Longtermists are an existential risk

We all have lots to worry about already, with pandemics and climate change and political crises and growing irrationality, but one I’m increasingly alarmed by is the popularity of these pseudo-intellectual frauds parading about as “longtermists” or “effective altruists” who believe we should be worshipping potential future generations rather than dealing with real people in the here and now. It leads to distorted priorities. It doesn’t help that their thought-leaders are cocky ignoramuses. Émile P. Torres writes about William MacAskill’s opinion of the importance of climate change.

One finds the same insouciant attitude about climate change in MacAskill’s recent book. For example, he notes that there is a lot of uncertainty about the impacts of extreme warming of 7 to 10 degrees Celsius but says “it’s hard to see how even this could lead directly to civilisational collapse.” MacAskill argues that although “climatic instability is generally bad for agriculture,” his “best guess” is that “even with fifteen degrees of warming, the heat would not pass lethal limits for crops in most regions,” and global agriculture would survive.

I am not a climate scientist, but I know a number of them, and follow the work, and that statement is jaw-droppingly idiotic. Even with the amount of warming we’ve got now, we’ve had heat waves that kill large numbers of people, and this past year has seen a series of extreme weather disasters.

Record-breaking heat waves baked India and Pakistan, then monsoon flooding left about a third of Pakistan under water, affecting an estimated 33 million people. Temperatures exceeded 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius) for prolonged periods in many places, and even broke 122 F (50 C) in Jacobabad, Pakistan, in May.

The Asian heat helped to melt some glaciers in the Himalayas, elevating rivers. At the same time, three times the normal annual rain fell in Pakistan during the weekslong monsoon. More than 1,500 people died in the flooding, an estimated 1.8 million homes were damaged or destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of livestock were lost. Food for the coming seasons will be in short supply.

Extreme heat in Europe led to wildfires, especially in Spain and Portugal. The drought in Spain dried up a reservoir, revealing the long-submerged “Spanish Stonehenge,” an ancient circle of megalithic stones believed to date back to around 5000 B.C. Electricity generation in France plummeted, with low rivers reducing the ability to cool nuclear power towers, and German barges had difficulty finding enough water to navigate the Rhine River.

That’s just this year! And the trend is ever upwards! Keep in mind that when climate experts tell you they’re concerned about a 3 degree rise, they’re looking at the mean temperature…and the extremes will be far worse. It’s the extremes that kill people and devastate regions, not the mean.

Yet here’s MacAskill blithely claiming that a FIFTEEN FUCKING DEGREE rise would be acceptable. Agriculture would survive, he thinks, so we’d be OK. Never mind the floods & fires & storms & mass upheaval & total disruption & civilization collapse. William MacAskill thinks he’ll still get his corn flakes every morning.

But don’t listen to me. Torres contacted real climatologists about that claim.

For example, I shared the section about global agriculture with Timothy Lenton, who directs the Global Systems Institute and is Chair in Climate Change and Earth System Science at the University of Exeter. Lenton told me that MacAskill’s assertion about 15 degrees of warming is “complete nonsense—we already show that in a 3-degree-warmer world there are major challenges of moving niches for human habitability and agriculture.”

Similarly, Luke Kemp, a research associate at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk who recently co-authored an article with Lenton on catastrophic climate change and is an expert on civilizational collapse, told me that “a temperature rise of 10 degrees would be a mass extinction event in the long term. It would be geologically unprecedented in speed. It would mean billions of people facing sustained lethal heat conditions, the likely displacement of billions, the Antarctic becoming virtually ice-free, surges in disease, and a plethora of cascading impacts. Confidently asserting that this would not result in collapse because agriculture is still possible in some parts of the world is silly and simplistic.”

If we’re really worried about existential risk and the possible extinction of the human species, I say we need to tar and feather these longtermist fantasists and launch them on a rail to the moon. It looks like delusional crackpots are going to kill us all.

Fifteen degrees. My god, that’s insane.

A good billionaire?

Shatter my worldview, why don’t you. Here’s one billionaire who is doing the right thing — giving away all of his money (although I bet he retains a healthy sum for himself, which I wouldn’t begrudge him at all).

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard announced Wednesday that he is giving away the outdoor-apparel company — an unorthodox move intended to help combat climate change and the environmental crisis.

In a letter posted to the company’s website, Chouinard wrote that ownership of the company, which was founded in 1973 and reportedly valued at about $3 billion, has been transferred to a trust that was created to protect the company’s values and mission as well as a nonprofit organization.

“Earth is now our only shareholder,” it said. “100% of the company’s voting stock transfers to the Patagonia Purpose Trust, created to protect the company’s values; and 100% of the nonvoting stock had been given to the Holdfast Collective, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting the environmental crisis and defending nature.”

Now I’m all confused and conflicted. I resolve that confusion by noting that the way to be a good billionaire is to stop being a billionaire, and to have righteous values.

“It’s been a half-century since we began our experiment in responsible business,” Chouinard, 83, said in the release. “If we have any hope of a thriving planet 50 years from now, it demands all of us doing all we can with the resources we have. As the business leader I never wanted to be, I am doing my part. Instead of extracting value from nature and transforming it into wealth, we are using the wealth Patagonia creates to protect the source.”

“I am dead serious about saving this planet,” he added.

All right, the gauntlet has been thrown. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates — you don’t get to claim your goal is to do good for humanity until you follow suit.

I guess next time I’m in the market for a nice down or fleece jacket, I’ll have to shop Patagonia. I see their nearest store is in St Paul.

Canyonero time

This past week has been Stevens County Fair week, and you know what that means: we strolled around looking at cute bunnies and ducks!

Also, unfortunately, all the trucks. This is a red county, with so many people who think the mega- (or MAGA-) truck is a status symbol. A dealership was selling trucks at the fair — $91,000!!?! Who spends that much on a basic vehicle? I think back to my aunt and uncle who had a working truck on their ranch. It was a battered near-wreck that they got used and cheap, and used to roll about the ranch, dropping off bales of hay or salt blocks. It was dented and dirty, and looked like a vehicle that saw daily hard use.

The ones I saw at the fair and parked around town on my daily walk are shiny and well-washed. They’re used by their owners to drive into town, where they can pick up a dollar cup of coffee at McDonald’s. I get to be a typical Liberal and walk, not drive, to the coffee shop for a two dollar French Roast, sneering at all the red-staters in their obviously pampered big pickup trucks.

Also, though, I’ve had the distinct impression that the trucks have been growing over the years. While I’m sneering, I’m also kind of appalled at the size of these monsters…and it’s true! The trucks have been expanding and becoming more lethal!

Trucks have gotten bigger, taller, gotten larger blind spots, and become much more powerful, luxurious, and expensive. Almost nobody even makes small pickups anymore, like the 1986 Toyota Hilux that I drove in college. The Toyota Tacoma, which used to be in that segment, is now almost as big as my old F-150.

This behemoth design trend — particularly the very tall, square front end seen in so many SUVs and trucks today — is both pointless and dangerous. Manufacturers have known for years that this style of vehicle is much more dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists, yet they keep making them bigger, taller, and heavier. Trucks and SUVs now make up fully 70 percent of all new cars sold in the U.S. Their bloated design is killing people, especially pedestrians.

When I made this observation on Twitter (in somewhat hyperbolic fashion), conservatives got steamed. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) accused me of being “afraid” of pickups. For the rest of the day, I got to enjoy good old conservative facts and reasoned debate: sexist and homophobic slurs, lurid fantasies about vehicular homicide, and repeated assertions that I drive a Prius — which appears to be the automotive equivalent of soy in the conservative mind palace. (I do not currently own a car of any kind, for the record.)

Rousing Cruz’s ire is a point in the author’s favor, but that 70% of the vehicles sold in the US are gross, heavy, oversized trucks and SUVs is a great American shame. And it’s killing people!

It does seem rather far-fetched to think that automakers are consciously building their biggest trucks to be more dangerous to pedestrians, but that is actually the case. To see why, let’s start with some data. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, there were 6,283 pedestrian fatalities in 2018, an increase of 53 percent compared to 2009 and the highest figure since 1990. That gives the U.S. a figure of 19 pedestrian deaths per 1 million population. By contrast, France and Denmark had rates of 7.0 and 5.2 that year — especially remarkable because walking around in Paris and Copenhagen is far more common than it is in most American cities. Indeed, not long ago the European Union had a considerably greater rate of pedestrian fatalities than America, probably because walking is so much more common there. But the E.U. has cut pedestrian deaths by about 40 percent between 2007 and 2018 (from over 8,000 to about 4,900), while the U.S. has gone the opposite direction. Oslo and Helsinki did not have a single pedestrian death in all of 2019.

That’s nuts. We’ve owned, I think, 3 cars in the 40 years we’ve been driving, and the trend has been getting smaller and smaller cars each time. That probably means that at some point our matchbox is going to be crushed on the road by a massive Canyonero.

42 years, and still healing

I still remember the eruption of Mt St Helens vividly. I was living in Eugene, Oregon at the time, where we mainly experienced it as annoying chronic ash falls, but I was recently married and my wife’s family all lived in Longview and Vader, towns not far from the volcano. We got in a little volcano tourism that summer.

It was catastrophic, but also an opportunity. Researchers have been thoroughly studying that area ever since, documenting how nature recovers. You can still see the scars, but it’s impressive how much the landscape has bounced back.

Sequence of images showing geomorphic and vegetation change at a site in upper Smith Creek valley that received 50 centimeters of blast PDC and tephra fall deposits. Vegetation initially sprouted from surviving rootstocks in pre-eruption soils that, after the eruption, were re-exposed in the floors of gullies eroded through the new deposits. By 1994, trees were established on the hillside between the gullies and both surviving and colonizing species anchor the sediments. Helicopter circled for scale in the top two images. Credit: F. J. Swanson, U.S. Forest Service

We should pay a call on the area again sometime. Unfortunately, my in-laws have either died or moved away now, so sometimes nature can get better, but on a small scale, it can get worse.

What would we do if we discovered the world was going to end?

I think we already know, but now Netflix has turned it into a metaphor in this new movie, Don’t Look Up.

(I think the gag about the government putting a bag over your head is part of the metaphor.)

I watched it last night, and I liked it in a grim, cynical, we-are-so-fucked sort of way. The story in the movie is about our response to learning that a planet-killing comet is going to smash into the Earth in six months, which is a nice, sharp, discretely bounded example of a catastrophe, so it does differ from our current situation where the oncoming catastrophe is messy and slow. It makes no difference, though, since we’d probably react to either kind of disaster with ineffectual denial. (Probably? In the case of our current situation, definitely.)

Michael Mann appreciated the message of the movie.

McKay’s film succeeds not because it’s funny and entertaining; it’s serious sociopolitical commentary posing as comedy. It’s a cautionary tale about the climate crisis stitched together by McKay’s signature biting humor. That’s the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.

As we look toward the next decade — a critical decade from the standpoint of averting truly catastrophic climate change — we need more unconventional endeavors like “Don’t Look Up” to communicate the perils of climate inaction. Scientific research, on its own, will travel only so far (until scientists distill a 900-page report into a 90-second TikTok). Science isn’t finished until it’s successfully communicated.

As Beth Osnes, associate professor of theater and environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said, “Climate change isn’t a laughing matter, but sometimes you have to laugh at your pain to get to a solution.” So let’s stop to have a laugh or two. And then get on with the work at hand.

I think he’s right, but we also have to appreciate how hard it’s going to be. The movie made that obvious: even when our doom was obvious, when there was a comet hanging in the sky, there were still people scheming to use it for political gain or corporate greed. The signs and portents of our troubles are all around us, yet we still have conservative think-tanks denying the need to take action because it might interfere with corporate profits, and we have a political party that’s raison d’etre seems to be about disenfranchising the citizenry because they might vote against greed and exploitation. What is the work at hand? It’s not just doing good science, it also seems to require crushing a corrupt political party, replacing a negligent one, and dismantling all of capitalism. It’s all a bit overwhelming.

The cork is about to pop

Just in case you think my last post was too pessimistic, here’s the latest news from Antarctica.

This week, ice scientists meeting in New Orleans warned that something even more alarming was brewing on the West Antarctic ice sheet – a vast basin of ice on the Antarctic peninsula. Years of research by teams of British and American researchers showed that great cracks and fissures had opened up both on top of and underneath the Thwaites glacier, one of the biggest in the world, and it was feared that parts of it, too, may fracture and collapse possibly within five years or less.

Thwaites makes Larsen B look like an icicle. It is roughly 100 times larger, about the size of Britain, and contains enough water on its own to raise sea levels worldwide by more than half a metre. It contributes about 4% of annual global sea level rise and has been called the most important glacier in the world, even the “doomsday” glacier. Satellite studies show it is melting far faster than it did in the 1990s.

Thwaites is worrisome, but there are many other great glaciers in Antarctica also retreating, thinning and melting as the Southern Ocean warms. Many are being held back because Thwaites acts like a cork, blocking their exit to the sea. Should Thwaites fall apart, scientists believe the others would speed up, leading to the collapse of the whole ice sheet and catastrophic global sea level rises of several metres.

The Thwaites glacier looks so small in the satellite view. All the white icy stuff piled up behind it looks even more ominous now.

Satellite view of Antarctica with the Thwaites glacier marked in red.

Don’t panic! Governments around the world are leaping into action…or not.

Yet just one month after Cop26 ended in Glasgow, the warning that the 300-metre thick, 50-mile wide Thwaites glacier has started to crack up has been met with silence from governments preoccupied by Covid-19 and the return of normal politics. The danger is that the many actions pledged in November to address global heating will be shelved for another year, to become just one more risk in an increasingly dangerous world.

Thwaites underlines that global heating and glaciers do not wait for politicians, and every year action to reduce climate emissions is delayed only accelerates global disaster.

Isn’t it reassuring that no matter how dismal I sound, reality is so much worse?

Distractions

Can’t you see I’m working here? The birds have taken over. My wife has set up multiple bird feeders, and she also sows seeds on the snow, so all day long it’s flocks of birds flitting past my office window. I’m trying to get these exams graded, but I get these constant visual distractions.

Also, bird butts.

You might ask, “why not close your window shades?”. I answer that it doesn’t help, because these birds are flighty and numerous. They swoop in, peck as a mob at the seeds, and then after 10 or 15 seconds, they abruptly rise with a whooshing whirr that is quite loud and audible in my office, indoors.

Also, there’s a hawk that occasionally darts in for a snack and sends everyone in frantic flight, and I’d like to catch it in the act.

I think we done killed another tree

Years ago, when we moved into our home, it was graced with magnificent trees. In the front yard, we had this huge weeping willow, one of the notable landmarks in our neighborhood, and a pair of tall pine trees; the centerpiece of the back yard was a grand old slippery elm. They’ve all succumbed to age, and we’ve had to pay experts to come in and chop them down as they became increasingly dangerous, losing limbs in storms and just generally falling into crepitude.

We have only one original tree left, right outside my office window. It’s a busy home to squirrels and birds. But it’s also doomed. Look at this hideous gnarled gap in the trunk.

It’s a deep wound, and that’s a horrible pale fungus eating away at the heartwood. We’re probably going to have to butcher this tree, too.

We’ve had a fair number of saplings planted around the yard, but it’s doubtful that I’ll live long enough to enjoy their shade someday.

Remember the lies

Big Oil would like us all to forget that they lied to us for decades — they tried to tell the public that global warming wasn’t a big deal, it wasn’t happening, and if it was, it was all our fault with our great galumphing carbon footprints, while they were innocently serving our needs and using the profits to do great things for the environment. Now that climate change is here to stay and dramatically and conspicuously affecting our lives, they’d like those campaigns to vanish down a memory hole. Don’t let it happen! The oil companies are literally evil villains, conspiring to cause world-wide suffering in service to their profits.

Mobil and ExxonMobil ran one of the most comprehensive climate denial campaigns of all time, with a foray in the 1980s, a blitz in the 1990s and continued messaging through the late 2000s. Their climate “advertorials” – advertisements disguised as editorials – appeared in the op-ed page of the New York Times and other newspapers and were part of what scholars have called “the longest, regular (weekly) use of media to influence public and elite opinion in contemporary America”.

Between 1996 and 1998, for instance, Mobil ran 12 advertorials timed with the 1997 UN Kyoto negotiations that questioned whether the climate crisis is real and human-made and 10 that downplayed its seriousness. “Reset the alarm,” one ad suggested. “Let’s not rush to a decision at Kyoto … We still don’t know what role man-made greenhouse gases might play in warming the planet.”

Liar, liar, planet’s on fire. These were prolonged FUD campaigns. Scientists knew what was happening and what was going to happen, and they said so, and Big Oil paid pet scientists to lie. It happens every time a company gets huge and its shareholders get greedy and rampant, raging capitalism kicks in to destroy all restraint. This is what the tobacco companies did when the scientific evidence came pouring in that smoking causes cancer — they lied. And they got away with it. It’s what Big Ag got away with with profligate spraying of pesticides. It’s what the oil companies got away with again with spewing lead into the environment.

How are we going to make them pay if we forget how much they consciously, intentionally lied to the world?