The Holocaust Analogy

Have a look at Averting Our Eyes on Dot Earth. Some of the main points are not unusual.

So far that seems to have been the story: the special interests have been cleverer than us, preventing the public from seeing the crisis that should be in view.

The peculiarity is the analogy to the Nazi Holocaust that Hansen makes. He seems at first to be backing down a bit.

I regret that my words caused pain to some readers. I hope that they will accept my apology for having caused discomfort, an apology that is heartfelt.

Yet Hansen walks right back into the trap he just squeezed out of at the end of his discussion. It seems quite deliberate.

A related alternative metaphor, perhaps less objectionable while still making the most basic point, comes to mind in connection with an image of crashing of massive ice sheets fronts into the sea — an image of relevance to both climate tipping points and consequences (sea level rise). Can these crashing glaciers serve as a Krystal Nacht, and wake us up to the inhumane consequences of averting our eyes?

Alas, that metaphor probably would be greeted with the same reaction from the people who objected to the first.

It is very difficult for me to deal with this with any equanimity, but I feel I ought to say something.

I understand as well as anybody that people still get very upset about Hitler. My elderly father, still alive, certainly has a right to; he was a Jew in Slovakia in the 1940s, and most of his friends and relatives didn’t survive the war. His father died in the gas chambers, as did my oldest cousin. My aunt, still alive, was there too. She has a number tattooed on her arm, and not out of a sense of fashion. My late mother spent the war hiding in closets and under beds.

I think us descendants of holocaust victims should stop being so attached to the uniqueness of our suffering. It was a particularly horrible event in human history, and in some ways it has no parallel, but on the other hand there have been other uniquely horrible events with no parallel.

If we compulsively complete the destruction of the earth out of some idiotic sense of inevitable economic destiny it will also be uniquely horrible.

It’s dangerous to make analogies on this scale. I think Hansen believes there eventually comes a time where it is dangerous not to make them as well.

Whether that time has already arrived is hard to say. I certainly would not speak in the terms Hansen has spoken, perhaps because the comparison is more palpably terrifying and painful for me than it is for him. It is hard for those of us who are suffering losses from this disaster every day of our lives even sixty years after its end to hear the analogy come from the lips of those for whom it is a rather academic matter. Thus perhaps it is for the likes of me and not the likes of him to say such things. I am not sure, for the likes of me may lack the courage.

Alas, if time for such talk hasn’t arrived, it certainly seems to be approaching rather than receding.

Burnt Orange and Green

A typical Texas intersection
(I’m not exaggerating quite as much as you think I am,
there are literally dozens of intersections on this scale in and around the five biggest cities):

Update on the image above: I should also point out for the non-Texan reader that Texas “urban” (I use the term in its loose southwestern sense) expressways are typically six lanes wide, and paralleled by two-lane one-way commercial streets for a total of ten lanes in four distinct paths. Where two of these expressways cross, it is a requirement that each of the eight crossing paths not only continue but have a path to each of the others for a total of 64 paths; of which twenty-four (the four right turns and the four U turns on the service roads, and all crossings from an express path to an express path) are expected to be unencumbered by stops. In order that I not get too acclimated to this nonsense I insist on calling the U-turns “Texas U-Turns”.

What you see in the picture is the canonical intersection between two large Texas roads. Similar structures are being built and planned daily to replace that hideous inconvenience, the traffic light. For instance, there is currently a vast project to eliminate the embarassment of the possibility of as many as three stops on the stretch of Highway 183 between the airport and I-35. Clearly an expenditure in the neighborhood of tens of millions of dollars to replace a traffic light is a wise expenditure of funds, which may explain the state of the Texas school system. Not to mention the bike routes. Or not. I’m new here. Who the hell am I to say?

On the plus side my commute to work will only take seven minutes, provided I own a car.

Morning Edition, November 26, 2007 · Texas emits more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other state. And if Texas were a country, it would be the seventh-largest carbon dioxide polluter in the world. More…

Although second in population to California by a wide margin, Texas has higher emissions.

Texas has a much higher per capita carbon emission rate than other large states, but that is because emissions in mining and refining are attributed to the state with the facility, though they should be charged to the end user of the energy. It’s awfully inefficient here and in some circles conservation is actually frowned upon. Yet it’s not quite as bad as the statistics indicate.

Texas somehow is just an energy nexus. After all that coasting on oil wealth, and the weird Enron incident, now it turns out we are at the continental sweet spot for wind energy, and vast windfarms are sprouting on the high plains.

This proves there’s no justice, I suppose.

A related NPR story goes a long way toward explaining the Texas aesthetic.

Wind energy is transforming the landscape here. Look in nearly any direction from Roscoe and you can see the white towers of wind turbines rising into the cerulean sky like giant candlesticks. The sight of rotating white blades on a distant mesa is now as common as bobbing pump jacks.

Although people in other parts of the nation say the 400-foot-tall structures are unsightly, people around Roscoe have a different view.

“My wife and I talked about this the other day. We were coming in from church, and she said, ‘You know, at first I really thought they were kind of trashy looking,'” says Daylon Althof, a farmer who has one turbine going up on his land. “But she said, ‘The more I see these going up, they’re kind of beautiful because we know what they’re going to provide for the economy around here.'”

I always have found them beautiful.

Does Pauchari Go Too Far?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m at least as nervous about all this climate change business as most people. The idea of “tipping points” doesn’t irk me the way it, for some reason, irks William. And I think we are in bigger trouble already than the general public seems to appreciate.

Still, I doubt this is justifiable, either in substance or in ethics:

The panel, co-winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, said the world would have to reverse the growth of greenhouse gas emissions by 2015 to avert major problems. “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late, there is not time,” said Rajendra Pachauri, a scientist and economist who heads the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “What we do in the next 2-3 years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.

Supose it’s 2013 and we’ve still done nothing. Is it time to give up and have an end-of-the-world party or what?


There’s always a best we can do, and we should always try to do that. There’s no now or never until the last breeding pair of humans is gone (and we’re a very long way from that).

Yet Pauchari seems to be suggesting that in a few years we will have failed so utterly that there will be nothing we can do.

As far as I know there is nothing special about 2012 in the reports. Admittedly we have to draw the line somewhere, and in fact most countries drew that line years ago at Kyoto and proceeded to ignore it. Now that we are far across that line we need to draw another one, and more effectively. It’s fair for IPCC to make that assertion in the most vigorous way. Putting a number onto the estimates of the dangerous time scale is at least arguably fine for an individual, like Hansen.

On the other hand, doing so as Pauchari does on behalf of the IPCC is a very troubling matter even without the false precision. It is a matter of no little concern if the IPCC starts to turn into what it has been accused of being, that is, primarily an advocacy group, never mind an irresponsible one.

Science must be represented. It isn’t Pauchari’s job to pull numbers out of a hat.

I was sitting on the above article wondering if it would be better or worse to publish it, and it sort of scrolled out of consciousness. But then David Appell said something very similar on Quark Soup and I found myself agreeing. So let me say “me too”.

The situation is bad enough without making it worse than it is. The last thing we need to is to give more ammunition to the people who think it’s all over so what the heck…

Let me repeat my position. There’s always a best we can do, and we should always try to do that.

This principle will not expire in three years or ten. It will not expire at all until we all expire with it.

Thus I violate my resolution not to write anything until New Year’s. In my defense, somebody else said it first. So it doesn’t count.

Read This Instead

In no particular order, my picks for the Blogstream Media (BSM) stories of the week.

US Presidential Candidates Get Space Wrong

US Press Ignores Climate Change in Election

No Climate Skeptics Found in Texas

Adaptation vs Mitigation and links therein

When we say A, we really mean A if B, and we often implicitly assume different Bs.

Chicago Sun Times Business Editor Flogs Climate Change Denial

New Book on Adaptive Co-Management

Neurotic tendency toward optimism regarding likely collapse thanks yet again to Howie Zowie.

Happy leftovers y’all!

The Runaway Train

Note to those visiting from Rabett Run: I believe Eli’s posting is more closely related to Reply to Revkin than to this present article, which probably makes more sense read second.

On the thread Reply to Revkin, John Fleck asks

It would be useful if you, as one of the scientists in the room, would be specific about what you see as “the cliff” we’re all marching toward. One of the interesting strengths of Lomborg’s book is that he gets quite specific in discussing the various hypothesized cliffs, and the costs and benefits of various approaches to not going off of them.

I’m still thinking about that, but fortunately I can at least point to the freshest hot from the oven scientific consensus fretting from the IPCC. Here is the IPCC’s Fourth Synthesis Report Summary.

Fellow Texan Andrew Dessler has an excellent summary of the summary on Grist.

An alternative answer to John came up when, after weeks of nagging, friend Howie finally convinced me to watch the documentary What A Way To Go. (The link takes you to the film trailers. Watch them for a taste of the what the film has to offer.)

Using the metaphor of a runaway train which Dennis at Samadhisoft is also fond of, the film is a poetic and a morose compendium of what we’re up against that spares little time for techno-optimism, and what time it spares is scornful.

I don’t ultimately agree with the film at all.

I am not holding up the film as a summary of what I believe we should do. It pretty much suggests we try as individuals to act with a certain futile dignity and hope a few of us survive. I do not appreciate that answer.

I understand the suspicion toward quantitative and technical thinking that many people who appreciate the depths of our quandary hold, and I’m not immune to it myself, but I also understand that only a careful and vigorous technocratic society can steer us through the coming turbulence to anything like a soft landing. I feel we have to try, and that the best we can do must be done collectively. It’s our future vs. the detritus of our past.

Yet I think no thinking person should miss seeing it.

What a Way to Go is a deeply moving and deeply thought out description of how we have stacked the deck against ourselves. In no part of the film where I consider myself well-informed did I encounter any errors of substance. Which is pretty daunting, as the film is terrifying from beginning to end.

If you look at the big picture, at the whole earth as a system, well, it’s not hard to see it as an unholy mess. The film’s impresario Tim Bennett manages to say so in the most poignant, convincing and moving way. Unlike Tim, I believe there are answers. However, Tim has done a very fine job of asking the right questions.

Let it serve, for now, as an alternative answer to John’s challenge.

Danes and Dutch and Dead TVs

Our cheesy little VCR/TV combo (our only television) almost ate an irreplaceable VHS tape that had been lent to us. Also the picture has been declining. We rarely even plug the thing in, now that we watch movies on the 20″ iMac. So now we will likely have no TV at all. The problem is that we have no idea what to do with the corpse of the thing.

It’s not really a very Texan question. Even the unrelentingly hip Central Market (world class live music accompanied by the antics of dancing toddlers at your main grocery, providing a level of civilization that is enviable anywhere and anywhen) offers no bottle recycling at their cafe.

Those who despair that sufficient social change is possible should consider some of the examples set by Northern Europe. Consider the achievements of the Danes and the Dutch in managing household waste.

“In wildness is the preservation of the world”, Thoreau said. I say “in techno-liberalism is the preservation of the wild”.

Planning is possible and necessary. Let’s do some.

Nature vs Real estate

Galveston TX is built on a shifting sandbar off the Texas coast, not far from Houston.

Galveston, it appears, is in big trouble even if sea level rise doesn’t accelerate. The Texas Observer has an article called “That Sinking Feeling” detailing how the beach boom town is in denial about the fact that nature trumps real estate. The article only vaguely alludes to the likely outcome, which is that, at least for a while, until some day when the entire enterprise is abandoned, the less well-connected population of the Texas interior will be paying a lot of money to maintain what will essentially become (and is in parts already becoming) a vast and charmless concrete pier.

Texas geophysicists have stirred the pot with an alarming map showing high risk of near-term erosion of large parts of the island.

Geologist John Anderson says he’s tired of explaining the map, and the science behind it, to city officials. “If they do not understand it, they should not be in public office,” he says sternly.

Yet the map is based on an assumption of no acceleration in sea level rise at all.

Unsurprisingly and I think rather poignantly, Galveston real estate interests haven’t really picked up on all the clues we’ve been shipping them. “Global warming, sea-level rise, whether it’s man-made or it’s the natural process we’re going through, that’s to be determined,” one of their leaders, Jerry Mohn, says.

The same issue of the Observer has an unsurprising but remarkably well-stated editorial about climate change. It’s probably worth quoting the juicy bits:

An unassailable majority of the world’s scientists believe that climate change is real, that human activities contribute to it, and that the consequences will be devastating. Yet our president and our governor—such learned men as they are—insist it’s not true. (White House Press Secretary Dana Perino noted last week that global warming has an upside: Fewer people will die from colds. We did not make that up.)

Their flight of fancy might be amusing if they weren’t taking all of us aboard with them. Like many conservatives, they have a curious relationship with science, seeming to believe that adamant ideology can somehow trump empirical data. Perhaps their free-market bent leads them to believe that an invisible hand will hold the polar ice caps together. Or maybe theirs is a faith-based approach: Global warming is a divine creation, or God will come down and make everything all right.

Faulty science is quaint when it’s just a few rubes publishing flat-earth pamphlets. But when their intellectual bedfellows are setting our public policy, things get a bit dicier. Under President Bush, eight years that should have been spent facing up to global warming will have been squandered. Gov. Perry seems to believe that ridiculing the notion of climate change will help win him the second spot on the next GOP ticket or a cabinet post in a future Republican administration.

We don’t have time for this nonsense anymore.

The Storm King

I’ve been trying to pull together a history of climatology on WIRED Science – Correlations.

While the large scale behavior of the atmosphere is complex and hard to grasp, it occurred to me that the basic ideas for understanding a rainstorm cloud were in place by the early nineteenth century. I wondered if history had captured the story of the person who had put the pieces together. I wasn’t able to find an answer last week, but I inquired on a couple of mailing lists, and my question on the global change mailing list caught the attention of Tom Adams, who came up with some very interesting information.

The genius in question was the American, James Pollard Espy, who published his theory in 1841, to less than universal acclaim.

Read more on Correlations.