Imagine this is your office: a tropical island skirted by coral-packed azure waters, somewhere near the equator between Hawaii and Tahiti. Your job involves a lot of swimming. Tough, huh? “My field research is the best part of my job,” says Kim Cobb, associate professor of climate change at Georgia Institute of Technology. “It’s probably the reason I have stuck with corals for the last 15 years.”
Stuck with, and collected and sampled. For the past seven years, Cobb and her lab team have been reconstructing the history of El Niño events across several millenia by taking core samples from corals in the Pacific. That process has uncovered reams of fresh climate data. And it’s within this new, longer baseline of temperatures from the tropical Pacific that Cobb spotted something surprising: “The 20th century is significantly, statistically stronger in its El Niño Southern Oscillation activity than this long, baseline average,” Cobb says. El Niño events have gotten worse.
That led Cobb to wonder: Is human-made climate change, and the level of carbon in the atmosphere, shifting in El Niño events along with it? Or should we chalk it up to coincidence? “We need a lot more data,” Cobb says. But Cobb’s 7,000-year baseline study should push researchers in the right direction to discover more connections between Earth’s complex climate systems, and the role human-made climate change is playing.
Cobb’s results have been published in the latest edition of Science.
But with 2013 comes a new Congress, and some agriculture reformers are now moderating their fury. As NPR reports, the 2012 Farm Bill disaster now looks more like a “stalemate.” Yes, conservation programs, fruit and vegetable subsidies, and new farmer programs weren’t included in the extension. But a controversial, massive expansion of crop insurance or the proposed “shallow-loss” income insurance program for commodity crop farmers didn’t sneak in, either.
This thing we call "the sharing economy" -- the messy, fascinating world of networked goods exchange, freecycling, carsharing, and beyond -- is an unusual hybrid of normally warring sensibilities and belief systems.
It's got enough touchy-feely-huggy utopianism to turn the stomach of any self-respecting contemporary skeptic. But it's got enough market-economics pragmatism to raise the hackles of your typical leftie communitarian.
The sharing economy, in other words, cuts across our assumptions in intriguing ways. That's one reason we've picked this subject as our January theme here at Grist. Another is that the sharing-economy vision offers one imaginable route around that big pileup on the road just ahead of us, where an out-of-control growth economy is slamming into the physics of climate.
Why is there so much buzz and innovation around sharing right now? Part of it is the limping economy, of course -- the "real one," the one that's all what's mine is mine. Part of it is a growing awareness that mindless consumption is a big ingredient in the recipe for our sweating climate. And then there's technology.
The internet has always threatened/promised to remove comfortable middlemen and disrupt existing profit margins. The money newspapers lost on classified revenues when Craigslist came along was also money that ended up, fractionally, in all our pockets when we stopped having to pay cash to place our classifieds.
Rinse and repeat, industry by industry. You end up with a good number of happy Airbnb customers as well as a good number of unhappy hoteliers. Now the car-free population can connect with car owners whose vehicles are idle; they're mostly pretty happy, but the taxi folks are steaming.
How can we square the ethos of sharing with a go-go internet startup culture that typically has at least one eye on IPOs and acquisitions? Are sharing and capitalism really at loggerheads, and if so, what could a "sharing business" possibly mean? Anybody got something good to trade for a set of drill bits? (I only used them once!)
Many of us are excited about the benefits, environmental and otherwise, of an economy that's less hellbent on exploiting resources for profit and more mindful of ways to get fuller, fairer use out of the (mountains of) stuff we've already got. To get those benefits, we're going to have to grapple with some of these tougher questions around sharing. So over the next couple of weeks we'll dig into them here. (Susie Cagle's nifty illustrated explainer is a good place to start.) We'll also try to provide you with some helpful resources. In the spirit of this thing, we trust you'll step up and share some of yours, too.
Everybody who's written or blogged about climate change on a prominent website (or, even worse, spoken about it on YouTube) knows the drill. Shortly after you post, the menagerie of trolls arrives. They're predominantly climate deniers, and they start in immediately arguing over the content and attacking the science -- sometimes by slinging insults and even occasional obscenities. To cite a recent example:
What part of "we haven't warmed any in 16 years" don't you understand? Heh. "Cherry-picking" as defined by you alarmists: any time period selected containing data that refutes your hysterical hypothesis. Can be any length of time from 4 billion years to one hour. Fuck off, little man!
It was reasonably obvious already that these folks were doing nothing good for the public's understanding of the science of climate change (to say nothing of their own comprehension). But now there's actual evidence to back this idea up.
In a recent study, a team of researchers from the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and several other institutions employed a survey of 1,183 Americans to get at the negative consequences of vituperative online comments for the public understanding of science. Participants were asked to read a blog post containing a balanced discussion of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology (which is already all around us and supports a $91 billion U.S. industry [PDF]). The text of the post was the same for all participants, but the tone of the comments varied. Sometimes, they were "civil" -- e.g., no name calling or flaming. But sometimes they were more like this: "If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you're an idiot."
The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn't a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people's emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.
There was recently another one of those (numbingly familiar) internet tizzies wherein someone trolls environmentalists for being "alarmist" and environmentalists get mad and the troll says "why are you being so defensive?" and everybody clicks, clicks, clicks.
I have no desire to dance that dismal do-si-do again. But it is worth noting that I find the notion of "alarmism" in regard to climate change almost surreal. I barely know what to make of it. So in the name of getting our bearings, let's review a few things we know.
We know we've raised global average temperatures around 0.8 degrees C so far. We know that 2 degrees C is where most scientists predict catastrophic and irreversible impacts. And we know that we are currently on a trajectory that will push temperatures up 4 degrees or more by the end of the century.
Projections for a 4°C world show a dramatic increase in the intensity and frequency of high-temperature extremes. Recent extreme heat waves such as in Russia in 2010 are likely to become the new normal summer in a 4°C world. Tropical South America, central Africa, and all tropical islands in the Pacific are likely to regularly experience heat waves of unprecedented magnitude and duration. In this new high-temperature climate regime, the coolest months are likely to be substantially warmer than the warmest months at the end of the 20th century. In regions such as the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Tibetan plateau, almost all summer months are likely to be warmer than the most extreme heat waves presently experienced. For example, the warmest July in the Mediterranean region could be 9°C warmer than today’s warmest July.
Extreme heat waves in recent years have had severe impacts, causing heat-related deaths, forest fires, and harvest losses. The impacts of the extreme heat waves projected for a 4°C world have not been evaluated, but they could be expected to vastly exceed the consequences experienced to date and potentially exceed the adaptive capacities of many societies and natural systems. [my emphasis]
Two months ago, Grist blogger Philip Bump took a look at a new study of global warming data, prepared a short post explaining the findings, and wrote this headline to summarize his interpretation of the numbers: "If you're 27 or younger, you've never experienced a colder-than-average month."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had reported an alarming but unfathomable statistic -- that the previous month had been "the 332nd consecutive month with an above-average temperature" across the Earth's land and sea surfaces.
Bump translated it into terms that made more direct sense to those of us who don't do instant calculations in our heads as we read.
It has now reached the status of "statistic you no longer need to cite a source for," which is how it appeared in a front-page story in yesterday's New York Times: "Nobody who is under 28 has lived through a month of global temperatures that fell below the 20th-century average, because the last such month was February 1985."
Of course, the moment a number reaches that status, it also becomes a target for would-be debunkers. Some folks, like this guy at Forbes, charged that the headline was misleading, because -- though the data for global average temperatures is quite clear -- members of the under-27 set have nonetheless experienced "colder than average months" if you look at local, rather than global, averages. This is a convenient but specious dodge; the NOAA data was worldwide, and so was our point. We're talking, after all, about the planet, not your neighborhood.
When you succeed in planting an idea in the collective online consciousness, it's only human to want credit. Attribution helps earn trust; links are a courtesy. In the newsroom, you'll frequently hear the wounded cry of the journalist who feels somehow ripped off by the competitor who fails to offer a hat-tip.
But in the bigger picture, really, who cares? Ideas can't be patented, nor should anyone try. We're glad to see Bump's conceptual craftsmanship propagate across the network, with or without a link to the original. Part of our mission here at Grist is to keep trying out new ways of talking about the climate crisis until we find ones that stick. This one left a mark.
UPDATE: A friend writes in to point me to this Joe Romm post from 2011, which features a very similar notion: "People under 35 have never seen normal global temperatures." Romm's post in turn is based on one by Robert Grumbine that digs deeper into the numbers: "If you're younger than 26, you have never seen a month where the global mean was as cold as the 161 year average." (Bump tells me he'd never seen these posts before composing his.)
All of which, I think, is further reason to put aside the whole "whose idea is it?" discussion, focus on the substance, and try to understand what was successful here so we can repeat it. There's nothing new under the sun, but meanwhile, it keeps getting hotter here.
You learned it in preschool, and now it’s back in a more grown-up way. From cars to kids’ clothes to cold hard cash, sharing is caring more than ever before. The sharing economy builds and leverages social bonds, creates a more democratic marketplace, reduces the sheer amount of stuff we need to buy, and creates more resilient communities in the process. It’s the bastard child of market disruption that began on the web decades ago (Napster, anyone?), but it's a child with a conscience.
The kind of "collaborative consumption" we see in services like Zipcar and Airbnb has the potential to revolutionize the way we live our lives. But it's not all bartered canning equipment and blissful couchsurfing, folks -- the sharing economy is a serious moneymaker for individuals and companies who “share” their stuff for a price. Investors, who prefer the wonktastic phrase "underused asset utilization" to "sharing economy," say the market amounts to $100 billion to $500 billion worldwide, and it’s growing fast.
Here’s a breakdown of the various sharing philosophies, a few of the reasons that sharing is blowing up right now, and some ways that you can get in on the action. Just drag your pointer over the pictures for more info.
Conventional wisdom has it that the path to alleviating global hunger and poverty requires farming in the developing world to become more like agriculture in the U.S. But with American farmers now dealing with ever-more-frequent natural disasters and crippling drought, maybe it’s time they learned from their counterparts in the Global South, who have been facing similar ecological challenges for at least a decade now.
That’s what Danielle Nierenberg realized after spending three years traveling the developing world, meeting with farmers from Bolivia to Botswana to find out how they’re adapting to the changing climate’s effect on their livelihoods. Providing farmers around the world with a way to interact and share their ideas in a wiki-style format -- an “innovation database,” Nierenberg calls it -- will be a major component of Food Tank, the new food-focused think tank Nierenberg started with fellow activist Ellen Gustafson.
While Nierenberg has done extensive on-the-ground research for the Worldwatch Institute, Gustafson looks for ways to fix our food system through entrepreneurship and social activism. She co-founded FEED Projects, which sells tote bags to finance school meals for 60 million children around the world. The two women, both in their early 30s, kept running into each other at agriculture conferences dominated by old white men, and eventually, Nierenberg says, they decided “to combine our forces as women in this movement who have a lot of ideas.”
Food Tank’s website launches today, and in addition to an idea-sharing tool, Nierenberg says she and Gustafson hope to make it a clearinghouse for the most important food and agriculture reports of recent years. “I know I have a hard time finding where all the good reports are,” Nierenberg says. “For activists and policymakers as well as farmers, it will be a valuable tool.”
It is a truism that climate change is going to hit poor countries earlier and harder than it hits rich countries. A paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research -- "Climate Change and Economic Growth: Evidence from the Last Half Century" -- helps illumnate one aspect of why it's true. (It's an older paper, but I just discovered it; thanks to Tim Kovach for the tip.) It's worth mulling over the findings a bit.
The research is quite clever, mainly in its simplicity. Instead of using complicated models built on all sorts of assumptions, the researchers tracked the correlation of a few simple variables:
Rather than identifying mechanisms one-by-one and summing up, we examine the effects of temperature and precipitation on a single aggregate measure: economic growth [from 1950 to 2003].
This approach is both brilliant and limited. It cannot really tell us how climate change will affect economic growth, since the threat of climate change is less year-to-year fluctuations in weather than a steady increase in rate and size of those fluctuations. Just because one degree knocks one percentage point off growth doesn't mean four degrees would knock only four points off. These things are not linear.
Nonetheless, data from the past can tell us something important: countries' baseline vulnerability to heat. Here's the primary finding:
The notion of preparing cities for climate disruption is somewhat novel, though of course cities have always been built to adapt to natural conditions. What's new is that almost all cities must now plan for changes in the natural conditions they take for granted -- changes likely to be substantial but which, in their specifics, are maddeningly difficult to predict with precision or confidence.
Though it's just beginning to catch on in the U.S., urban climate adaptation has been around for longer in pockets around the world, not only progressive places like the Netherlands and Scandinavia but cities in low-lying areas of developing countries. It's those cities that are really going to bear the brunt of the changes in the next few decades. (You can find lots of these adaptation stories in the Worldchanging book, by the way.) But I feel pretty confident predicting that by mid-century, climate-proofing cities will be on top of the global agenda and well along even in the U.S.
How can more cities be made resilient in the face of coming changes? Why are some cities — even some neighborhoods within cities — better able to cope with disruption than others? Those are the questions Eric Klinenberg explores in a new article in the latest New Yorker. (Unfortunately, you have to be a subscriber to read the whole thing. I'll try to excerpt enough to give a flavor.)
As I was reading the piece -- which is excellent, well worth tracking down -- it struck me that the signal features of good climate-proofing have something in common: Conservatives are going to hate them.
1. Climate-proofing costs a lot of (government) money.
There are relatively inexpensive ways to increase resilience, like restoring coastal wetlands or planting urban trees. But for cities, especially those at or near sea coasts (just over half the global population now, likely around two-thirds by 2020), climate-proofing will unavoidably involve capital-intensive projects.
Here's just one example, from Singapore:
The Marina Barrage and Reservoir, which opened in 2008, is at the heart of Singapore's two-billion-dollar campaign to improve drainage infrastructure, reduce the size of flood-prone areas, and enhance the quality of city life. It has nine operable crest gates, a series of enormous pumps, and a ten-thousand-hectare catchment area that is roughly one-seventh the size of the country. The system not only protects low-lying urban neighborhoods from flooding during heavy rains; it also eliminates the tidal influence of the surrounding seawater, creating a rainfed supply of freshwater that currently meets ten percent of Singapore's demand. More over, by stabilizing water levels in the Marina basin the barriers have produced better conditions for water sports. The Marina's public areas, which include a sculpture garden, a water-play space, a green roof with dramatic skyline vistas, and the Sustainable Singapore Gallery, bolster the city's tourist economy as well.
That's a brilliant way to address two climate impacts -- large precipitation events and rising sea levels -- at once. Singapore has also elevated all access points to its underground subway a least a meter above high-water flood levels. It's also building desalination plants and systems to reuse waste water. It's also burying its power lines.
Engineers at the Dutch firm Arcadis recently proposed a large new sea barrier for north of New York City's Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The price tag: $6.5 billion. And that's just one small piece of the puzzle. All this stuff is prudent, but it's expensive.
2. It requires a lot of (government) planning.
Large water, grid, and transportation projects take years to build and can last for decades. (NYC's subway system is over 100 years old, and London's is now 150.) If you want to prepare a city for the climate in 2050, you have to plan for 2050. For all the wonders of markets, they -- like the humans in them -- are not particularly good at maximizing future welfare. In the lingo, they steeply discount the welfare of future persons.