Daily Archives: October 12, 2017

The Catastrophist | Elizabeth Kolbert | The New Yorker


By Elizabeth Kolbert
June 29, 2009 Issue

NASA’s climate expert delivers the news no one wants to hear.

A few months ago, James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in Manhattan, took a day off from work to join a protest in Washington, D.C. The immediate target of the protest was the Capitol Power Plant, which supplies steam and chilled water to congressional offices, but more generally its object was coal, which is the world’s leading source of greenhouse-gas emissions. As it happened, on the day of the protest it snowed. Hansen was wearing a trench coat and a wide-brimmed canvas boater. He had forgotten to bring gloves. His sister, who lives in D.C. and had come along to watch over him, told him that he looked like Indiana Jones.

The march to the power plant was to begin on Capitol Hill, at the Spirit of Justice Park. By the time Hansen arrived, thousands of protesters were already milling around, wearing green hard hats and carrying posters with messages like “Power Past Coal” and “Clean Coal Is Like Dry Water.” Hansen was immediately surrounded by TV cameras.

“You are one of the preëminent climatologists in the world,” one television reporter said. “How does this square with your science?”

“I’m trying to make clear what the connection is between the science and the policy,” Hansen responded. “Somebody has to do it.”

The reporter wasn’t satisfied. “Civil disobedience?” he asked, in a tone of mock incredulity. Hansen said that he couldn’t let young people put themselves on the line, “and then I stand back behind them.”

The reporter still hadn’t got what he wanted: “We’ve heard that you all are planning, even hoping, to get arrested today. Is that true?”

“I wouldn’t hope,” Hansen said. “But I do want to draw attention to the issue, whatever is necessary to do that.”

Hansen, who is sixty-eight, has greenish eyes, sparse brown hair, and the distracted manner of a man who’s just lost his wallet. (In fact, he frequently misplaces things, including, on occasion, his car.) Thirty years ago, he created one of the world’s first climate models, nicknamed Model Zero, which he used to predict most of what has happened to the climate since. Sometimes he is referred to as the “father of global warming,” and sometimes as the grandfather.

Hansen has now concluded, partly on the basis of his latest modelling efforts and partly on the basis of observations made by other scientists, that the threat of global warming is far greater than even he had suspected. Carbon dioxide isn’t just approaching dangerous levels; it is already there. Unless immediate action is taken—including the shutdown of all the world’s coal plants within the next two decades—the planet will be committed to change on a scale society won’t be able to cope with. “This particular problem has become an emergency,” Hansen said.

Hansen’s revised calculations have prompted him to engage in activities—like marching on Washington—that aging government scientists don’t usually go in for. Last September, he travelled to England to testify on behalf of anti-coal activists who were arrested while climbing the smokestack of a power station to spray-paint a message to the Prime Minister. (They were acquitted.) Speaking before a congressional special committee last year, Hansen asserted that fossil-fuel companies were knowingly spreading misinformation about global warming and that their chairmen “should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.” He has compared freight trains carrying coal to “death trains,” and wrote to the head of the National Mining Association, who sent him a letter of complaint, that if the comparison “makes you uncomfortable, well, perhaps it should.”

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The Fate of Earth | Elizabeth Kolbert | The New Yorker

Humanity’s survival on this planet seems more uncertain than ever. But what happens when we look at ourselves through other creatures’ eyes?

By Elizabeth Kolbert

8:00 A.M.

Yesterday evening, at Manhattan’s New School, the New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert delivered the second annual Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture on the Fate of the Earth, an event established by the Nation Institute in honor of the late Jonathan Schell, a longtime New Yorker staff writer, and named for “The Fate of the Earth,” a series of articles that Schell wrote for the magazine in 1982 and later published as a book. Kolbert’s remarks have been edited for length.

When I was asked to deliver this lecture, the prompt I was given was to address the fate of Earth. At first, I thought of focussing on the threat of nuclear annihilation, which Jonathan Schell wrote about so urgently for The New Yorker in the nineteen-eighties, and which now, thanks to Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, seems nearer than ever before. Another possible topic was, of course, climate change, which my colleague Bill McKibben spoke about here last year. Bill’s work, like Schell’s, possesses a fierce moral energy and a remarkable prescience. Whether it is hurricanes or droughts or flooding or wildfires, like the sort raging right now in Northern California, we’re already seeing the destabilizing effects of global warming that he foretold in “The End of Nature,” published in The New Yorker in 1989. Just this week, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, signed an order to initiate the repeal of the Clean Power Plan, which was central to the United States’ commitment to the Paris climate accord, which the White House has also decided to abrogate.

All of which is to say that October of 2017 is a scarily opportune moment to talk about nuclear war or to talk about climate change—or to talk about climate change and nuclear war. But I am going to try to do something different. Instead of looking at the fate of Earth from our anxious perspective, from a human perspective, I’d like to try to look at it from the viewpoint of the millions and millions of non-human species with which we share the planet. This represents a different kind of imaginative exercise. It requires us not to imagine events that might happen but to look at events that have happened through different eyes—or even without eyes, since so many of our fellow-creatures lack them. We will always fall short in these exercises, but I think it’s important to try, so I hope you will indulge me.

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How Smartphones Are Draining Our Brain Power | On Point

(Jeff Chiu/AP)

October 12, 2017 Smartphones and our brains. New research says the little computer in our hand is changing our minds.It’s hard not to love that smartphone.

Feels good in the hand. That display, so shiny and bright. And inside, a whole world of data and apps, search engines and tweets, Facebook love and all the information in the world. Problem is, researchers are finding that those super-entertaining little fountains of info may be draining our brains. Cutting our concentration. Trimming our memory. Making us less thoughtful. Dumber. This hour, On Point: How the little computer in our hands is changing our minds. —Tom Ashbrook


Nicholas Carr, writes about technology and culture. Author of “Utopia Is Creepy: And Other Provocations.” (@roughtype)

Kristen Duke, Ph.D. candidate in marketing at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego who has studied the way smartphones and the internet affect our thoughts and judgments

Antonio Regalado, senior editor for biomedicine for the MIT Technology Review. (@antonioregalado)

Megadrought and Collapse: From Early Agriculture to Angkor: Harvey Weiss

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Megadrought and Collapse is the first book to treat in one volume the current paleoclimatic and archaeological evidence of megadrought events coincident with major prehistoric and historical examples of societal collapse. Previous works have offered multi-causal explanations for collapse, from overpopulation, overexploitation of resources, and warfare to poor leadership and failure to adapt to environmental changes. In earlier synthetic studies of major instances of collapse, the full force of climate change has often not been considered.

This volume includes nine case studies that span the globe and stretch over fourteen thousand years, from the paleolithic hunter-gatherer collapse of the 12th millennium BC to the 15th century AD fall of the Khmer capital at Angkor. Together, the studies constitute a primary sourcebook in which principal investigators in archaeology and paleoclimatology present their original research. Each case study juxtaposes the latest paleoclimatic evidence of megadrought (so-called for its severity and its decades – to centuries-long duration) with available archaeological records of synchronous societal collapse. The megadrought data are derived from all five archival paleoclimate proxy sources: speleothems (cave stalagmites), tree rings, and lake, marine, and glacial cores. The archaeological records in each case are the most recently retrieved.

With Megadrought and Collapse, Harvey Weiss and his team of expert contributors have assembled an authoritative investigation that is certain to engage environmental history readers across disciplines in the sciences and social sciences.

Harvey Weiss is Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology and Environmental Studies at Yale University. For the past thirty years, he has directed archaeological and paleoenvironmental investigations of the ca. 2200 BC Akkadian site at Tell Leilan, Syria. Weiss has edited several volumes and published numerous articles and essays in ScienceNature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, among other journals.

See Yale Conference:

Related material:

as well as:


While in the past, as Dr. Weiss points out, numerous civilizations have collapsed from abrupt shifts in climate, in our contemporary circumstance, how might we begin to asses a full and honest benefit analysis of anthropogenic climate change?

For further discussion of these issues see: