My Hero(ine)

ClimateSight has a post about “Extinction and Climate.” Read it — it’s one of the most important global warming posts I’ve ever seen.

The author of that blog is Kate, a young woman (18 or 19 years old I think) who is an undergraduate studying climate science. And she’s one of the best writers on the subject around. She combines genuine knowledge, perspective, and a cool head to get right to the point.

Sometimes the utter stupidity of our politicians drives me to the brink of despair. Then I remember we’ve got Kate on our side. It gives me hope.

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52 responses to “My Hero(ine)

  1. Powerful article by Kate. We need more such informed and articulate “alarmists.”

  2. Thanks for the link to Kate’s post, a good post and a good writer to follow.

  3. I think she’s still a freshman, no? She started ClimateSight when she was still in high school.

  4. And I find it very interesting that “dhogaza” has become some smashed variant of “eK” with marks and apparently at least one other letter crashing into the “K”.

    This has happened before, here …

    WordPress has put Tea Party experts in charge of the programming of the site, or what?

  5. Aw, thank you so much Tamino! It’s wonderful to know that my articles are well received.

    To answer a few questions – I am 18 right now, and not technically studying climate science, although that is my eventual goal. In Canada at least, studying WG1 material (as opposed to impacts) generally starts at the graduate level, so I am planning on majoring in applied math, with lots of physics and comp sci.

    Again, thanks for your continued support!

  6. Gavin's Pussycat

    Talking about extinction, I just got an invitation from an entity called the ‘Journal of Cosmology’ to submit an article for their May edition on ‘Evolution or Extinction’.

    Doing a little research, I rather quickly found out that JoC is not a serious journal… don’t fall for it.

    E.g.,

    http://www.bautforum.com/showthread.php/107672-Journal-of-Cosmology?p=1790744#post1790744

    and the thread it is in.

    What for me was the giveaway was their refusal to accept manuscripts in LaTeX ;-)

  7. Excellent stuff. There needs to be more focus on the inherent critical dangers of rapid environmental change for whatever reason. It is the rate of change that is the key factor.

    Coincidentally, I blogged a week ago on the Ordovician-Silurian mass extinction, as it’s recorded in the rocks here in mid-Wales where I live:

    http://www.geologywales.co.uk/storms/hirnantian-12.htm

    There’s a second page with more photos/geology linked to from there, the above link being a less long-winded version after helpful comments from friends in this sector!

    Cheers – John

  8. It’s encouraging for me to see someone of the younger generation who is aware of our dire AGW problem.
    I hope that there are many more and as they reach voting age they can turn the tide and vote against stupid politicians who seem to value their pieces of fuel industry silver over that of the future of mankind and the other creatures of this earth.
    As a Canadian I take ironic note that she is from the prairies which happens to be our current anti science Prime Minister Harper’s main source of support.

  9. Yes, I am a freshman (although in Canada we tend to just say “first year”). And yes, all three Prairie provinces are very Conservative these days, it can be quite frustrating.

    • I didn’t know you were from Canada, just that you’re a young’un, bright, and write exceptionally well.

      Keep up the good work.

  10. Antiquated Tory

    Kate, “And yes, all three Prairie provinces are very Conservative .” Why aren’t these Conservatives interested in actually *conserving* anything? Besides their own bank balances, that is. Oops, I think I’ve answered my question.
    If you’re in college and there’s a course where you read Burke, consider it. That’s what Conservatism used to be.

  11. Keep your eye on this one. She’s going somewhere!

  12. Kate. Excellent article. There are too many who simply cannot, or will not, bother to investigate the disruption threatened by rapid climate shifts fairly and like to opine based on pseudo-science sources.

    I am grappling with a fellow Canadian of yours, who I don’t think even bothers to follow links I supply, so can I have permission from you to quote in full? I will of course link in the normal way too.

    • Yes, that would be fine!

      • Thank you.

        As for your anthropomorphism with respect to, ‘Life on Earth does not enjoy change…’, you are in exalted company when it comes to the use of such devices. Richard Dawkins has used such in his many books and, because of comments such as those from Dano here, in his later books he has taken to qualifying such statements in parenthesis or a footnote for longer explanations. ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’ and ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ are well worth the effort in reading.

  13. She is indeed precocious and a nice writer and I share the hope bit (Desdemona picked up her piece and I read it there), but being an ecology guy, I can see several glaring errors in that essay. The errors are such that it negates the message in my view. Life on earth has adapted to change since day one 2BYA. Life neither ‘likes’ nor ‘dislikes’ change.

    And our sheer numbers and consumption/exploitation/waste disposal are already grave threats to species and already causing extinctions, and likely will continue to do so if we were to shut down C emissions tomorrow. AGW is merely one more disturbance piled on top of what we have been doing for ~200-250 years. Sure, AGW is a change agent and may be increasing the rate a bit, but AGW alone will continue to be a small player in the overall scope of things as long as we continue reproducing, not dying, and consuming resources at this rate.

    That is: AGW is more of a threat to our societies than it is to the planet’s biota. Mankind’s numbers and the level of our consumption , muactivities are much much more of a threat to the planet’s biota.

    Just’ sayin’. This is not to throw cold water on anyone’s face. Surely with more education in the natural sciences, Kate will agree with me. Keep up the good work, Tamino and Kate.

    Best,

    D

    [Response: I agree that AGW is more of a threat to our civilization than to the biosphere. But that doesn’t mean it’s no threat at all to the biosphere. I disagree with your statement that life neither likes nor dislikes change; instability — especially climate instability — is a threat to existing species, and in the past extreme climate change is linked to mass extinctions.]

  14. [Response: ...But that doesn't mean it's no threat at all to the biosphere. I disagree with your statement that life neither likes nor dislikes change; instability -- especially climate instability -- is a threat to existing species, and in the past extreme climate change is linked to mass extinctions.]

    Tamino, I never claimed it was no threat. I claimed our current activities are much more of a threat.

    And life doesn’t “like” anything (this is anthropomorphizing). Life has no opinion on change. It adapts (or not) to disturbance. Resilient systems, life, organisms withstand disturbance and life has adapted to withstand stressors, disturbance, change. Man’s activities have decreased resilience in many systems.

    Surely AGW is stressing corals now and this is decreasing their resilience (as is our pollution of, say, the Great Barrier Reef), which could have important cascading effects. Landcover change, overfishing, freshwater appropriation, nitrification, eutrophication, our appropriation of so much NPP for one species are all much more damaging to the biosphere – and will continue to be for the foreseeable future – especially with 9B people on the planet. AGW just piles on top of all that.

    To clarify: again, if we were to stop all C emissions tomorrow, our exploits would continue to destroy species at far above background rate. Our continuing actions without C emissions are enough to be the sixth extinction event. AGW may speed up the rate by eroding resilience of systems and tipping some already-stressed spp. The threat to our societies is more grave: human agrarian societies have never existed in a climate that is 2ºC warmer than now. We simply have no model.

    But the errors in the essay are Freshman errors. I’m confident from the quality of the writing and thinking that they will be corrected. I share the hope.

    Best,

    D

    • Hmmm, I know Dr. Jeff Harvey disagrees with your assessment of the future scale of AGW effects on biodiversity.

      For instance, research on the Amazon Basin doesn’t lead to optimism, and while deforestation and other human impacts are certainly wiping out biodiversity at a horrific rate, that part that remains or might remain in the future (we can always hope) is in peril due to warming.

      And the traditional conservation strategy of setting up reserves is likely going to blow up in our faces (indeed, may well be, Nature conservancy botanists have been worried about the future of the plant species that they’re protecting for a decade, at least, due to warming).

      Of course, they’ve already blown up in our faces given that the strategy was devised and executed before the need for migration and dispersion corridors was understood, and much of the land that would be needed is already gone for conservation.

      It’s not an easy question. I wouldn’t call Kate’s take on it a “freshman mistake” when there are plenty of ecologists who believe that future impacts of AGW on biodiversity will be of greater importance relative to other human than Dano does.

      Of course the basic problem does boil down to continuing population growth and an increasingly consumptive lifestyle as the world’s population gets wealthier (less poor, for most of it). That’s true of AGW, too, if there were a few hundred million of us rather than several billion CO2 emissions would drop …

    • Yes and no. I’ve been making the very same points you’re making about cumulative effects, for some time. This is an in-grained no-brainer for ecologists, who are used to dealing with complex multiplicities of cause and effect, serious feedbacks and non-linearities and all the rest. Sometimes it’s frustrating to see that some physical scientists don’t have the same level of appreciation for this (although the more aware most certainly do have).

      Nevertheless, I could bring a number of counter-arguments to your idea that human society is more vulnerable than natural ecosystems are. Many, MANY, fundamental and controlling ecosystem processes are directly controlled by climatic drivers. You’re wading into a serious hornet’s nest with statements like that.

      • Jim Bouldin:

        Nevertheless, I could bring a number of counter-arguments to your idea that human society is more vulnerable than natural ecosystems are. Many, MANY, fundamental and controlling ecosystem processes are directly controlled by climatic drivers. You’re wading into a serious hornet’s nest with statements like that.

        My argument is that extinction would continue apace due to our heedless and rapid exploitation of natural systems, and the waste we dump into the biosphere. AGW increases the positive slope of change – yet if we were to stop using C tomorrow, our destruction of natural systems would continue unabated (provided we somehow could maintain our population and consumption absent cheap energy from C). This exploitation has already weakened ecosystem resilience and made systems vulnerable to disturbance.

        It’s like the old saw about a guy with a sledgehammer pounding on a large rock for days. His buddy comes by and with his first blow the rock shatters. The buddy claims it was his work that broke the rock and walks away. We don’t really want to argue about the last blow, we want to back up and change our preceding hammer blows.

        HTH.

        Best,

        D

      • Dano,
        Many of us have said that climate change is merely one of the threats we need to address. However, it is one the the most serious and difficult to solve. Ultimately, though, I think we agree that the goal should be sustainability.

      • Dano @ 7:49,

        Yes I agree with your main points and overall assessment. I just want to emphasize, that with climate change added on to the other (existing) drivers of environmental change, we have a global-scale forcing that (1) has multiple direct and indirect effects on multiple (and I do mean multiple!) response variables at all imaginable spatio-temporal scales lower in the hierarchy, which thus (2) exponentially increases the difficulties of both managing, and understanding, the biosphere. And on top of that, a set of idiots who feel that we’re already spending too much money on environmental monitoring and want to drastically cut it, rather than increase it as needed.

        On the point of relative effects of climate change on ecosystems vs human societies, the super over-simplified (a practice I try to avoid) main point is that human societies have considerable ability to buffer changes via various adaptation and control measures; ecosystems do not.

    • Dano, you are ignoring the fact that at times 90% of the species on Earth have not adapted, and that those forms that do adapt are unlikely to be those conducive to our own survival and welfare. Or perhaps you already have reicpes for fried cockroaches.

    • “Life on Earth does not enjoy change” is a metaphor. Obviously “Life” in the abstract doesn’t like or dislike change, but living organisms and ecological systems will have difficulty adapting to change if it is severe enough. “Does not like” in this case is standing in for the “inability to cope with.” The ability to use metaphor is the sign of a good author — and at the beginning of an essay it can make for a powerful opening.

      If we wish to communicate with people who do not have a scientific background it helps if we know how to communicate in a way that is readily understandable and meaningful. It helps if we can engage in storytelling, telling people not simply the science but why we got interested in the science, not just the physics behind climate change but how it will affect real individuals. and it helps if we know how to communicate complex concepts in a simpler language.

      Storytelling is integral to the human mind. When we give a scientific explanation to ourselves or to others we are still engaged in a form of storytelling, using the very same parts of the brain that Homer and storytellers in the long-forgotten past spoke to thousands and even tens of thousands of years ago. We are trying to lead someone from where they are along a path to where we would like them to be — so that they see things the same way that we have been able to see them.

      Rather than focusing too heavily on the science, we need to get back to the roots of scientific explanation in storytelling whenever possible, illustrating what the effects of climate change will be on farmers, villagers and our descendants. Telling the story of how climate science became important to you, or the story of some historical figure such as Arrhenius and how he arrived at his insights.

      And yes, it helps to make use of metaphor — because like storytelling metaphor is integral to the human mind.

      As I said previously in a somewhat different context:

      We are talking about the importance of metaphors to human psychology, and at root they are important psychologically because they are of critical importance to human cognition. We speak of a “tree” of knowledge, but we also speak of “branches” of knowledge or “branches” of a discipline, “viewpoints” or “perspective”, the justification or evidence that “supports” a given conclusion, the “foundation” for a belief, “lines” of “investigation” and so on. Metaphors — where we think of something concrete as a means of “grasping” something more abstract.

      The more abstract concepts probably begin as metaphors. The word “abstract” has its origins in a concept meaning “to draw away from” or “separate”. The word ‘metaphor’ has its origins in the Greek noun “metaphora” which has its origin in the the verb “metapherein” with “meta-” meaning “over” or “across” and pherein meaning to “carry” or “bear”.

      We begin with concrete, perceptual awareness and we are able to abstract to higher levels only gradually. And to do so we will often have to rely upon metaphor first — as a means of tacit awareness that only later makes possible an fully articulated form of understanding.

      Through metaphor we are able to get back to primordial roots of human thought — and in my view this is what explains their psychological power. Storytelling and metaphor are important — quite possibly as important if not more so than the actual science when it comes to public understanding.

      • David B. Benson

        Timothy Chase | February 24, 2011 at 2:59 am — Yup.

        Briefly, avoid pedantry.

      • Amen to that. Tell a good story about all of this–good meaning both compelling and substantially accurate–and you do a massive service for us all.

      • Something tells me that Tim Chase fellow has his act together.

      • Yes, it was indeed supposed to be a metaphor, as it anthropomorphizes not just an animal but the entire biosphere at that point in time. Environmental change forces both evolution and extinction, so the biosphere may benefit in the long run, but the species around at the time tend to suffer. Case in point – the Snowball Earth swings were great for multicellular life, but not so great for all the species of microorganisms that had to perish in the process.

        Thanks for the suggestion, though, Dano – biological sciences aren’t my specialty (I just find prehistoric disasters oddly compelling), so feedback from the more experienced is welcome.

      • Climatesight, it is also worth noting that when a species or family adapts to change a great many individuals will often pay for this with their lives, being offered up on the altar to natural selection. Others will pay with their diminished numbers of descendants.

        These are the sorts things with which adaption is bought. The species is adapted to a past environment and when the present differs too greatly there will be a culling of one form or another. In Heaven things may be different but nature and evolution know no other way.

        “Life on Earth does not enjoy change.” A powerful metaphor that is suggestive of the sacrifice that adaption entails. I wouldn’t change it.

  15. Dr. Harvey’s info.

    And I know what he thinks about future impacts of AGW on diversity (as well as impacts of other human activities) due to a long thread over at Our Changing Climate …

  16. I’d be happy to discuss scale effects with Jeff, he may have my private e-mail addy & we may be at the same place together soon. I’m sure I have discussed this before somewhere with him.

    And it’s not my expertise, but I’d assert that deforestation in the Amazon has decreased resilience and shifted water vapor patterns such that when drought hits they compound each others’ effects.

    Best,

    D

    • Dano:

      And it’s not my expertise, but I’d assert that deforestation in the Amazon has decreased resilience and shifted water vapor patterns such that when drought hits they compound each others’ effects

      It’s not Dr. Harvey’s expertise, either, he’s been quoting from the people he considers to be those with the most expertise, rather than stating his own opinion (which is what you do).

      Absent a solid reason to believe you rather than those who specialize in the Amazon Basin, I’ll go with the experts.

      Of course, all of this is hair-splitting. It’s only about which human-caused changes to the biosphere will be dominant in the future. There’s no disagreement that one or more human-caused changes *will* be dominant.

  17. Hm. I started composing a reply, went to dinner with the fam, and came back finished then ,hit send, only to see more folks in the thread. My reply is to dhog. Apologies. I don’t have time to reply to everyone, Jeff surely knows how to get a hold of me or someone who does if he thinks what I wrote contradicts what folks think he wrote.

    Best,

    D

    • So I’ll repeat:

      Of course, all of this is hair-splitting. It’s only about which human-caused changes to the biosphere will be dominant in the future. There’s no disagreement that one or more human-caused changes *will* be dominant.

      You, too, could be guilty of a “freshman mistake”.

      But it’s all hair-splitting, regarding the future.

    • And I still don’t get how people manage to contract “Dho Gaza” into “dhog”.

      That’s a Stephen Mosher-ism, and a TCO-ism, and I doubt Dano wants to be equated with them…

  18. We desperately need more people like Kate in the world.

    Only 18 and infinitely more insightful, refined, and mature than say Curry. Heck, I’d even say that Kate could hold her own on the technical stuff too.

    • At least Kate would know what she doesn’t know. I remember the heaps of praise that Curry gave Kristen Byrnes when she had her moment in the sun. Kate’s writings stand head and shoulders above Byrnes’s. Kate has the essential element of curiosity; she’s also not afraid to challenge herself with her studies.

  19. Yes, it was indeed supposed to be a metaphor, as it anthropomorphizes not just an animal but the entire biosphere at that point in time. Environmental change forces both evolution and extinction, so the biosphere may benefit in the long run, but the species around at the time tend to suffer. Case in point – the Snowball Earth swings were great for multicellular life, but not so great for all the species of microorganisms that had to perish in the process.

    Kate, not a problem. I saw your piece on Desdemona Despair and thought it was well-written and composed, and later saw who wrote it. Keep up the good work!

    The issue is the metaphor not only anthropomorphizes natural processes, but ‘nature not liking change’ is incorrect. Change and disturbance are part of the deal. There is always some plant on the rainforest floor waiting for an opening to exploit, or conversely a shade-adapted plant getting fried after a tree falls.

    And my other point is that man’s actions already are destroying the biosphere, via the sheer number and impact of our population. In my view, we are distanced from our externalities, which is why the scale of our destruction is so large. IF this continues, we will wipe out much in our path. We don’t need climate change to wipe out species, we are doing just fine without it. AGW just speeds up the process. The environmental movement receives justified criticism for focusing only on AGW as a change agent while the rest of our destruction continues apace. Separating change agents oversimplifies our effects, and distracts away from the real cause of the sixth great extinction event .

    Anyway, I don’t want the (hopefully) constructive criticism to distract away from the praise you are justifiably receiving for your essay.

    Best,

    D

    • Dano:

      IF this continues, we will wipe out much in our path. We don’t need climate change to wipe out species, we are doing just fine without it. AGW just speeds up the process.

      This is a bit like being on a burning, sinking oil tanker arguing whether the fire or the ship’s sinking will kill us first :)

      • This is a bit like being on a burning, sinking oil tanker arguing whether the fire or the ship’s sinking will kill us first :)

        Which is why we need to discuss the underlying cause for any sort of substantive discussion. We are afraid to do this.

        BTW, the Oct 18-24 2008 New Scientist (vol 2678) devoted its issue to this very question (the intro ed. was entitled ‘The bank we can never bail out”). Folks like Herman Daly and Gus Speth contributed.

        Remember: E.O. Wilson replied to the question ‘what is a sustainable population’ with, roughly, ‘if they consume like the US and Japan, about 200 million).

        We have to get through the bottleneck first. Then we have to ensure we don’t live in a climate in which we are unfamiliar, else we are resilient and flexible enough to adapt. That means likely a complete re-ordering of our societies and how we do things. We can’t even stand to consider migrants in much of Europe and America today. What will happen when there are 250M of them due to climate disruptions or – sooner – water shortages?

        Water shortages are a much more germane optic for ordering society to adapt and overcome, in my view. Addressing this needs to be done first, is a win, and builds confidence for the harder work ahead.

        OK, back to work.

        Best,

        D

      • Which is why we need to discuss the underlying cause for any sort of substantive discussion. We are afraid to do this.

        Well, I agree with the diagnosis, and have for decades, and I’m not afraid to discuss it.

        Damned if I have a clue as to a solution. Looks like it might stabilize at 9 million or so, if some people are to be believed, but that’s far too high.

      • Which gets us to the (currently) latest thread–”While We Fiddle.” Surely, we need to build political will to mitigate emissions, stop the worst environmental rapine (deforestation? removal of all top predators from maritime ecosystems? the mining of topsoil and groundwater? Nominees being taken now!) and control our own population. Surely we need to develop and deploy–much, much faster!–sustainable technologies.

        Slowly, incrementally, some of these things are happening, or “sort of” happening. And I know from the past thread about “What are you doing?”–sorry, I don’t recall the proper title–that many readers here are doing what they can as individuals toward these ends.

        Yet it’s hard to avoid assessing our cumulative actions as “fiddling” while Rome–or dhogaza’s oil tanker–burns.

    • I don’t mean to be pedantic, but even with the winners who survive to “exploit” changes in the environment and whose descendants thrive, I would expect that typically their success is relative. At least in the short term.

      With their having already been well-adapted to the earlier environment, a changed environment will be something of a challenge. Their lives may be shorter. They may have fewer immediate descendants.

      But if they live longer than their contemporaries, long enough to produce more descendants than those that struggle only to fail to have any descendants at all, then in time they might have more descendants than they would otherwise have. Their line exploits the changes in their environment.

      I suppose you could even say that the synapsids who survived the Permian-Triassic Extinction ” and had us as their descendants “exploited it” insofar as it wiped out so much of the competition. But I doubt they saw it that way at the time. More likely that is just the sort of metaphor that would be lost on them, I think.

  20. I’ve been toying with an idea of a story that individual (informed) gardeners would be the future overlords but somehow I don’t see it happening… They’d be the only ones who could tell weather in the growing season beforehand in a climate that swings wildly, and thus the only ones who can produce any food… so they’d have to know which grains to use, too. The backstory would have to be somekind of very devastating cultural catastrophe, so they would not be overrun by hungry hordes of savaged peoples, or animals for that matter… so it’s not likely to be written anyday in the near future.

  21. Gavin's Pussycat

    I’m trying to imagine a substantive discussion like this on WUWT… sorry.

  22. Oale,

    The future leaders, if any society survives at all, will be gang leaders with loyal armed troops. The wise gardeners will be slaves.

  23. Barton: So the hypothetical gardener should be a gang leader too, not likely… There was the NZ show ‘The Tribe’ a few years back, a bit cheesy show, but some of those scenarios come to mind.