffled back onto the main trail, intent on returning to my truck. My Canon hung unused from its strap around my neck. I hate the interregnum between seasons: no leaves on the trees, no snow on the ground.

Franciscans have walked through these woods for more than a century and a half. Franciscans like nature and apparently thrive in it. They have, over the life of the university, constructed stations of the cross on a circular trail in this forest — Bob’s Woods, named after Fr. Bob Stewart, who died of cancer shortly after my arrival at the university.

I am not a Franciscan. I am not as hopeful as they appear to be. Dank, dark weather like this day’s further eroded my ability to detect hope.

Then I saw …
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