Covid-19 and climate change

I’m wondering whether the pandemic disaster might in some way mitigate our climate-change disaster. I don’t mean in the trivial short-term sense that the collapse of travel and general economic activity reduces CO2 output. I mean that the experience of the pandemic undermines the intellectual foundations of climate-change denialism. Again, not in a trivial, debating-point sort of way, but a visceral “I refute it thus“.

Climate-change denial rests, it seems to me, on two intellectual — or perhaps it might be better to call them “mental” — pillars. I refer here not to the occasionally valid but always irrelevant sand-in-the-eyes technical quibbles that are used to convey the impression of scientific disagreement. I mean the actual intellectual motivations for the position that drives the search for these quibbles, to the extent that the motivation is not simply pelf or partisanship. These are

  1. The world is too big for humans to change meaningfully. Often they say it is “arrogant” to imagine that insignificant humans could do something as grand as to change the Earth’s climate.
  2. Action against climate change is woolly feel-good sort of stuff. Maybe it would be a good thing in principle, but hard-head thinkers care about people’s jobs and the here-and-now.

In a sense these are opposites: The first says human activity is trivial compared to the whole planet. The second says human activity is autonomous, and far more significant than the whole planet.

The experience of the pandemic is likely, it seems to me, to make people much less receptive to these arguments. Seeing how small the planet is, that a virus originating in one market in Wuhan can infiltrate the whole world within a few months is liable to leave people feeling that the Earth is quite a fragile thing.

And then, the economic cost of this pandemic is likely to be far higher than even the upper end of estimates of the cost of achieving carbon neutrality. Faced with the pandemic, we are thrown back on the material reality of the economy: Not jobs but work, not production but material goods such as food and shelter. We pay the cost because the alternative is clearly more expensive, in lives and social disruption. And this time, people have been willing, mostly, to pay the cost in advance, believing that the disaster would be vastly greater if we waited. The timeline for the climate-change apocalypse is much longer, but it is not implausible to suppose that the same frame of mind might then allow people to see that global catastrophe is a real thing, and worth making some effort to avert.

(Of course, the opposite might be true. People might say, the apocalypse-averting cupboard is now bare. Come back to us in a decade.)

Extra precision: Currency edition

I have commented before on the phenomenon where changing units turns an obviously approximate number into a weirdly precise one. Here is a new example, from the Guardian’s disturbing report on the mass slaughter of donkeys for the use of their hides in traditional Chinese medicine:

Since the booming skin trade has driven up donkey prices, owners struggle to replace their animals when they are stolen. The cost of a donkey in Kenya increased from £78 to £156 between 2016-19.

£78 seems like an oddly precise figure for what is surely a very diverse market in animals of varying qualities. Even weirder is that that precise figure precisely doubled in the period under consideration. Then it occurred to me, at current exchange rates £78 is about what you get when you convert the round number of US$100. So I’m going to hazard a guess that the reporter was told that the price had risen from around $100 to around $200, and simply converted it to pounds for the UK market without further comment.

The meddling EU

I think maybe the leftist Euroskeptics have a point:

EU to ban meat and dairy names for plant-based foods

Henceforth mushroom steaks will be called “fungus slabs”. The meat of a nut will be the “nut turd”. Coconut milk is exempted, but what was formerly called coconut meat will now be known as “interior coconut lumps”.

This has nothing at all to do with protecting meat and dairy producers, and it has everything to do with the outcry from carnivorous consumers who buy “veggie sausages” as a main course to go with their veggies, and then are outraged to find that they’re not really “sausages” at all.

Mother’s milk may only be referred to as human mammary excretions. The “milk of Paradise” that Kubla Khan drank will, in future editions, be “slime of heaven”.

Weirdly, “salad cream” is exempted. The German Käsefüsse (cheese feet), for stinky feet will still be permitted, owing to their animal origin.
Strangest of all is the restriction on the word burger. While it has its origins in the word hamburger, from a meat dish common in Hamburg — oddly, this has not received AOC protection — among the earliest uses of the term “burger” is for the vegeburger, attested by the OED in a 1945 advertisement. The word “hamburger”, on the other hand, will be banned entirely, as it tends to promote cannibalism.
Henceforth a nothingburger will be called a nullity on a bun.
“Sausage” is only allowed to be of animal origin, even though the word has its origin in the Latin salsicia, meaning “salted”. And the English word meat itself, unlike the German Fleisch (and its English cognate flesh) has traditionally meant any kind of food, as in the phrase “meat and drink”, and the now somewhat archaic word sweetmeats.
Performances of Romeo and Juliet in the EU will now require that the third act be revised to remove the line

Thy head is as full of quarrels, as an egg is full of meat.

Because eggs have no meat, and it would be misleading to suggest to the audience that they do.

Hum and buzz

Apparently there’s been low-frequency hum intermittently plaguing the residents of Windsor Ontario in recent years. It may be due to blast furnace operations on a nearby island. The report in the NY Times goes on to discuss similar complaints that have arisen at other locations. When the Taos tourism director describes her town’s troubles, which have since subsided, metaphorical noise collides with real noise:

“I have never heard the Taos hum, but I’ve heard stories of the Taos hum,” she said. “There’s not been a lot of buzz about it in the last few years.”

Will Republican punsters save the planet?

17 Republicans in the US House of Representatives have signed a resolution to take “meaningful action” against global warming.

It is the largest number of Republicans ever to join an action-oriented climate initiative in “maybe ever,” said Jay Butera, a congressional liaison for Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which helped put together the resolution. “I’ve been working on this issue for 10 years,” he told me. “This is a high water mark.”

Post-existing climate conditions

According to the NY Times, insurers have been taking advantage of climate-change fears to raise prices for flood insurance. Now that the presidential election has conclusively proved that the greenhouse effect is a Chinese hoax to make Americans look stupid less productive, I think the Congress needs to move beyond minor defensive measures like abandoning the Paris accord, and move instead to aggressively defend Americans’ God-given right to build decadent structures in flood zones: Just as health insurers are now prohibited from inquiring about or taking account of “pre-existing conditions”, flood insurers need to be prohibited from taking account of (hoax) research about “post-existing” (future) climate conditions in determining flood insurance prices. Prices may be based only on past flood records.

This can be combined into a single consumer-rights bill with Mike Pence’s initiative to ban life insurance premiums that discriminate against tobacco users. As Pence wrote in 2000,

Time for a quick reality check. Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill… Nine out of ten smokers do not contract lung cancer.

What’s all this hysteria for? Smoking is even safer than Russian Roulette. (Five out of six players don’t get shot!)

Is global warming a hoax or not, Mr Sarkozy?

A few weeks ago former and possibly future French president Nicolas Sarkozy proclaimed his allegiance to international right-wing loonidom by ridiculing the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change:

Cela fait 4 milliards d’années que le climat change. Le Sahara est devenu un désert, ce n’est pas à cause de l’industrie. Il faut être arrogant comme l’Homme pour penser que c’est nous qui avons changé le climat…

[The climate has been changing for four billion years. The Sahara turned into a desert, and that wasn’t caused by industry. It takes a uniquely human arrogance to believe that we have changed the climate…]

But now, perhaps because Le Pen seems to have the loony right wing anti-science vote locked up, he is threatening to punish the US if it tries to scuttle the Paris accord:

Donald Trump has said – we’ll see if he keeps this promise – that he won’t respect the conclusions of the Paris climate agreement.

Well, I will demand that Europe put in place a carbon tax at its border, a tax of 1-3 per cent, for all products coming from the United States, if the United States doesn’t apply environmental rules that we are imposing on our companies.

Early greenhouse

I read a novel that I’d known about for a long time, but had never gotten around to: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven. I was startled to discover that an essentially background point of the plot of this novel, published in 1971, was the destruction of the Earth’s environment by the greenhouse effect. This has already taken place before the events of the novel, set in the early twenty-first century.

Rain was an old Portland tradition, but the warmth — 70ºF on the second of March — was modern, a result of air pollution. Urban and industrial effluvia had not been controlled soon enough to reverse the cumulative trends already at work in the mid-twentieth century; it would take several centuries for the CO2 to clear out of the air, if it ever did. New York was going to be one of the larger casualties of the Greenhouse Effect, as the polar ice kept melting and the sea kept rising.

This is only incidental to the themes of the novel, which grapples with the structure of reality and the nature of dreams. But it amazed me to see global warming being confidently projected into our future, at a time when — as the climate-change skeptics never tire of pointing out — discussions of climate change tended to refer to the danger of a new Ice Age.

At least, that is my memory. According to the Google Books NGram viewer, though, the “greenhouse effect” was as mentioned in books around 1970 as frequently as it is today; and, oddly, it has declined substantially from a peak three times as high in the early 1990s.Screenshot 2015-12-16 14.22.01

For example, a 1966 book titled Living on Less begins its section on “The Environment” by discussing global warming, and launches right into a description of the greenhouse effect that sounds very similar to what you might read today.

The Shabbat automobile (and other regulatory subterfuges)

It reminds me of the questions that folklorist Alan Dundes raised in his book The Shabbat Elevator and other Sabbath Subterfuges: Why do Orthodox Jews adopt enormously rigid strictures on every element of their lives, and then devote enormous energy and creativity to evading them, as when they tie a string around a whole neighbourhood to make an eruv, defined to be a single residence for purposes of the law that bans carrying objects in a public domain.

One could well ask, if a set of customs is deemed overly oppressive, why not simply repeal or ignore them?

At least they can argue that repeal isn’t really an option when you’re talking about divine law. But what about automobile pollution regulations?

Amid all the attention focused on Volkswagen’s bizarre cheating on diesel emissions tests — which ought to, but probably won’t, lead to multiple executives spending long terms in prison — some interesting lessons about the general nature of regulations and testing threaten to be submerged. As many have pointed out, real diesel emissions are many times higher than those permitted by regulations. The tests are routinely evaded, if not always as creatively as Volkswagen has done. Some examples: Continue reading “The Shabbat automobile (and other regulatory subterfuges)”

Gay-baiting Francis

Am I wrong to see homophobic allusions in right-wing pundit George Will’s attack on Pope Francis? He accuses the pope of “fact-free flamboyance” (which would be a nice alliteration if it made any sense, which I can’t see that it does) and calls his “social diagnoses” “shrill”. Again, is this just an attempt to simulate eloquence on a deadline? The expression is striking, but nonsensical. How can a “diagnosis” be shrill? He also accuses the Bishop of Rome of “rhetorical exhibitionism”.

My earlier comments on the gender connotations of “shrill” are here.