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$1,000 question: Did the population bomb ever explode?

Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon.
L.A. Cicero / University of Maryland
Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon.

In 1980, the biologist Paul Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon made a famous decade-long bet. Ehrlich had written a bestseller titled The Population Bomb and become a celebrated advocate of population control to prevent global famine and disaster. Simon, an up-and-coming market-oriented business professor, believed that we don't need to fear the depletion of global resources, since human ingenuity will keep finding new ways to find, fabricate, or redefine them.

After the two began butting heads in public, Simon challenged Ehrlich to a $1,000 wager: Ehrlich could pick any mix of raw materials; if the inflation-adjusted price rose in 10 years, Ehrlich would win; if it fell, Simon would win.

Ehrlich bit. He consulted some friends and assembled a portfolio of chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten that was supposed to represent some key finite resources whose prices might reflect the impact of population pressures.

Ten years later, he sent Simon a check -- no doubt gritting his teeth as he sealed the envelope.

The Simon-Ehrlich wager tapped into an intellectual debate about growth and limits that stretches as far back as the 18th-century thinker Thomas Malthus and that continues, despite the conclusion of the bet itself, to this day. In his new book The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth's Future, Yale historian Paul Sabin retells this story in the context of the rise of environmentalism in the U.S., the changing fortunes of green ideas in an age dominated by free market thinking, and the urgent alarms sounded by climate scientists. It's a deft and thorough account of a debate that continues to split the American public and its leaders.

We talked with Sabin recently by phone.

Q. How'd you come to write this book?

9780300176483A. I was interested in the rise of the environmental movement in the 1970s. I was trying to understand its relationship to some of the broader political conflicts in the nation. And I figured that enough time had passed that we could look back and assess the major successes and some of the limitations of the earlier environmental politics. I was also looking for a topic that would challenge me and had some strong and engaging characters -- a good story.

Spoiler alert, but I think everyone knows that the economist Julian Simon won their bet. That raises interesting questions: Why did he win? What does it mean? How should we think about the clash of issues between these men?

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Science confirms: Politics wrecks your ability to do math

math is hard
Shutterstock

Everybody knows that our political views can sometimes get in the way of thinking clearly. But perhaps we don't realize how bad the problem actually is. According to a new psychology paper, our political passions can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills. More specifically, the study finds that people who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.

The study, by Yale law professor Dan Kahan and his colleagues, has an ingenious design. At the outset, 1,111 study participants were asked about their political views and also asked a series of questions designed to gauge their "numeracy," that is, their mathematical reasoning ability. Participants were then asked to solve a fairly difficult problem that involved interpreting the results of a (fake) scientific study. But here was the trick: While the fake study data that they were supposed to assess remained the same, sometimes the study was described as measuring the effectiveness of a "new cream for treating skin rashes." But in other cases, the study was described as involving the effectiveness of "a law banning private citizens from carrying concealed handguns in public."

The result? Survey respondents performed wildly differently on what was in essence the same basic problem, simply depending upon whether they had been told that it involved guns or whether they had been told that it involved a new skin cream. What's more, it turns out that highly numerate liberals and conservatives were even more -- not less -- susceptible to letting politics skew their reasoning than were those with less mathematical ability.

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Here comes the story of no hurricanes

The tracks of all Atlantic hurricanes from 1851 through 2012. So far, 2013 would add nothing to this image: There haven't been any hurricanes.
Nilfanion
The tracks of all Atlantic hurricanes from 1851 through 2012. So far, 2013 would add nothing to this image: There haven't been any hurricanes.

From a PR standpoint, it was surely an ingenious idea: Let's name hurricanes after leading members of Congress who deny that humans are causing global warming! That's the gist of the "Climate Name Change" campaign that launched last month, and the promotional video has already garnered over 2 million YouTube views.

There's just one problem: Thus far this season, the hurricanes haven't shown up. In fact, the dearth of hurricane-strength Atlantic storms up until now, despite blockbuster pre-season forecasts, counts as downright mysterious. "We've never seen this level of inactivity with the ocean conditions out there now," says meteorologist Jeff Masters, who is co-founder of Weather Underground, a popular meteorological website. There has even been speculation that 2013 might rival 2002, a year in which the first hurricane of the season didn't form until Sept. 11.

Meanwhile, a new scientific paper suggests that climate change will decrease, rather than increase, the likelihood that Superstorm Sandy-like storms -- atmospheric black swans that take left turns towards the U.S. East Coast -- will strike in the future. And a leaked draft of the U.N.'s forthcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has significantly downgraded our confidence in the idea that global warming will lead to more intense hurricanes (or, is already doing so).

It's more than enough to make a reasonable person wonder: What the heck is up these days with hurricanes -- and with global warming's supposed influence upon them? And do scientists know anything for sure about this, or are they just sticking out a finger in the (very fast) wind?

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Climate change exacerbated half of recent extreme weather events, study says

Hurricane Sandy.
NASA GOES Project
Hurricane Sandy.

Half of last year's extreme weather -- including the triple-digit temperatures of America's July heatwave -- were due in part to climate change, new research said on Thursday.

The study [PDF], edited by scientists from NOAA and the U.K. Met Office, detected the fingerprints of climate change on about half of the 12 most extreme weather events of 2012.

The researchers said climate change helped raise the temperatures during the run of 100-degree-F days in last year's American heatwave; drove the record loss of Arctic sea ice; and fueled the devastating storm surge of Hurricane Sandy. "The analyses reveals compelling evidence that human-caused climate change was a factor contributing to the extreme events," Thomas Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center, told reporters in a conference call on Thursday.

But the researchers said they found no evidence of climate change on other extreme weather events -- especially those involving rainfall, or its absence.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Food, fatherhood, & fear: Documentary wades into GMO debate with honest emotions

I didn’t think I'd like GMO OMG, because it looked like an outrage documentary. You know the type: They're films that ask viewers to pound their fists with righteous indignation at the evil deeds they reveal. My problem with outrage documentaries is that the form pushes directors to overstate their case and ignore nuance. I can't enjoy a good fury fest when I'm aware that someone is trying to manhandle me into anger.

When I got a chance to watch GMO OMG before its release I figured I'd last for a few minutes, then switch it off. But I surprised myself by lingering until the end, and enjoying it. GMO OMG is an outrage documentary: It starts with the premise that GM food is frightening and demands that the audience get angry. But that's not all it is. Director Jeremy Seifert accomplishes something remarkable when he turns his camera on his family: In those moments the film feels utterly honest, rather than manipulative. You can take issue with the facts Seifert marshals against GMOs, but there's no arguing with his love for his sons, or his frustration with the opacity of the food system. A hail of arguments and counterarguments are hurled back and forth every day in the debate over GM food. But all this arguing never changes the way people feel. So it's refreshing to see a work that gives emotion its due.

I called Seifert to chat with him about food, fatherhood, and fear.

Read more: Food, Living

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Parking rules raise your rent

This is part 9 of a Sightline series on parking requirements. Read parts 12345, 6, 7, and 8.

Have you ever watched the excavation that precedes a tall building? It seems to take forever. Then, when the digging is finally done, construction rockets upward in no time. For the past few months, I've been watching a crew excavate the site of a new condo tower on Seattle’s First Hill. It’s on a route I walk three times a week, so I've had a ringside seat. And here’s the thing that finally dawned on me, after years of not really thinking about these holes in the urban ground: What’s all the excavation for? It’s for parking. Underground parking. In most cities and in most soil conditions, the giant holes are only there to satisfy off-street parking rules, and to do that, you need a deep, deep hole. A hole like this one.

Eighth Ave. and Seneca St. in Seattle.
Alan Durning
Eighth Ave. and Seneca St. in Seattle.

Digging these holes is astronomically expensive. They’re real-life money holes. The crew I’ve been watching has been laboring away for weeks, deploying enormous machinery and keeping a fleet of dump trucks in constant motion. They've undoubtedly spent millions of dollars removing rock and dirt. One Portland developer told me that each successive layer of excavation -- each floor down in the garage -- costs two to three times as much as the previous one.

Such costs are one reason housing is so expensive nowadays.

Read more: Cities, Living

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On clean energy, Obama thinks we should Sweden the deal

President Barack Obama and Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt participate in a joint press conference at Rosenbad in Stockholm, Sweden, Sept. 4, 2013.
Pete Souza
President Obama and Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt participate in a joint press conference.

During a press conference with Sweden’s Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt on Wednesday afternoon Stockholm time, President Obama was asked what the United States could learn from Sweden. His first thought was sustainable energy development:

What I know about Sweden, I think, offers us some good lessons. No. 1, the work you have done on energy I think is something the United States can and will learn from. Because every country in the world right now has to recognize if we are going to continue to grow and improve our standard of living while maintaining a sustainable planet, we are going to have to change our patterns of energy use. And Sweden I think is far ahead of many other countries.

So what can the U.S. learn from Sweden?

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Video: Fly along with NASA’s cloud hunters

One of the biggest question marks hanging over climate studies right now is about the role of clouds and the aerosols, tiny airborne particles, that shape them. The problem is clouds move fast, making them hard to model, and depending on their concentration at different altitudes, clouds can cool or heat the planet. Scientists agree that before they can build the best models to predict climate change, they first have to understand clouds.

This summer, NASA has been working to crack this problem, at 30,000 feet, aboard a custom-equipped flying laboratory. Climate Desk was invited on board for an eight-hour mission to suck the secrets out of clouds.

This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Can drastic new anti-pollution rules help clean up Beijing’s air?

beijing traffic.
Safia Osman
Beijing traffic.

The air quality in Beijing has grown so bad that it's begun to produce its own catch-22s. All that smog is starting to keep tourists away, but tourism is just the kind of less energy-intensive industry that China needs to develop. The city is hoping to ramp up its public bike-share system, in an effort to shift a majority of trips through the city center onto public transportation. But who would want to ride a bike in this atmosphere?

At least one perverse consequence could be helping. The pollution has gotten so awful that residents and officials long averse to addressing greenhouse gas emissions (at the expense of economic growth) are now clamoring for drastic solutions to its related problem: unbreathable air. As The New York Times reported over the weekend in a piece on the "silver lining" to China's smog:

“Air pollution was the perfect catalyst,” said Wai-Shin Chan, director of climate change strategy in Asia for HSBC Global Research in Hong Kong. “Air pollution is clearly linked to health, and the great thing is that everybody --that’s government officials and company executives alike -- breathes the same air.”

In fact, officials in Beijing proposed new rules Monday that would seem unthinkable in the United States. The city already has a cap on new auto registrations available each month, creating a public lottery with long odds. In August, 1.6 million people applied for new automobile licenses, but only 22,000 are issued each month. Now, among a suite of new anti-pollution measures from the city, the restrictions on new cars will get even tighter. The city currently has about 5.35 million of them. Officials now want to ensure that number levels off at 6 million by 2017 (that would mean about 10,000 new permits each month over the next five years).

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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The real reason Kansas is running out of water

How to make an arid region bloom: irrigated farm plots (between 0.5 and 1 mile in diameter) over the High Plains Aquifer in western Kansas.
NASA/U.S. Geological Survey
How to make an arid region bloom: irrigated farm plots (between 0.5 and 1 mile in diameter) over the High Plains Aquifer in Western Kansas.

Like dot-com moguls in the '90s and real estate gurus in the 2000s, farmers in Western Kansas are enjoying the fruits of a bubble: Their crop yields have been boosted by a gusher of soon-to-vanish irrigation water. That's the message of a new study by Kansas State University researchers. Drawing down their region's groundwater at more than six times the natural rate of recharge, farmers there have managed to become so productive that the area boasts "the highest total market value of agriculture products" of any congressional district in the nation, the authors note. Those products are mainly beef fattened on large feedlots; and the corn used to fatten those beef cows.

But they're on the verge of essentially sucking dry a large swath of the High Plains Aquifer, one of the United States' greatest water resources. The researchers found that 30 percent of the region's groundwater has been tapped out, and if present trends continue, another 39 percent will be gone within 50 years. As the water stock dwindles, of course, pumping what's left gets more and more expensive -- and farming becomes less profitable and ultimately uneconomical. But all isn't necessarily lost. The authors calculate that if the region's farmers can act collectively and cut their water use 20 percent now, their farms would produce less and generate lower profits in the short term, but could sustain corn and beef farming in the area into the next century.

And that would be great.

But I think it's also worth asking what, exactly, they'd be sustaining. The following chart, pulled from the study, shows the amount of corn grown in the region since 1980 -- both irrigated and un-irrigated (i.e., grown without added irrigation water), as well as the amount of corn that has been consumed by cattle in the region's feedlots. The latter metric, denoted by the red dots below, is a pretty good proxy for just how teeming those feedlots have gotten over the decades.

Read more: Food