5 Myths About Sustainability

On Earth Day and everyday we all need to focus on ways to be more environmentally conscious and responsible. In Pursuing Sustainability: A Guide to the Science and Practice, Pamela Matson, William C. Clark, and Krister Andersson draw on the most up-to-date science to provide a handy guide that links knowledge to action. In the process, they debunk commonly held misconceptions about sustainability. The first step in affecting positive change is awareness:

1. Sustainability challenges are largely a problem of consumption.
In meeting the challenges posed by implementing sustainable practices, production and consumption should be viewed as parts of an integrated system. Demand may drive production, but production can influence consumption by creating a demand where there was none previously. (Pg. 16).

2. As we move toward more sustainable practices, precedence should be given to the environment; humans should be considered as negative pressures that put ecosystems at risk.
To meet the goals of sustainable development, there needs to be an integrated appreciation and understanding of the social-environmental systems that we are operating in or any solutions will be unbalanced and fall apart over the long-term (Pg. 53).

3. Better policies and technologies are all that is needed to meet the environmental challenges ahead.
The complexity of social-environmental systems means that we cannot always predict the consequences of new technologies or policies. The pursuit of sustainability has to be an adaptive process in which we try the best possible solutions, moniter the results, and make adjustments as needed (Pg. 64).

4. GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and GNI (Gross National Income) are useful metrics when considering sustainability.
Both of these measures do not take important elements into account. First, they measure flows (what is happening now) rather than stocks or assets (what’s left to draw on in the future). They also fail to recognize and integrate the social and environmental as well as the economic determinants of well-being. To achieve an accurate sense of how we are doing in regard to sustainability, other measures and indicators that are more inclusive and broad-ranging are needed (Pg. 76).

5. Implementing sustainable practices means sacrificing profits.
Not necessarily. When taking into account social-environmental systems, sustainable solutions can actually save money. For examples of sustainability success stories that aided in, rather than hindering, economic goals, see Chapter 6 of Pursuing Sustainability.

As we work to meet the challenges posed by climate change and environmental vulnerability, it is important to educate ourselves so that we can arrive at solutions that will work over the long term. This Earth Day, Pamela Matson, William C. Clark, and Krister Andersson’s book is necessary reading.

Upcoming event with Oliver Morton and Future Tense


On Monday, February 1 Oliver Morton, author of The Planet Remade, will partner with Katherine Mangu-Ward at a lunch hosted by Future Tense to discuss the potential role of geoengineering in climate change in Washington D.C.. If you would like to attend, RSVP here. In the meantime, learn more about the topic on the Future Tense blog, excerpted here:

Geoengineering, the deliberate hacking of Earth’s climate, might be one of the most promising potential responses to climate change, especially in the absence of significant carbon emission reductions. It’s also one of the most controversial. We engineered our planet into our environmental crisis, but can we engineer our way out with a stratospheric veil against the sun, the cultivation of photosynthetic plankton, or fleets of unmanned ships seeding the clouds?

Conversations on Climate: How geoengineering has been used in the past

PlanetIn The Planet Remade, Oliver Morton argues that geoengineering, the process by which Earth’s systems are manipulated, can be used in a positive way to address the problems caused by man-made climate change. Geoengineering is nothing new. Chapter 7 of The Planet Remade describes how it was used in the twentieth century to feed a growing population. A summary:

At the end of the nineteenth century it became apparent that the yield of wheat would soon fall short of the demand. Sir William Crookes, one of the leading chemists of the time, gave a speech in 1898 on the subject. The number of people who wanted to eat wheat was increasing, but by that point there was no more land on which to grow it. The solution? Increasing the amount of nitrogen in the soil to increase the amount of wheat that a given parcel of land could yield. If this wasn’t done, Crookes warned, the world would face starvation.

Nitrogen was fixed on as the key to a solution because it is a necessary component of photosynthesis. It exists in the air we breathe in the inert form of two identical atoms attached to one another. In order to aid in sustaining life, it must be detached and fixed to some other element. This happens when bacteria in plants twist nitrogen molecules and insert hydrogen molecules into the resulting spaces, turning the nitrogen into ammonia. Later, the nitrogen is returned to its inert form. The process by which nitrogen is fixed and then unfixed makes up the nitrogen cycle. As this process has proceeded uninterrupted by humans for billions of years, it has been one component in supporting increasingly more complex life forms on Earth.

Crookes was hopeful that the problem could be solved. He called on scientists to figure out a way to fix nitrogen industrially. Fritz Haber, a professor at the University of Freiburg, rose to the challenge. He and his laboratory technicians created a process by which fixed nitrogen was created by passing a continuous stream of nitrogen and hydrogen over a hot catalyst at very high pressure. His colleague Carl Bosch scaled the process up so that it could be used on an industrial scale. The process was quickly adopted globally to produce more food. By the end of the 1960s, the amount of nitrogen fixed by the Haber-Bosch process exceeded that fixed by all the microbes in the world’s soil. Both men won the Nobel Prize for their efforts. Their discoveries have had profound implications beyond the world of agriculture.

The problem identified by Crookes had been solved, but at a cost. One cost can be seen in the Gulf of Mexico every summer. Between the 1960s and 1990s, the flow of nitrogen out of America’s heartland, through the Mississippi and into the Gulf has doubled. This abundant supply of nitrogen makes ideal food for photosynthetic algae to flourish, resulting in colossal algal blooms. As they decompose, they consume all the oxygen in the water, leaving none to support other life forms. As a result, large swaths of the Gulf of Mexico become dead zones every summer.

Does this episode in history prove that humans can’t be trusted with geoengineering? Or can it be used more responsibly in the future to address the challenge of climate change? To answer that question, check out The Planet Remade here.

Conversations on Climate: Paul Wignall says climate crisis is nothing new

NEW climate pic

Climate Change: We’ve Been Here Before
by Paul Wignall

The world’s climate is always changing and always has. Even during the past few centuries we have seen substantial variations, but only recently have we begun to blame ourselves for them. But how much natural variability is there, and just how extreme can climate change be? To gain some longer-term perspective on the climate’s variability we can look back through geological time, particularly at catastrophic events known as mass extinctions. In my recent book, The Worst of Times, I focus on an 80 million year interval when life on Earth suffered one disaster after another. These catastrophes included the Permo-Triassic mass extinction, the worst crisis that life has ever faced. It is not very reassuring to find that these extinctions all coincide with intervals of rapid global warming.

rocks from Permian-Triassic boundary in Guizhou

Sedimentary rocks from the Permian-Triassic boundary in Guizhou Province, SW China that record evidence for the greatest of all mass extinctions.

So, are we all going to hell in a hand basket? Well, probably not just yet. The story from the past is much more nuanced than this and I believe there is substantial hope that all is not so bad today. The reason is that the worst 80 million years happened a long time ago and more recently (in the past 100 million years) things have got a lot better. At one time all the world’s continents were joined together into a single supercontinent called Pangea. This seems to have created a global environment that was very fragile. Every time there was a phase of giant volcanic eruptions in Pangea, climates changed rapidly, the oceans stagnated and life began to suffer. The cause seems to be not the actual lava flows themselves, although these were very large, but the gases that bubbled out of them, especially carbon dioxide, everyone’s (not so) favorite greenhouse gas. As I explain in my book the effects of these gases on climate and oceans changed global environments in a disastrous way. Rapid increases in global temperature were part of the story and the results were some of the hottest climates of all time. The results for life were profound; dominant groups went extinct and new groups appeared only to have their brief hegemony terminated by the next disaster. By the time these waves of extinction were over the dinosaurs were the newest kids on the block. They went on to thrive and get very large whilst scurrying around at their feet were a group of small furry creatures. These were the mammals and they would have to wait a long time for their turn.

basalt flows

A landscape entirely made of giant basalt flows from the Permian Period, Yunnan Province, SW China.

Dinosaurs were the dominant animals on Earth for over 140 million years and it is often thought that they were somehow competitively successful but I think they were just very lucky. They appeared at a time when the Earth was rapidly getting better at coping with climatic changes caused by giant volcanism. There were plenty of episodes of large-scale eruptions during the time of the dinosaurs and none caused major extinctions. The key thing was that Pangea was splitting up and separate continents were forming – the familiar continents of today’s world. Such a world seems better able to cope with rapid increases in atmospheric gases because feedback mechanisms are more effective. In particular rainfall is more plentiful when the continents are small and nowhere is too far away from the sea. Rain scrubs the atmosphere and thus alleviates the problems.

However, the $64,000 question is how quickly this feedback can happen. The world seems better at doing this today than it was in deep time but maybe we are adding the carbon dioxide too fast to our atmosphere, maybe we are swamping the system? This is a hard question to answer, we’re not sure how much gas came out during the giant eruptions of the past and so it’s hard to directly compare with the present day pollution rates. What we do know is that past mega-eruptions have been remarkably damage-free. For over 100 million years, our world has been a benign place.

Oh, except for a remarkably large meteorite impact that was bad news for the dinosaurs, but that’s another story.

Wignall jacketPaul B. Wignall is professor of palaeoenvironments at the University of Leeds. He has been investigating mass extinctions for more than twenty-five years, a scientific quest that has taken him to dozens of countries around the world. The coauthor of Mass Extinctions and Their Aftermath, he lives in Leeds.

Conversations on Climate: Victor W. Olgyay on Design and Ecology’s Interconnection

NEW climate pic

Connecting Buildings to Address Climate Change
by Victor W. Olgyay

“We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in himself for the lack in another.”
Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island

In Pope Francis’ recent visit to the US, he referred to several interesting touchstones in America’s spiritual history, including Thomas Merton. Merton was a prolific writer, and often emphasized the importance of community and our deep connectedness to others as a nurturing aspect of spiritual life. The importance of connectedness is not only true of spirituality, but also applies to ecology, an idea we continue to relearn. We cannot throw anything out, because our discard comes back to us in the water we drink, the food we eat, or in the air we breathe. Our society is intimately connected; we all depend on the same resources to survive.

As the world’s leaders debate political solutions to our current climate crisis, brought about largely by our neglect of this idea, we can look to some very practical solutions within our built environment to protect and enhance resilient communities. In buildings, these broader connections to community exist as well. Buildings have traditionally emerged from context, been built out of local materials, fit into the contours of the landscape, and made use of the local climate to help heat and cool the structures. Almost inevitably, these buildings show a climatic response, drawn from the genus of place, mixed with human inventiveness. Between people and place a dialogue is evoked, a call and response that started long ago, and continues to evolve today.

This conversation has a science to it as well. In the mid 20th century many architects dove deep into the rationality of design, rediscovering how buildings can be designed to optimize their relationship to people, climate and place. Bridging technology, climatology, biology and architecture, the science of bioclimatic design was given quantitative documentation in Design with Climate, the 1963 text recently republished by Princeton University Press. The interdisciplinary approach to design that book describes remains the fundamental approach to designing high performance buildings today.

Integrated building design connects across disciplines.

Integrated building design connects across disciplines.

But today’s high performance buildings are often functionally isolated from our neighbors, from our community. Rather than emphasize connectivity, we have built our utility network on the idea that our buildings are at the consuming end of a wire. We aspire to make our buildings independent, but objectively we remain largely interdependent. By recognizing our commonality, we can reimagine our activities, so our buildings use connectivity to provide services that benefit the larger community as well as the building owner or occupant.

High performance solar powered buildings can use the electric utility grid to achieve net zero energy use over the course of a year. When building PV systems generate more electricity then they need, they can push it back into the grid, and when they need electricity, they can pull it from the grid, in essence, using the electrical grid as if it were a large battery.

While this is quite reasonable from a building end user perspective, what happens if we are drawing energy when the electricity is in great demand and pushing electricity onto it when there is already an excess of electricity? Looking at the system from the grid perspective is a different point of view. High performance buildings can make utility electricity problems worse.

By intelligently connecting buildings we can respond appropriately to utility grid needs, and provide services. To some extent this has been happening for many years in the form of “demand response” where building owners opt to reduce their power consumption when the utility is stressed in meeting demand. In turn, building owners receive reduced electricity charges.

But this is only the beginning. When we aggregate neighborhoods of buildings, we can provide a wide variety and quantity of services to the grid. In addition to demand response, buildings can (thanks to on site solar electricity generation) supply low carbon electricity to the grid. Buildings can shift loads, to use electricity when there is an over supply. Buildings (using batteries or thermal systems) can store energy for use later. Portfolios of buildings can even provide voltage regulation in useful quantities.

These ancillary products of high performance buildings are of great value economically to both the building owner and to the utility providing electricity and electricity distribution services. They are worth money, and a building that has always carried a utility operating cost can now be designed to have an operating income. And perhaps even more importantly, buildings communicating with the grid can help the grid run more smoothly, and by decarbonizing the electricity reduce the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions associated with providing utility services to us all.

Connecting buildings to act as an asset to the utility grid turns our current “end user” paradigm on its head. Individual projects can multiply their positive impact by increasing connectedness. As more of us coordinate with electrical utility systems, we have a stronger base of resources, a more resilient electrical grid, and more sources of income.

The bioclimatic design approach described in Design with Climate now has a renewed urgency. As we design our new buildings and redesign our existing buildings to purposefully engage with their context and climate and community, we can readily reduce building energy use and emissions at marginal cost. Connecting with climate, and intelligently connecting with the utility grid empowers buildings to have a positive environmental impact. With the issue of climate change looming ever sharper, the design community must recognize their deep connection to the climate issue, and take responsibility for moving the design professions and society forward to a solution.

In our commonality we find a larger, critical context that is set by our interdependence. Indeed, as Merton noted, in community we complete one another, and recognize our common home.

DesignVictor W. Olgyay is an architect and the son of the author of Design with Climate.

Conversations on Climate: Victor W. Olgyay on Design for Climate

NEW climate pic

Design with Climate is Design for Climate
by Victor W. Olgyay

climate change 2Our environmental crisis is real, and it is of our own creation. It is shocking that we humans are intentionally destroying the foundations of our existence, fouling our nest beyond repair. And we appear incapable of stopping ourselves from continuing to further worsen the problem.

Perhaps the issue is not irredeemable. After all, the climate crisis has had a long, slow burn. It has been a hundred years in the making, and has had the contribution of millions of individuals who have been polluting in the name of progress.

Now, in 2015 we are aware of what the uncoordinated actions of 7.3 billion people working for progress results in. We understand the origins of the ever-increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And we can both see the path forward, and we can design the path that we prefer.

Globally, buildings are the largest end use energy sector. We need to take dramatic steps today to address the global climate crisis, and that requires improving the energy performance of existing and new buildings. By doing this we will be able to shift economically to a renewable, low carbon energy supply.

We can reduce energy use in new and existing buildings dramatically and we can accomplish much of this through low and no cost measures. Simply designing buildings to work with local climatic conditions can reduce energy use by 50 percent or more. Design with Climate, a book written over 50 years ago, and recently republished by Princeton University Press, shows exactly how to do that. In essence, bioclimatic design information tells us how to shade our windows and walls during overheated periods, and to let in the sun’s warmth in when it is desirable. We can use daylight to illuminate vast amounts of interior space, and ventilate buildings with the wind, rather than fighting it. These ideas and many more result in sensible, responsible design, intelligent use of resources, and can result in beautiful, comfortable buildings.

: Designing with Climate makes buildings more comfortable while using less energy.

Designing with Climate makes buildings more comfortable while using less energy.

Since Design with Climate was written in 1963, several things have happened that make this even easier. We have more effective building insulation systems, which dramatically reduce heat loss and gain. We have better windows, and better techniques for building to reduce air and moisture infiltration. And we have sophisticated computer energy modeling techniques that accurately predict how buildings will preform before we build them, so building performance can become an integral part of building design.

And one more thing: we have that environmental crisis I started with. When Design with Climate was first published in 1963, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 320 parts per million (ppm), and today it is over 400ppm. In 1963 Rachael Carson had just written Silent Spring, and the environmental movement was nascent. Today the polar ice caps are melting, and global warming is threatening our very existence.

climate change 1We are now building extremely low energy buildings, zero energy buildings, and even buildings that produce more energy then they consume. Retrofitting existing buildings to use less energy, and building new superefficient structures paves the way for our renewable energy powered future, and combats climate change.

We must design not only with, but also for climate. Building design has implications we must use for our benefit. And through this engaged conversation with nature we can usher in a design solution to our climate crisis. That is true progress that can align millions of people.

Victor W. Olgyay is an architect and the son of the author of Design with Climate.

United Nations Conference on Climate Change: Reading Roundup #COP21

For the next two weeks, representatives from countries around the world will be meeting in Paris to discuss nothing less than the future of our planet at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. Climate change is one of the most important issues facing the world today, and it behooves all of us to educate ourselves. PUP publishes a number of titles that have the information you need to understand the repercussions of climate change, and make informed choices that will promote sustainability. Browse many of them below, and be sure to take advantage of the free chapters and/or introductions that we have posted on our website. For the next two weeks, check back here to follow our Conversations on Climate blog series, including posts from Victor Olgyay and Gernot Wagner.

Morris Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels
Ian Morris
Chapter 1
Climate Climate Shock
Gernot Wagner & Martin L. Weitzman
Chapter 1
 Life Life on a Young Planet
Andrew H. Knoll
Chapter 1
 Medea The Medea Hypothesis
Peter Ward
Chapter 1
 Sun The Sun’s Influence On Climate
Joanna D. Haigh & Peter Cargill
Chapter 1
 Worst The Worst of Times
Paul B. Wignall
Chapter 1
 Extinction Extinction
Douglas H. Erwin
Chapter 1
Tambora Tambora
Gillen D’Arcy Wood
 Design Design With Climate
Victor Olgyay
Chapter 1
 Planet The Planet Remade
Oliver Morton
 Ocean The Great Ocean Conveyor
Wally Broecker
Chapter 1
 Rules The Serengeti Rules
Sean B. Carroll

Victor Olgyay: Architecture is the cause and solution to climate related problems

design with climatePrinceton University Press has just reprinted Design with Climate: Bioclimatic Approach to Architectural  Regionalism, by Victor Olgyay, more than 50 years after its initial printing in 1963. Design with Climate describes an integrated design approach that remains a cornerstone of high performance architecture.

Victor Olgyay (1910-1970) was associate professor in the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at Princeton University. He was a leading researcher on the relationship between architecture, climate, and energy. His son, Victor W. Olgyay, is an architect and principal at Rocky Mountain Institute and was instrumental in reissuing this book. For this updated edition, he commissioned four new essays that provide unique insights on issues of climate design, showing how Olgyay’s concepts work in contemporary practice. Ken Yeang, John Reynolds, Victor W. Olgyay, and Donlyn Lyndon explore bioclimatic design, eco design, and rational regionalism, while paying homage to Olgyay’s impressive groundwork and contributions to the field of architecture.

Victor W. Olgyay spoke to Molly Miller about Design with Climate then and now.

Did Design with Climate change design when it came out in 1963?

VO: It wasn’t really very popular in the United States when it came out, but it soon became genuinely popular in South America. Our whole family moved to Colombia, South America, so my father could teach bioclimatic design there. He did research with his students using local climate zones and generated very interesting regional designs and published different versions of Design with Climate in Colombia and Argentina. This was in 1967-70. There are still clandestine editions in Spanish and Portuguese floating around, as well as in my fathers’ archives at Arizona State University.

My father died on Earth Day, April 22, 1970. Soon afterwards the 1973 oil embargo began and energy became a serious topic. That’s when Design with Climate caught people’s attention in the US because here was a book showing architects how they could respond to critical contemporary issues. Design with Climate suddenly was adopted in dozens of schools of architecture in the US and became a popular textbook. The broad popularity of the book had to do with Earth Day and with the oil crisis, but in the architecture community it was seen as a keystone helping bridge the emerging environmental architecture movement and analytic regionalism. That’s when it began to affect how architects approach design.

What is bioclimatic design?

VO: My father coined the term “bioclimatic design.” Bioclimatic design uses nature’s energies to harmonize buildings with local conditions. The physics of the environment, such as solar radiation and the convection of wind are employed as formal influences to create a climate balanced design. A diagram in the book shows four interlocking circles: biology, climatology, technology, and architecture. The lines of the circles are soft multi-layered lines, emblematic of the riparian merging of these disciplines. Bioclimatic design takes these disciplines and considers them together. For me this is the approach of a polymath, where when you consider things from different worlds together, you learn something completely new. You have insights you wouldn’t have gotten if they were isolated.

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 2.53.49 PM
In this model, people are at the center of the diagram. Biology addresses people’s needs for thermal and visual comfort. Synthesizing these disciplines results in a superior architecture. My father believed architecture’s ultimate purpose is to provide a place for the human spirit to lift, and support the human endeavor.

On a more practical level, a large part of this book is devoted to a design process. What if climate informs the design? How can you optimize nature and apply it to buildings?

VO: What’s really different about this approach is that my father looked carefully at how these fields are inter-related and did the analysis. This process is shown in the book. He took fairly complicated data about climate and made it into manageable design steps. He advocated working with climate to reduce energy use by orientation, shading, natural ventilation etc. In one example, he used wind tunnels with smoke to visualize air currents. Seeing the air currents allows an architect to make adjustments in their design, perhaps slightly moving the edge of an overhang next to a building to optimize natural ventilation.

How is this book relevant today?

VO: Today, more than ever, we have identified architecture as the cause and solution to a large percentage of our climate related problems. It is impossible for us to transition to a low carbon economy without reducing the energy consumption of buildings. To do that, we need to take into account bioclimatic design and Design with Climate shows us how to get that into our lexicon again.

Integrated design has taken off. Today, we have a renaissance of people thinking about green design. Not only do we need to design with climate, we now have to design for a changing climate and address global issues with architecture.

But even though we can say green design is becoming mainstream, the concepts in Design with Climate are still widely overlooked. Let’s take shading as an example. Many ‘green’ architects are still cladding their entire building in glass, which is neither comfortable nor energy efficient and ignores climatic information.

Architects rarely recognize how a building affects people and the environment. It’s surprising to me that architects don’t use climatic information more. It’s a gift to be able to make a space that people find thermally and visually comfortable. That can make an inspired design! There are dire consequences to designing a glass box. It’s critical today for architects to have a modicum of morality in design. This is the awareness that Design with Climate brings. There’s no penalty for your design to work with climate, just benefits.

Has this new edition of Design with Climate been changed or updated?

VO: As an existing book, it seemed classic and I wanted to honor that. So we reprinted the entire original manuscript exactly as it first appeared. But we added some essays to provide contemporary context. Donlyn Lyndon worked with my father on the original research. John Reynolds, professor emeritus at University of Oregon, has been teaching bioclimatic design for 40 years. Ken Yeang, who has been working with ecological design with tall buildings, brings Design with Climate into the 21st Century. These essays each add color and context and show how Design with Climate was a steppingstone to our contemporary architecture.

What does this book mean to you personally and professionally?

VO: I have always been interested in the implications of architecture and form. Our work is important, and can have a positive impact in the world. My father’s book has reached hundreds of thousands of people and encouraged environmental architects. I am very thankful that this book has had that influence. It is an honor for me to assist with this new edition, so this book endures as an inspiration for others to honor the earth, and to support the evolution of the human spirit.

World Oceans Day 2015

In December 2008, the United Nations passed a resolution officially recognizing June 8th as World Oceans Day. It is organized and coordinated by The Ocean Project, an organization that focuses its efforts on advancing ocean conservation in partnership with zoos, aquariums, and museums around the world. World Oceans Day aims to raise awareness of the current health of the ocean and educate people on the myriad ways that we rely on this complex ecosystem. To learn more about World Oceans Day and their events, visit the website.

If you’d like to learn more about the world’s oceans, Princeton University Press publishes a number of titles on the subject, including Climate and the Oceans, The Extreme Life of the Sea, and The Great Ocean Conveyor.


CLIMATE SHOCK authors on TheAtlantic.com: Will camels roam Canada again?

Climate ShockThe last time concentrations of carbon dioxide were as high as they are today, write Marty Weitzman and Gernot Wagner, authors of Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet, camels lived in Canada. That was a bit over 3 million years ago, of course. But how certain does science have to be for the world to act? Wagner and Weitzman had a terrific op-ed appear today on The Atlantic.com where they argue that climate is best thought of as a global-scale risk management problem. Check it out here:

Will Camels Roam Canada Again?

What we know about climate change is bad enough. What we don’t could make it even worse.

Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman

You are cruising down the highway at 65 miles per hour, reading a book in your self-driving car. Your life is in the hands of a machine—an eminently benevolent one. Meanwhile, in the lane next to you, an 18-wheeler using decidedly last-century technology—relying on a fallible human driver—appears to be swerving your way.

Your car’s computer is on the case. Equipped with orders of magnitude more computing power than the Apollo moon lander, it determines with all the confidence it can muster that there’s a greater-than-50-percent chance—it’s “more likely than not”—that the truck is about to hit you.

You may want to look up from your book. More importantly, you want to know with certainty that your onboard computer will hit the brakes, even if there’s a 49-percent chance that doing so will be a false alarm.

If, instead of “more likely than not,” the danger were “likely,” “very likely,” or even “extremely likely,” the answer would be clearer still. Even if there’s a 95-percent probability of a crash, there’s still a 1-in-20 chance that nothing will happen—but no one would gamble their life on those odds. Your car’s computer hopefully will have engaged the anti-lock braking systems already.

A perfect self-driving car doesn’t exist yet, nor has the world solved global warming. But it’s surprising that, by the standards that we’d expect in a car to keep its occupants safe, the governments of the world haven’t stepped on the brakes to avoid planetary-scale global warming disaster—a 100-year-storm hitting New York every other year, frequent and massive droughts, inundated coastal cities. In 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that it was “more likely than not” the case that global warming was caused by human activity. By 2001, it had progressed to “likely.” By 2007, it was “very likely.” By 2013, it was “extremely likely.” There’s only one step left in official IPCC lingo: “virtually certain.”

Read the rest at The Atlantic.com here.


“Governor Christie, Fidel Castro, and Hurricane Sandy,” a guest post by Stuart Schwartz

Hurricane Sandy on October 25, 2012 (Source: NASA, MODIS, LANCE, HDF File Data processed by Supportstorm: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sandy_Oct_25_2012_1530Z.jpg)

In late October, 2012 superstorm Sandy swept up from the Caribbean and pounded the Northeast. The damage was horrendous: 268 dead, $68 billion in property loss, the most expensive disaster in the United States after Hurricane Katrina. The images of President Obama and Republican Governor Christie walking the beaches of New Jersey became an icon of collaboration at a time when the country was frustrated by Washington’s seeming deadlock. Obama was swept into office the following month, and Christie’s popularity soared in the aftermath. Sandy was not the only reason for these political results, but exit polls confirmed that it was certainly a factor. It was a demonstration that government can effectively provide help in a time of crisis when those in authority do not hold government in contempt, to paraphrase Paul Krugman. It was a message that resonated with large segments of the public.

Governor Christie gives a no-nonsense update on the state of things, post Hurricane Sandy. Credit:  Alec Perkins. Source:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/alecperkins/8155687190/

Governor Christie gives a no-nonsense update on the state of things, post Hurricane Sandy.
Credit: Alec Perkins. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alecperkins/8155687190/

But Hurricane Sandy had come in the midst of a scientific and political controversies about the effects of climate change on the intensity and frequency of cyclonic storms, and about the nature or role of government in protecting citizens from calamities. The response to Hurricane Sandy revealed the complex and sometimes contradictory responses to these debates. Governor Christie’s post-Sandy pleading for Federal aid moved some fellow Republicans to criticize him for “big government” solutions and excessive dependence on Washington, but before Sandy and thereafter on the question of global warming like many of his Republican colleagues he had voiced his own doubts on climate change, and emphasized that he had more immediate problems to solve than to debate such arcane issues. That seemingly “practical” approach contributed to his reelection, and in October of last year in his victory speech, the governor spoke of “the spirit of Sandy,” the sense of community and cooperation in problem solving that could become the way he would meet many kinds of political and social challenges.

Unknowingly, Governor Christie was repeating the arguments of Fidel Castro in a similar situation following the disastrous Hurricane Flora of 1963. Flora, the second deadliest storm in the history of the Atlantic had killed about 8,000 people in Haiti and Cuba. Castro at the time, embarrassed by the Missile crisis mobilized all of the institutions of Cuba in the relief effort. Cuba suffered over 1,200 death which was bad enough, but given the dimension of the storm, the government effort was a tremendous success. The successful cooperation and mobilization of society convinced him that this spirit of Flora could become the attitude in which all the country’s problems were met. Castro’s actions after Flora were used to justify the effectiveness of the Revolution and, in fact, Cuba subsequently became a model for disaster mitigation and preparation, but whatever the immediate political benefits, overtime Castro’s speeches also became “greener,”and like many leaders in the Caribbean, he began to emphasize the need to take global warming and the rise of the oceans seriously.

For the most part, that has not been the case in New Jersey. The problem is that separation of practical issues from long-term issues like global warming is short-sighted. In Sandy, for example, the New Jersey Transit Corporation, basing its decision on past experience failed to move its rolling stock to high ground and as a result suffered a loss of a quarter of its trains and $150 million in damages. New York’s MTA under Governor Cuomo suffered far less because he had taken climate change as a reality and had taken necessary precautions. Both governors had been handicapped, however, by the fact that FEMA funding had been so reduced prior to Sandy that the shoreline maps of areas of possible flooding of New York and New Jersey were decades out of date.

Castro’s experience following hurricane Flora made him an advocate of strong government action in response to natural disasters, but it had also made him responsive to the challenges of environmental change. It remains unclear if Governor Christie who is looking forward to 2016 has learned a similar lesson, and more importantly, if he could make that message appealing to his political party, the leadership of which continues to deny scientific evidence of human caused climate change, or suggests that even if it does exist, there is little that can be done about it. That position combined with a neo-liberal argument for weakening financial support for the public sector, lowering investments in infrastructure, and the dismantling of central authority that has gained much support since the 1980s, and it raises the question for Governor Christie and the rest of us if the “spirit of Sandy” that he so passionately invoked will be enough to confront the challenges of climate change.

Stuart B. Schwartz is the George Burton Adams Professor of History and chair of the Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies at Yale University. His many books include All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World and Sea of Storms. A History of Caribbean Hurricanes from Columbus to Katrina (forthcoming January 2015).

It’s Getting Hot in Here: Eric H. Cline’s New York Times Op-Ed on the Perils of Climate Change

5-28 Bronze Age CollapseIn the eye of the storm – that is to say, in the unrelenting public discussion that is climate change – author Eric H. Cline’s latest Op-Ed for The New York Times packs quite a gale force.

Holding both ancient and contemporary society up to the proverbial light, Cline asks if we’re really all that different from our forebears and whether or not we’re capable of avoiding a similarly abrupt end.

Eric H. Cline, a Professor of classics and anthropology at George Washington University and the Director of the Capitol Archaeological Institute,  doesn’t hesitate to present these very early, and very scary repercussions of environmental catastrophe. He reminds readers that these events have acted as catalysts of warfare and harbingers of destruction since the days of old, or, more specifically, since the tail-end of the Late Bronze Age.

In his new book, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, Cline reveals that the thriving cultures within Egypt, Greece, and Mesopotamia didn’t necessarily succumb to the military prowess of the ‘Sea Peoples’ alone, but rather, fell victim to Mother Nature herself: earthquakes, changes in water temperature, drought, and famine hearkened in a period of rebellion, followed by complete ruin.

“We still do not know the specific details of the collapse at the end of the Late Bronze Age or how the cascade of events came to change society so drastically. But it is clear that climate change was one of the primary drivers or stressors, leading to the societal breakdown.”

The real question Cline seems to be getting at is: “Why not us?” We’re no more able to control the weather than they were – or are we? Recent debates about global warming suggest that we might just be able to put off our own demise, at least temporarily.

What happens if we don’t change our habits, however, is less certain; but Cline is fairly convinced, based on the evidence from his book, that it won’t be good. For him, the possibility of total collapse is far from the realm of the ridiculous, and his article is not so much a threat as it is a warning. Maybe if we know what brought our ancestors into the Dark Ages, we can stay in a light for just a little while longer.


Eric H. Cline is the author of:

5-28 Cline 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline Hardcover | 2014 | $29.95 / £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691140896
264 pp. | 6 x 9 | 10 halftones. 2 maps. | eBook | ISBN: 9781400849987
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