Climate change: The time for talk is over

The Internet is a huge thing. I try to stay abreast of world and current events, but without a positronic brain, I sometimes miss things.

Today came to my attention an article that was posted at reddit three years ago, and a stunning commentary by an ecological scientist. You know, the real thing – with degrees and experience and stuff, not just 45 minutes of reading something on Fox News.

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It needs to be shared.

The article at Business Insider carries the lede, “Two of the world’s most prestigious science academies say there’s clear evidence that humans are causing the climate to change.”

What’s more impressive was the comment left by user /u/tired_of_nonsense, which I replicate here with the writer’s express permission. If you care about this island Earth we live on, it’s worth the read, in full.

Throwaway for a real scientist here. I’d make my name, research area, and organization openly available, but the fact of the matter is that I don’t like getting death threats.

I’m a perpetual lurker, but I’m tired of looking through the nonsense that gets posted by a subset of the community on these types of posts. It’s extremely predictable.

  • Ten years ago, you were telling us that the climate wasn’t changing.
  • Five years ago, you were telling us that climate change wasn’t anthropogenic in origin.
  • Now, you’re telling us that anthropogenic climate change might be real, but it’s certainly not a bad thing.
  • I’m pretty sure that five years from now you’ll be admitting it’s a bad thing, but saying that you have no obligation to mitigate the effects.

You know why you’re changing your story so often? It’s because you guys are armchair quarterbacks scientists. You took some science classes in high school twenty years ago and you’re pretty sure it must be mostly the same now. I mean, chemical reactions follow static laws and stuff, or something, right? Okay, you’re rusty, but you read a few dozen blog posts each year. Maybe a book or two if you’re feeling motivated. Certainly, you listen to the radio and that’s plenty good enough.

I’m sorry, but it’s needs to be said: you’re full of it.

I’m at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in Honolulu, sponsored by ASLO, TOS, and AGU. I was just at a tutorial session on the IPCC AR5 report a few days ago. The most recent IPCC report was prepared by ~300 scientists with the help of ~50 editors. These people reviewed over 9000 climate change articles to prepare their report, and their report received over 50,000 comments to improve it’s quality and accuracy. I know you’ll jump all over me for guesstimating these numbers, but I’m not going to waste more of my time looking it up. You can find the exact numbers if you really want them, and I know you argue just to be contrary.

Let’s be honest here. These climate change scientists do climate science for a living. Surprise! Articles. Presentations. Workshops. Conferences. Staying late for science. Working on the weekends for science. All of those crappy holidays like Presidents’ Day? The ones you look forward to for that day off of work? Those aren’t holidays. Those are the days when the undergrads stay home and the scientists can work without distractions.

Now take a second before you drop your knowledge bomb on this page and remind me again… What’s your day job? When was the last time you read through an entire scholarly article on climate change? How many climate change journals can you name? How many conferences have you attended? Have you ever had coffee or a beer with a group of colleagues who study climate change? Are you sick of these inane questions yet?

I’m a scientist that studies how ecological systems respond to climate change. I would never presume to tell a climate scientist that their models are crap. I just don’t have the depth of knowledge to critically assess their work and point out their flaws. And that’s fair, because they don’t have the depth of knowledge in my area to point out my flaws. Yet, here we are, with deniers and apologists with orders of magnitude less scientific expertise, attempting to argue about climate change.

I mean, there’s so much nonsense here just from the ecology side of things:

User /u/nixonrichard [+1] writes:

Using the word “degradation” implies a value judgement on the condition of an environment. Is there any scientific proof that the existence of a mountaintop is superior to the absence of a mountain top? Your comment and sentiment smacks of naturalistic preference which is a value judgement on your part, and not any fundamental scientific principle.

You know, like /u/nixonrichard thinks that’s a profound thought or something. But it’s nonsense, because there are scientists who do exactly that. Search “mountain ecosystem services” on Google Scholar and that won’t even be the tip of the iceberg. Search “ecosystem services” if you want more of the iceberg. It’s like /u/nixonrichard doesn’t know that people study mountain ecosystems… or how to value ecosystems… or how to balance environmental and economic concerns… Yet, here /u/nixonrichard is, arguing about climate change.

Another example. Look at /u/el__duderino with this pearl of wisdom:

Climate change isn’t inherently degradation. It is change. Change hurts some species, helps others, and over time creates new species.

Again, someone who knows just enough about the climate debate to say something vaguely intelligent-sounding, but not enough to actually say something useful. One could search for review papers on the effects of climate change on ecological systems via Google Scholar, but it would be hard work actually reading one.

TL;DR’s:

  1. rapid environmental change hurts most species and that’s why biodiversity is crashing
  2. rapid environmental change helps some species, but I didn’t know you liked toxic algal blooms that much
  3. evolution can occur on rapid timescales, but it’ll take millions of years for meaningful speciation to replace what we’re losing in a matter of decades.

But you know, I really pity people like /u/nixonrichard and /u/el__duderino . It must be hard taking your car to 100 mechanics before you get to one that tells you your brakes are working just fine. It must be hard going to 100 doctors before you find the one that tells you your cholesterol level is healthy. No, I’m just kidding. People like /u/nixonrichard and /u/el__duderino treat scientific disciplines as one of the few occupations where an advanced degree, decades of training, mathematical and statistical expertise, and terabytes of data are equivalent with a passing familiarity with right-wing or industry talking points.

I’d like to leave you with two final thoughts.

First, I know that many in this community are going to think, “okay, you might be right, but why do you need to be such an ******** about it?” This isn’t about intellectual elitism. This isn’t about silencing dissent. This is about being fed up. The human race is on a long road trip and the deniers and apologists are the backseat drivers. They don’t like how the road trip is going but, rather than help navigating, they’re stuck kicking the driver’s seat and complaining about how long things are taking. I’d kick them out of the car, but we’re all locked in together. The best I can do is give them a whack on the side of the head.

Second, I hope that anyone with a sincere interest in learning about climate change continues to ask questions. Asking critical questions is an important part of the learning process and the scientific endeavor and should always be encouraged. Just remember that “do mountaintops provide essential ecosystem services?” is a question and “mountaintop ecosystem services are not a fundamental scientific principle” is a ridiculous and uninformed statement. Questions are good, especially when they’re critical. Statements of fact without citations or expertise is intellectual masturbation – just without the intellect.

Toodles. I’m going to bed now so that I can listen to, look at, and talk about science for another 12 hours tomorrow. Have fun at the office.

Edit: I checked back in to see whether the nonsense comments had been downvoted and was surprised to see my post up here. Feel free to use or adapt this if you want. Thanks for the editing suggestions as well. I just wanted to follow up to a few general comments and I’m sorry that I don’t have the time to discuss this in more detail.

“What can I do if I’m not a scientist?”

  • You can make changes in your lifestyle – no matter how small – if you want to feel morally absolved, as long as you recognize that large societal changes are necessary to combat the problem in meaningful ways.
  • You can work, volunteer, or donate to organizations that are fighting the good fight while you and I are busy at our day jobs.
  • You can remind your friends and family that they’re doctors, librarians, or bartenders in the friendliest of ways.
  • You can foster curiosity in your children, nieces, and nephews – encourage them to study STEM disciplines, even if it’s just for the sake of scientific literacy.

The one major addition I would add to the standard responses is that scientists need political and economic support. We have a general consensus on the trajectory of the planet, but we’re still working out the details in several areas. We’re trying to downscale models to regions. We’re trying to build management and mitigation plans. We’re trying to study how to balance environmental and economic services. Personally, part of what I do is look at how global, regional, and local coral reef patterns of biodiversity and environmental conditions may lead to coral reefs persisting in the future. Help us by voting for, donating to, and volunteering for politicians that can provide the cover to pursue this topic in greater detail. We don’t have all of the answers yet and we freely admit that, but we need your help to do so.

Importantly, don’t feel like you can’t be a part of the solution because you don’t understand the science. I’ve forgotten everything I’ve learned about economics in undergrad, but that doesn’t stop me from 1) voting for politicians that support policies that appear to have statistical backing aligning with my personal values, 2) making microloans that help sustainable development in developing countries, or 3) voting with my wallet by being careful about the food, clothing, and household goods I purchase. I don’t begrudge the fact that I’m not doing significant economics research, or working at the World Bank, or for the US Federal Reserve. We’ve all chosen our career paths and have the opportunity to contribute to society professionally and personally in unique ways. With respect to climate change – I only work on the ecological aspect of climate change, which means I rely on atmospheric and ocean scientists for models and engineers and social scientists for solutions. We need everyone!

Just try your best to ensure that your corner of the world is in better shape for the next generation when you’re done borrowing it.

t-minus 30 minutes to science

Accepting the reality of human-caused climate change and taking what steps we can to mitigate or at the very least slow it down is an important part of building a world that works for everyone… and every thing.
I’ve posted this before, but it merits inclusion here again, with thanks to Humon.
Gaia
If we don’t do what we need to do now, we’ll be gone – and the Earth won’t miss us.
The Old Wolf has spoken.
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Climate change can’t be real, the earth is so *big*!

Well, it’s not as big as all that when you look at how it’s constituted.

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This image shows all the earth’s water, all the fresh water, and all the water in lakes and rivers represented as spheres compared with the earth.

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This image shows the earth’s water and atmosphere in the same spherical form.

Now, those spheres are still huge – but one must also realize that there are seven billion people on the surface of the earth who are busily crapping into the nest. It’s not hard to visualize our industry and our agriculture making a difference in the composition of those little globes over a couple of centuries.
Progress is being made. Carbon emissions are coming down, many nations are rapidly making the switch to renewable energy (sadly, ours is not one of them – at least not the “rapidly” part), and governments are doing what they can in their inefficient, ossified way to reduce surface pollution.
I just found these images fascinating and thought-provoking, and thought they were worth sharing.
The Old Wolf has spoken.

There! Are! NINE! Planets!

Nine Planets Thumb

Maybe.

See, for the longest time, I’ve been fascinated by space, and the stars, and astronomy. When I was a kid in the 1950s I’d go from New York City where I lived to visit one of my uncles in the country, and he had an interesting and eclectic library, which things like CS Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet or The World of Å by A.E. van Vogt. He also had this book:

zim stars

which I would spend hours and hours perusing, right around the same time Alfred Bester was publishing the exploits of Gully Foyle. In my own mind, the stars were my destination.

And of course, there were Nine Planets. Nine.

Solar System

This was cemented into my mind when, during the same epoch, I read Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel. Beyond being a delightful space opera, it was full of hard science, too. Kip Russell was a genius who thought higher math was as addictive as peanuts, and had all sorts of astronomical data tucked away in his mind which helped him figure out where his evil worm-faced kidnappers were taking him and his little companion, Peewee.

“Mother very thoughtfully made a jelly sandwich under no protest.” Could you forget that after saying it a few times? Okay, lay it out so:

Mother Mercury $.39
Very Venus $.72
Thoughtfully Terra $1.00
Made Mars $1.50
A Asteroids Assorted prices,
unimportant
Jelly Jupiter $5.20
Sandwich Saturn $9.50
Under Uranus $19.00
No Neptune $30.00
Protest Pluto $39.50

The “prices” are distances from the sun in astronomical units. An A.U. is the mean distance of Earth from Sun, 93,000,000 miles. It is easier to remember one figure that everyone knows and a lot of little figures than it is to remember figures in millions or billions. I use dollar signs because a figure has more flavor if I think of it as money – which Dad considers deplorable. Some way you must remember them, or you don’t know your own neighborhood. (Heinlein, Robert A., Have Space Suit, Will Travel).

And no, I could never forget it either. There were nine planets. Nine. And the mnemonic was seared into my consciousness forever. When Pluto was demoted from planetary status to “dwarf planet,” I was devastated. I refused to give in. No. Still a planet, always a planet. Apparently, others felt the same way I did, and for similar reasons:

I really wasn’t too concerned about Pluto’s demotion from being a planet. It was a non scientific discussion about a silly serious definition.

Well, at least that was until they decided to TAKE AWAY PLUTO’S NAME. WTF? So, please Mr It’s-Not-A-Planet-Just-A-No-Name-Dwarf Astronomer, what am I supposed to use for my mnemonic now? Huh?

I learned “Mother very thoughtfully made a jelly sandwich under no protest” as a teenager reading Robert Heinlein. And now? “Mother very thoughtfully made a jelly sandwich under no 134340” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

[Update: Thanks Dan]
Pluto may have lost it’s planetary status, but it GOT A NEW NUMBER! It went from merely 9 to a rocking 134340! Wow, what a raise. I am however bummed that my favorite memonic, “Mother very thoughtfully made a jelly sandwich under no protest” learned as a teenager reading Robert Heinlein, no longer works.

Perhaps “Mother very thoughtfully made a cherry jelly sandwich under no protest. Excellent!”  (Hmmm, still doesn’t ring well.) Anyway I still stand to-

Sure tell me Pluto it isn’t a planet, but stop MESSING AROUND WITH MY CHILDHOOD! (From Eclectics Anonymous)

And that’s the crux of my objection: don’t screw around with what I learned as a child. If nothing else, Pluto should have been grandfathered in, because despite its true status as a captured Kuiper Belt object (as clearly shown by its off-kilter orbit and the identification of countless other trans-Neptunian objects), it was treated as a planet since it was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh.

Sadly, science moves on. As Neil de Grasse Tyson has said, the universe is under no obligation to make sense to us – it’s just out there, waiting to be discovered. In much the same way as they took away my beloved Brontosaurus, we learn new things every day. Now, as New Horizons approaches Pluto for a scheduled 2015 rendezvous, my excitement to see our last little solar system outlier (at least, that’s the way it was in the 50s) knows no bounds.

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“The [above] animation of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, was created using a series of images captured by the New Horizons spacecraft as it continues its long journey to the distant planetoid. Taken from a distance of 422-429 million km, the images are not for scientific study, but for optical navigation between worlds. (From i09)

Those pictures are going to get a lot clearer and more wonderful as New Horizons approaches, if the results from Cassini and other planetary probes are any indiation. But based on what I’m seeing there, it may turn out that Pluto and Charon are not really planets at all, but nothing more than space junk, garbage that looks more like comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. And if that ends up being the case, I’ll have to throw my visceral but irrational defense of Pluto’s planetary status onto the trash heap of disproven theories, as sad as it may be.

Our Solar System is a lot bigger now than it used to be. No one ever made mention of the Kuiper Belt or the Oort cloud. It was just us, although some scientists even back then were looking for the mysterious “Planet X” [1] which would help to explain certain orbital anomalies.

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Image: NASA’s Solar System Exploration. Click through for the full interactive graphic, along with a lot of other wonderful information.

Some other really good stuff about space and stars and especially planets is found at Starts with a Bang!

In the end, better minds than mine have come to terms with advancing knowledge. A quote at Wikipedia’s article about Clyde Tombaugh is particularly comforting:

Tombaugh’s widow Patricia stated after the IAU’s decision that while Clyde may have been disappointed with the change since he had resisted attempts to remove Pluto’s planetary status in his lifetime, he would have accepted the decision now if he were alive. She noted that he “was a scientist. He would understand they had a real problem when they start finding several of these things flying around the place.”Hal Levison offered this perspective on Tombaugh’s place in history: “Clyde Tombaugh discovered the Kuiper Belt. That’s a helluva lot more interesting than the ninth planet.”

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Old_Wolf_Cry


[1] They’re still looking.

James Gurney: The Soy Bean

Soy Painting

This lovely painting by James Gurney appeared in the July, 1987 edition of the National Geographic, long one of my favorite magazines since early childhood. I’ve had multiple collections of hard copy editions, gathered over the years and then given away when moving (they’re heavy!) and then gathered again. I recently scored a complete set on DVD that included everything up through the 90’s – it still runs on my XP virtual machine – so I was able to get rid of all but the few special editions I wanted to keep.

backissues

Gurney managed to get dozens of things based on soy into his painting; about the only thing I haven’t spotted is nattōThe photo of the painting came with the following caption:

Invisible ingredient in countless products, the soybean plays an amazingly pervasive role in everyday life. Artist James Gurney included more than 60 soybean-related products in this painting, done in the style of Norman Rockwell. He not only called on neighbors and friends for models, but also portrayed himself and his wife emerging from the store, startled by a skateboarding boy carrying a cone of tofu “ice cream”; the boy’s shorts-like the tablecloth-bear a bean-pod motif.

The bags the couple carry, the store-window and sidewalk displays are replete with items that have a soybean connection

Cardboard, glues, and animal and human foods are commonplace soybean products. The sidewalk customer’s caulking, paint, wallpaper, gasoline, and the muffin he buys all owe a debt to soy-as does the bicycle tire.

The beer sign reflects the use of soy meal in the brewing process. The fire extinguisher uses soy protein in its foam. And pre-1981 National Geographics were printed on soy-lecithin-lubricated presses. The car symbolizes an experimental one built with soybean plastic by Henry Ford. The artist’s final tribute: He used soy-based paint.

There’s a lot of conflicting information out there regarding the health benefits or detriments of soy; it’s hard to know who’s right at this point in time, but I’ll keep enjoying my tofu and other fermented soy products.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share this delightful and intriguing work of art.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

More about nutritional supplements

I previously posted about the worthless and deceptive nutritional products hyped to the elderly (and anyone who will cheerfully send in their money); today comes an article announcing

Inspector general: Some supplements for weight loss, immune system make illegal health claims.

Well, .

The article goes on to say that “20 percent of the 127 weight loss and immune-boosting supplements investigators purchased online and in retail stores across the country carried labels that made illegal claims to cure or treat disease.” The DHHS concern is not only with the deceptive marketing, but also that people taking supplements and other natural remedies to treat diseases instead of seeking medical assistance.

Personally, I think the 20 percent figure is a gross underestimate, based on everything I’ve seen in the industry, which remains largely unregulated.

Now getting into a discussion of this nature raises the question: Is the DHHS in the pockets of the pharmaceutical industry and the insurance companies, both of which have a vested interest in keeping people sick? Today’s answers are, “I don’t know,” and “It’s not that simple.” Let me state that I’m pretty convinced that Big Pharma is more interested in making money than in getting people well – otherwise they’d be driving themselves out of the market, which makes good moral sense but poor business sense, and in today’s world money always trumps morals. That said, there are countless drugs which people use on a daily basis which keep them healthy and hearty – if I cut my finger, you’d better believe that I’m going to wash it well with soap and water, and apply Neosporin™ or something like to ward off infection; I suffer from a mild form of Menière’s disease which causes violent vertigo (fortunately for me, only rarely) and if it weren’t for Meclizine™ I might spend a week with my head in the crapper. Not all drugs are bad – but the industry is motivated by the wrong reasons, and one of the greatest mistakes our government ever made was allowing pharmaceutical companies to advertise.

Homeopathy

Then there’s the “natural remedy” market. Let’s take homeopathy as the teacher in the moment. I personally put no stock in what from a scientific viewpoint seems like total mumbo-jumbo [1], but it’s multi-billion dollar mumbo-jumbo, and that kind of money will bring all sorts of gnurrs out of the voodvork. [2] Then there’s the fact that many people whom I love and respect do put stock in it, and claim to have experienced benefits from the use of homeopathic remedies, as well as herbs, oils, alternative health treatment, and so much more.

Science is both blessed and burdened by its reliance on empirical evidence. That means in the long run, if the evidence supports a theory, science is required to change its point of view no matter how vehemently one’s gut opposes the discovery. If, continuing in the same vein, a sufficient body of gold-standard trials (randomized, double-blind, placebo-based, with a statistically significant sample) were to show that homeopathic remedies were actually beneficial, the textbooks would have to be rewritten. Thus far that hasn’t happened, and in my book it’s not likely – but one thing I will never do is shut the door on possibility. I’m always open to surprises.

Focusing on prevention

Where I do put stock is in what science has said about degenerative diseases. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, infectious diseases such as diphtheria, pneumonia, tuberculosis, cholera, and influenza were the largest killers of populations. Modern vaccines, antibiotics and anti-virals have drastically reduced the toll; today, we see a different enemy – people by the millions are dying from diabetes, strokes, cardiovascular diseasese, cancer, respiratory diseases, and a host of other degenerative disorders.

The standard unit of nutritional need, the RDA (recommended daily allowance) was developed during World War II by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to investigate issues of nutrition that might “affect national defense”. In short, these amounts were established as the minimum requirements needed to prevent deficiency diseases such as rickets and scurvy, among others. Even today, RDI (recommended daily intake) and DV (Daily Value) of vitamins, minerals and co-factors are far below what modern science has determined are required for maximum health. Most vitamins supplements on the market today will do just what they were designed to do during WWII – keep you from getting deficiency diseases – but they won’t provide the optimal nutrition the body needs to fight off the ravages of oxidative stress.

In 2002, the Journal of the AMA stated that “most people do not consume an optimal amount of all vitamins by diet alone. Pending strong evidence of effectiveness from randomized trials, it appears prudent for all adults to take vitamin supplements.” [3] Both before and since that time, thousands and thousands of randomized clinical trials have shown that free radical damage (or oxidative stress) is the cause of the vast majority of degenerative diseases, and that providing the body’s cells with the defenses needed can drastically reduce the incidence of these maladies, cutting off the need for curative drugs and treatments at the source.

Conclusion

It should be said in passing that despite all we can do, sometimes people just get sick; like they say in the Japanese massage parlor, “shiatsu happens;” but it’s up to each person who is concerned about their health to do their research and find the solution that works best for them. There are a  handful of companies out there who produce nutritional supplements that will give your body the nutrition it needs (combined with and on the foundation of a healthy diet and exercise, of course) to fight off degenerative diseases and maximize your odds for a long and healthy life, and none of them are found on supermarket shelves. Find one of them that works for you and treat yourself well; your body will thank you for it.

The Old Wolf has spoken.


1 You can watch a great explanation of homeopathic dilution by Richard Dawkins, or the classic presentation by James Randi.

2 Thanks to Reginald Bretnor.

3 JAMA, 6-19-2002; 287 (23): 3127–3129.