The perils of passion

In this age of intense cultural polarization, one of the topics invoking the greatest amount of hot air is climate change. I’ll be up front in that I’ve always thought the idea of “global warming” was a farce but that we are likely to instead see climatic shifts as a result of our industrialization. The stakes are high and those who prophesy the coming change can resort to scare tactics that seem necessary in our over-informed, busy world.

The latest ‘More or Less: Behind the Stats’ features a story about what happens when such predictions fall flat. Norman Myers created a map in the mid-90s that showed regions of the world that would see a mass exodus as a result of climate change. His method of prediction was quite simple: he predicted areas hardest hit and then simply used their total census data. He then attached to it the year 2010.

On the face of it, this “study” isn’t more than a worse-case, alarming scenario that I would hope is presented to policy makers, among other more-realistic options. What made the map and prediction come to light was a blogger’s critique of it…and its hosting on the UN Environment Programme’s website and inclusion in IPCC literature. It turns out the very regions expecting emigration have seen steady increases in population.

After the critique, the UNEP quickly removed the map, but Dr Myers isn’t helping his case by refusing to retreat from his number or timeline, explaining that it’s difficult to count local migration that did not necessarily cross borders. And of course with his anecdotal reporting from refugee camps that his critics just weren’t passionate enough to visit as often.

The environmental movement is reaching the end of its adolescence, and for the first time a number of predictions from serious, respected figures can be compared to the actual outcomes. The fact that most stories on climate change simply quote the latest predictions without offering a perspective on what those experts previously forecast is disappointing. It’s like getting investment advice from the same guy who got burned in the tech bubble.

Failed predictions don’t necessarily mean the current batch are wrong, researchers have presumably spent the intervening time perfecting their models, collecting more thorough data, and exploring new ideas. Instead, journalist should take the time to cull extreme exaggerators of their pet experts. Michael Lewis does a superb job of providing sobering economic predictions in The Big Short by profiling the investors that made unholy amounts of wealth off of predicting the financial crisis, but then there’s no disputing whether that crisis occurred.

Media type: Podcast
From: BBC’s More or Less: Behind the Stats
Title: “More or Less looks at child poverty, climate refugees and Sir Henry Cooper’s left hook”
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Redrawing the map

I caught up on a lot of podcasts today, notable ones include Planet Money’s final Iceland report and the intriguing birther/Trump vs Obama political wrangling on both KCRW’s Left, Right and Center as well as the New Yorker’s Political Scene. Of course I was consumed, as much of the world was, by the news that Osama bin Laden was killed outside Islamabad early this morning.

What I find most interesting though is the stalemate that has developed in Libya. Last week’s Economist had an article about the siege of Misrata and the necessity for US drone and A-10 support for any real success to emerge for the rebels. It’s become clear though that Qaddafi is not likely to simply be overthrown by emboldened supporters turned against him (either the unwashed masses or those closest to him) nor by that rag-tag coalition loosely headquartered around Benghazi. As such, NATO stepped up its selected “strategic targeting” of military compounds that all just happen to be places where the Qaddafi family hangs out (but this is definitely not an assassination attempt). It seems we’re hoping that cutting off the head of the snake will dissolve the defenders of the status quo. This move succeeded in Iraq – after Saddam’s death no one remained to defend his government really – but it was a frying pan/fire situation at best.

Which is why I found an Economist online poll ( interesting. Is simply partitioning the country appropriate?

A simple look at the map of Africa reveals far too many straight lines, a sign of arbitrary colonial cartographers rather than national and ethnic association. Many of the current problems come from this awkward hodge-podge of countries, with Muslim sections fighting Christian regions (Sudan, Ivory Coast, Nigeria) or historical autonomous regions smarting from distant rule (Morocco). Letting these countries redraw the map wouldn’t promote the western liberal multicultural ideal (that few western countries practice despite their preaching, France being only the most recent example). But with each nationality firmly in control of their state, disagreements could be compromised in a meeting of equal heads of state, rather than in contentious, rigged elections for winner-take-all. As the AU gains power, a loose set of guidelines could become prevalent, deferring to an authority that normally would be rejected for internal matters.

Of course, nations wage devastating war and in this instance such a partition would only change the name of Libya’s war, and the end game would still be a unified Libya sans Qaddafi. But such a change might gain some breathing room for the rebels to learn how to govern and save some face for Qaddafi to promote a bloodless (relatively) transition from power.

Media type: Online poll
From: The Economist
Title: Would the partition of Libya be a bad thing?
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