Inaction on climate change

Thirty years ago, this magazine published “The End of Nature,” a long article about what we then called the greenhouse effect. I was in my twenties when I wrote it. The data were persuasive. We were spewing so much carbon into the atmosphere.

I was frightened by my reporting, but, at the time, it seemed likely that we’d try as a society to prevent the worst from happening. In 1988, George H. W. Bush, running for President, promised that he would fight “the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.” He did not, nor did his successors, nor did their peers in seats of power around the world.

For the past few years, a tide of optimistic thinking has held that conditions for human beings around the globe have been improving. Wars are scarcer, poverty and hunger are less severe. But there are newer signs that human progress has begun to flag. Late in 2017, a United Nations agency announced that the number of chronically malnourished people in the world, after a decade of decline, had started to grow again, “largely due to the proliferation of violent conflicts and climate-related shocks.” In June, 2018, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. found that child labor, after years of falling, was growing, “driven in part by an increase in conflicts and climate-induced disasters.”

In 2015, at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris, the world’s governments, noting that the earth has so far warmed a little more than one degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, set a goal of holding the increase this century to 1.5 degrees Celsius, with a fallback target of two degrees. This past October, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a special report stating that global warming “is likely to reach 1.5 C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.”

Scientists have warned for decades that climate change would lead to extreme weather. As this essay goes to press, California is ablaze after a summer of unprecedented high temperatures and a fall “rainy season” with less than half the usual precipitation. Hurricane Michael, the strongest hurricane ever to hit the Florida Panhandle, inflicted thirty billion dollars’ worth of material damage and killed forty-five people. President Trump, who has argued that global warming is “a total, and very expensive, hoax”.

The poorest and most vulnerable will pay the highest price. But already, even in the most affluent areas, many of us hesitate to walk across a grassy meadow because of the proliferation of ticks bearing Lyme disease which have come with the hot weather; we have found ourselves unable to swim off beaches, because jellyfish, which thrive as warming seas kill off other marine life, have taken over the water.

According to a study from the United Kingdom’s National Oceanography Centre last summer, the damage caused by rising sea levels will cost the world as much as fourteen trillion dollars a year by 2100.

In India, the rise in temperature since 1960 (about one degree Fahrenheit) has increased the chance of mass heat-related deaths by a hundred and fifty per cent. As the planet warms, a crescent-shaped area encompassing parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the North China Plain, where about 1.5 billion people (a fifth of humanity) live, is at high risk of such temperatures in the next half century.

Humans share the planet with many other creatures, of course. We have already managed to kill off sixty per cent of the world’s wildlife since 1970 by destroying their habitats, and now higher temperatures are starting to take their toll. A new study found that peak-dwelling birds were going extinct; as temperatures climb, the birds can no longer find relief on higher terrain. Coral reefs, rich in biodiversity, may soon be a tenth of their current size.

As some people flee humidity and rising sea levels, others will be forced to relocate in order to find enough water to survive. Ninety scientists who released a joint report in 2017 concluded that economic losses from a warming Arctic could approach ninety trillion dollars in the course of the century, considerably outweighing whatever savings may have resulted from shorter shipping routes as the Northwest Passage unfreezes.

Thirty years ago, some believed that warmer temperatures would expand the field of play, turning the Arctic into the new Midwest. As Rex Tillerson, then the C.E.O. of Exxon, cheerfully put it in 2012, “Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around—we’ll adapt to that.” But there is no rich topsoil in the far North; instead, the ground is underlaid with permafrost, which can be found beneath a fifth of the Northern Hemisphere. As the permafrost melts, it releases more carbon into the atmosphere. The thawing layer cracks roads, tilts houses, and uproots trees to create what scientists call “drunken forests.”

The climatologist James Hansen testified before Congress about the dangers of human-caused climate change thirty years ago.

Since then, carbon emissions have increased with each year except 2009 (the height of the global recession) and the newest data show that 2018 will set another record.

Simple inertia and the human tendency to prioritize short-term gains have played a role, but the fossil-fuel industry’s contribution has been by far the most damaging.

Exxon, the world’s largest oil company, understood that its product was contributing to climate change a decade before Hansen testified. In July, 1977, James F. Black, one of Exxon’s senior scientists, addressed many of the company’s top leaders in New York, explaining the earliest research on the greenhouse effect. “There is general scientific agreement that mankind is influencing the global climate through carbon-dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels”. Exxon spent millions of dollars researching the problem. By 1982, they had concluded that even the company’s earlier estimates were probably too low. In a private corporate primer, they wrote that heading off global warming and “potentially catastrophic events” would “require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.”

Exxon executives took these warnings seriously. Ken Croasdale, a senior researcher for the company’s Canadian subsidiary, led a team that investigated the positive and negative effects of warming on Exxon’s Arctic operations. In 1991, he found that greenhouse gases were rising due to the burning of fossil fuels. “Nobody disputes this fact,” he said. The following year, he wrote that “global warming can only help lower exploration and development costs” in the Beaufort Sea. Drilling season in the Arctic, he correctly predicted, would increase from two months to as many as five months. At the same time, he said, the rise in the sea level could threaten onshore infrastructure and create bigger waves that would damage offshore drilling structures. Thawing permafrost could make the earth buckle and slide under buildings and pipelines. As a result of these findings, Exxon and other major oil companies began laying plans to move into the Arctic, and started to build their new drilling platforms with higher decks, to compensate for the anticipated rises in sea level.

In 1989, an international ban on chlorine-containing man-made chemicals that had been eroding the earth’s ozone layer went into effect. Last month, researchers reported that the ozone layer was on track to fully heal by 2060. But that was a relatively easy fight, because the chemicals in question were not central to the world’s economy, and the manufacturers had readily available substitutes to sell. In the case of global warming, the culprit is fossil fuel, the most lucrative commodity on earth, and so the companies responsible took a different tack.

A month after Hansen’s testimony, in 1988, an unnamed Exxon “public affairs manager” issued an internal memo recommending that the company “emphasize the uncertainty” in the scientific data about climate change. Within a few years, Exxon, Chevron, Shell, Amoco, and others had joined the Global Climate Coalition, “to coordinate business participation in the international policy debate” on global warming. The GCC coordinated with the National Coal Association and the American Petroleum Institute on a campaign, via letters and telephone calls, to prevent a tax on fossil fuels, and produced a video in which the agency insisted that more carbon dioxide would “end world hunger” by promoting plant growth. With such efforts, it ginned up opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, the first global initiative to address climate change.

In October, 1997, two months before the Kyoto meeting, Lee Raymond, Exxon’s president and CEO, who had overseen the science department that in the nineteen-eighties produced the findings about climate change, gave a speech in Beijing to the World Petroleum Congress, in which he maintained that the earth was actually cooling.

On January 29, 2001, nine days after George W. Bush was inaugurated, Lee Raymond visited his old friend Vice-President Dick Cheney, who had just stepped down as the C.E.O. of the oil-drilling giant Halliburton. Cheney helped persuade Bush to abandon his campaign promise to treat carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Within the year, Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant for Bush, had produced an internal memo that made a doctrine of the strategy that the G.C.C. had hit on a decade earlier. “Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community,” Luntz wrote in the memo. The strategy of muddling the public’s impression of climate science has proved to be highly effective. In 2017, polls found that almost 90% of Americans did not know that there was a scientific consensus on global warming.

Raymond retired in 2006, after the company posted the biggest corporate profits in history, and his final annual salary was four hundred million dollars. His successor, Rex Tillerson, signed a five-hundred-billion-dollar deal to explore for oil in the rapidly thawing Russian Arctic, and in 2012 was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship. In 2016, Tillerson, at his last shareholder meeting before he briefly joined the Trump Administration as Secretary of State, said, “The world is going to have to continue using fossil fuels, whether they like it or not.”

In 2017, the growth of American residential solar installations came to a halt even before March, 2018, when President Trump imposed a 30% tariff on solar panels, and why the number of solar jobs fell in the U.S. for the first time since the industry’s great expansion began, a decade earlier.

Of all the environmental reversals made by the Trump Administration, the most devastating was its decision, last year, to withdraw from the Paris accords, making the U.S., the largest single historical source of carbon, the only nation not engaged in international efforts to control it.

There are undoubtedly myriad intellectual, psychological, and political sources for our inaction, but I cannot help thinking that the influence of Ayn Rand, the Russian émigré novelist, may have played a role. Rand’s disquisitions on the “virtue of selfishness” and unbridled capitalism are admired by many American politicians and economists.

The Koch brothers, whose enormous fortune derives in large part from the mining and refining of oil and gas, have peddled a similar message. Fossil-fuel companies and electric utilities, often led by Koch-linked groups, have put up fierce resistance to change.

  • In Kansas, Koch allies helped turn mandated targets for renewable energy into voluntary commitments.
  • In Wisconsin, Scott Walker’s administration prohibited state land officials from talking about climate change.
  • In North Carolina, the state legislature, in conjunction with real-estate interests, effectively banned policymakers from using scientific estimates of sea-level rise in the coastal-planning process.
  • Earlier this year, Americans for Prosperity, the most important Koch front group, waged a campaign against new bus routes and light-rail service in Tennessee, invoking human liberty. “If someone has the freedom to go where they want, do what they want, they’re not going to choose public transit,” a spokeswoman for the group explained.
  • In Florida, an anti-renewable-subsidy ballot measure invoked the “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice.”
  • In Russia, the second-largest petrostate after the U.S., Vladimir Putin believes that “climate change could be tied to some global cycles on Earth or even of planetary significance.”
  • Saudi Arabia, the third-largest petrostate, tried to water down the recent I.P.C.C. report.
  • Jair Bolsonaro, the newly elected President of Brazil, has vowed to institute policies that would dramatically accelerate the deforestation of the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest.
  • Voters in Washington State were initially supportive of a measure on last month’s ballot which would have imposed the nation’s first carbon tax—a modest fee that won support from such figures as Bill Gates. But the major oil companies spent record sums to defeat it.
  • In Colorado, a similarly modest referendum that would have forced frackers to move their rigs away from houses and schools went down after the oil industry outspent citizen groups forty to one.
  • This fall, California’s legislators committed to using only renewable energy by 2045, which was a great victory in the world’s fifth-largest economy. But the governor refused to stop signing new permits for oil wells, even in the middle of the state’s largest cities, where asthma rates are high.

Meanwhile, Exxon recently announced a plan to spend a million dollars—about a hundredth of what the company spends each month in search of new oil and gas—to back the fight for a carbon tax of forty dollars a ton. At a press conference, some of the I.P.C.C.’s authors laughed out loud at the idea that such a tax would, this late in the game, have sufficient impact.

We are on a path to self-destruction, and yet there is nothing inevitable about our fate. Solar panels and wind turbines are now among the least expensive ways to produce energy. Storage batteries are cheaper and more efficient than ever. We could move quickly if we chose to, but we’d need to opt for solidarity and coordination on a global scale.

Since 2015, activists have blocked pipelines, forced the cancellation of new coal mines, helped keep the major oil companies out of the American Arctic, and persuaded dozens of cities to commit to one-hundred-per-cent renewable energy.

New kinds of activism keep springing up.

  • In Sweden this fall, a one-person school boycott by a fifteen-year-old girl named Greta Thunberg helped galvanize attention across Scandinavia.
  • At the end of October, a new British group, Extinction Rebellion—its name both a reflection of the dire science and a potentially feisty response—announced plans for a campaign of civil disobedience.
  • Last week, fifty-one young people were arrested in Nancy Pelosi’s office for staging a sit-in, demanding that the Democrats embrace a “Green New Deal” that would address the global climate crisis with policies to create jobs in renewable energy.
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The New Yorker’s profile of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

She had always hated the punitive orthodoxies of the Western left—the way that people who didn’t understand certain protocols because they came from a different background could find themselves banished while barely comprehending what they’d done wrong. Gender pronouns, for instance. In Nigeria, anyone who believes that people of minority sexualities should not be jailed is already a progressive, so we don’t have the mental space for fighting about pronouns.

Before Imasuen read the book, he had thought that middle-class Nigerian lives like his were too boring and marginal to write about. He worried about his readers losing interest—when he was writing his first manuscript, he thought there had to be a spaceship, or a flashback in time, and the whole thing had to be constantly cutting back and forth, like a movie trailer. “Purple Hibiscus” was a revelation: I knew those characters.

The book would be, as Myhre put it, “post-post-colonial”: she as an African would write about America with the same detached authority with which Westerners wrote about Africa.

Later, when she felt eyes constantly upon her, she started to have an aversion to talking about what she was working on, or even her past work. She began to worry that any answer she came up with would be pretentious and untrue. The more she wrote, the less sure she became. Each post scraped off yet one more scale of self until she felt naked and false.

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Affirmative Action in Physics

From Physics Today, January 1971 (Volume 24, Number 1)

Screen Shot 2018-02-05 at 12.00.41 AM.png

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New Year Day violence in Bhima Koregaon

Koregaon Bhima, 30 kilometres north east of Pune

Attacks on Dalits who had gathered on January 1 (Monday) to commemorate battle of Bhima Koregaon in 1818. British army with Mahar (Dalit) soldiers defeated Peshwa.

Peshwa hereditary prime ministers were notorious for their rigid enforcement of caste segregation.

Video footage shows people with saffron flags and shirts attacking people with blue flags and cars with blue signs.

But on Tuesday afternoon, the Maratha residents of Koregaon Bhima held a counter rally. They claimed that it was Dalits who had come from outside the village who had attacked them.

The police too said that the violence had been conducted by parties on “both sides”.

On Tuesday, hundreds of Maratha women sat in protest at a chowk in Koregaon Bhima. They said that permission should be denied for the commemoration next year unless the village is given military protection.

A group of Maratha men further down the road set fire to a biryani stall owned by a member of the Dalit community. The dhaba was right next to another eatery that had been vandalised the previous day.

Many of the houses and shops vandalised along the main road belong to Marathas. A small Ganesha temple near the bridge at the end of the village was also damaged.

Ganesh Dherange, 26, who runs a kirana shop, said that every year his family sets up a stall on the main road of Koregaon Bhima to sell water to those visiting a memorial pillar that is the focus of the celebrations. Outsiders holding blue flags broke the car and hit his father when he tried to stop them. His father, Bhausaheb Dherange, had a visible head injury.

Ashok Dherange, president of the Shiv Sena in Shirur block of Pune district, claimed that even his wife was attacked by people with blue flags. “I am so angry, no matter what happens, I am going to burn down a Dalit house tonight.”

Battle for history

As it turns out, Monday’s trouble was sparked not in Koregaon Bhima, but in another clash over history in Wadu Budruk, a village a few kilometers to its west.

Sambhaji and Shivaji are both highly regarded by Dalits for their progressive views. Sambhaji was murdered in 1689. Govind Gaikwad, a Mahar resident of Wadu, conducted his last rites. There is now a memorial to Gaikwad at Wadu.

Many people who visit Bhima Koregaon also head to Wadu Budruk to pay their respects to Gaikwad.

In preparation for the bicentennial at Koregaon Bhima, Buddhists at Wadu Budruk had put up a sign outside Govind Gaikwad’s tomb highlighting his role in conducting Sambhaji’s last rites.

On December 28, Wadu Budruk village organized meeting to discuss how to manage the new year’s weekend, when presumably thousands of people would come to visit. The meeting turned violent and a crowd vandalized not only the signboard but also Govind Gaikwad’s tomb. They also threatened people of the Mahar caste in the village. Mahars are vastly outnumbered in Wadu Budruk village, with only around 100 people, against the approximately 7,000 Marathas there, Gaikwad said.

Planned for months?

The starting point of the violence was not even in Wadu Budruk, but in Whatsapp forwards they have been seeing for two months now complaining about the Dalit celebration of Bhima Koregaon.

Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote have been names as the instigators of the trouble at Bhima Koregaon on Monday.

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Shankar Lal, RSS’s Gau Sewa Pramukh

Article in the Indian Express.

Why do you have gobar on your phone?

“It is fresh cow dung. I have put it to save myself from the harmful radiations of the cellphone.”

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Dinanath Batra

RSS-affiliated Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas.

Headed by Dinanath Batra.

  • The removal of a poem by Punjabi poet Pash
  • a couplet by Mirza Ghalib
  • extracts from M.F. Husain’s autobiography
  • thoughts of Rabindranath Tagore
  • no reference to an apology rendered by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the Sikh riots of 1984
  • removing mentions of the BJP as a ‘Hindu’ party and the National Conference as ‘secular’
  • a paragraph that links the Ram temple debate with the rise of the BJP and Hindutva politics
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Swadeshi Jagran Manch

“The Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) is an integral part of the Sangh parivar. It is primarily known for its principled stands on several economic issues, which have provided it a certain moral strength in no small part because it has avoided cheap communal and divisive statements in its widely circulated publications”.

Ashwani Mahajan is the all-India co-convener of SJM and a professor of economics at Delhi University.

The SJM has been opposing the GST. One line summary of this article: “Although big companies are a happier lot with GST taking over, small enterprises feel that GST may cause huge loss to them”.


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Pro Khalistan speech to school kids in India

Link to speech.

I am a bit surprised at this speech, especially by the fact that it is being delivered to little kids in a village in Punjab.

One line message: “We are not free in this country”.

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Subhash Palekar

  1. Padma Shri awardee
  2. Developer of a farming technique he calls Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF)
  3. Jiwamrita – a compound of water, cow dung and urine, jaggery, legume flour and local soil
  4. Chandrababu Naidu has appointed him as an adviser, allocating Rs 100 crore to promote ZBNF in Andhra
  5. He has been going around giving talks at agriculture research universities and institutes
  6. Quasi-spiritual approach to agriculture
  7. Ambiguous position on cow vigilantism and Hindutva. The cow is central to his system of farming. He even calls it Zero Budget Spiritual Farming. “Before listening to my lecture, farmers were selling their cows. But now, after participating in the workshop, they are searching for cows”. “No farmer is willing to sell his cows. He says that it is his mother”.
  8. I asked them (scientists at PAU Ludhiana) about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two targets for agricultural universities. Number one, double the production. And second, double the income of farmers. Do the universities have any solution? They clearly said no. “If we want to double the production and income, cow-based natural farming is the only alternative”.
  9. Do you think there is any need for a law against cattle slaughter in India? “A hundred percent, yes”.
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Commencement Speech

This is the speech I gave on 2017-06-18 at the Commencement ceremony of the Stanford Physics Department. Special thanks to Priyanka Raina for help with phrasing and editing.

To Fellow students, undergraduates and graduates: Congratulations on getting your degree. The sweat and tears of the past few years are culminating in some more sweat on this hot, yet beautiful summer day.

To Parents: thank you for your love and sacrifices and for making us what we are today. It is also Father’s day today, so a special shout out to all the Dads in the audience.

To Faculty: thank you for teaching and mentoring us, and for making us into mature physicists.

To the entire physics community at Stanford: thank you to Maria Frank and the entire staff for taking care of us and making this place a home away from home.

The first thing I want to touch upon in this graduation speech is why do we do physics?
I am sure every one of you has a great answer to this question, here’s mine.

We do physics because there are deep, serious questions about nature that we do not yet know the answers to. To pick one example out of many, we know that 23% of the universe is made up of dark matter, and we have no idea what dark matter actually is. That is a big chunk of the universe we are missing.

Secondly, there are questions and problems which are worth pursuing just because of their richness, and the beauty of the multiple ideas they touch upon. Slightly more than a year ago, we finally detected gravitational waves, that were predicted by Einstein a hundred years ago. A hundred years is a long time, and it must be a very beautiful, robust edifice of physics that can predict the motions of nature with such accuracy.

Thirdly, by virtue of their training, physicists can also contribute immensely to topical issues like energy, global warming and climate change, exemplified by some of the classes taught by the physics faculty here. I hope the funding agencies are listening, and I encourage all of you, no matter which profession you might take up in the future, to fight for increased funding to fundamental research.

Finally, there are more personal reasons why we do physics. We do it because we love it. And we all know that love isn’t all sweet. What I am going to say now applies essentially to any career in adult human life. We must learn to enjoy our vocation while consciously keeping in mind the daily “grind”.
Like everything in adult life, research involves brutal mundane days. On those days, we need friends and loved ones. But then, after weeks or months of confusion and hard work of trying out various things, the nut finally cracks. That moment is exhilarating. You feel true ownership of your result. What you just accomplished has a certain character of permanence, and I find that to be a very satisfying feeling. And slowly but surely, one begins to see beauty even in the daily routine.

So, those were my reasons for why we do physics.

I feel compelled to add a word on politics. Just like serious research is slow and painful, understanding politically divisive topics well requires effort. Serious decisions about society shouldn’t be made on frivolous premises. Even in this age of 140 twitter characters, click-baity headlines, in this frenzied fanatic world, it still may be that reading an extremely unsexy-looking long-form article, a detailed report or a book is the best way to learn about an issue. So, let us all strive to form opinions based on solid facts and good reason.

I would like to add a word about Stanford itself. My physics experience at Stanford was very special. In addition, Stanford was even more special to me because it is where I took a break from spending all my life getting A’s, and put to action the advice of an early teacher: “Raghu, apart from your job, try to learn well one physical sport that you can play routinely, and one art-form that you can make a part of your life”. The physics, the weather, the grass, the sky, the physical spaces on campus, and the people, I am going to miss everything so much.

As we move into adult lives, let us pledge to be ambitious and intellectually curious.
Let us strive to make ourselves better all the time. Let us choose wisely in what we do and think about, in accord with our personality and values. And equally important, let us invest time and energy into building meaningful connections with people around us.

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