Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Antarctica is Melting

The news is all Trump. His ill-considered words and constantly shifting explanations for impulsive actions dominate our public consciousness.

In the midst of all that Trump, it is hard to think clearly about the faraway future, beyond our lifetimes. When the future does intrude, it’s in the form of space ships and aliens, imaginary futures in faraway galaxies. But we need to think about the future here and now, because Antarctica is melting.

Actually, it’s more complicated than that. Great swaths of sea ice are breaking off from Antarctica, but that won’t cause the sea level to rise. That ice is already floating on the sea, so when it melts, the level doesn’t change. Try this yourself: fill a glass with water and ice, and watch what happens when the ice melts. The water does not overflow. Sea-level rise is caused when ice on land melts, adding to the volume of sea water. Right now, all over the world, glaciers are melting.

A group of American scientists flew over Antarctica last fall to get more accurate measurements of changes in the massive ice pack at the bottom of the world. If much of the sea ice melts, that could allow continental ice to loosen, flow into the ocean, and raise sea levels. That would be dangerous.

The global sea level has been rising an average of one-tenth of an inch every year. That doesn’t seem like much. That rise has been getting faster at about one-thirtieth of an inch per year, an even smaller number. Who cares about such tiny numbers? 

Over the long term, those numbers are scary. The oceans rose less than 3 inches from 1900 to 1950, 3.5 inches 1950-2000, and 2 inches in the last 15 years. If the acceleration continues, by 2050 the rise would be one inch every year, a foot per decade.

Three-quarters of the world’s largest cities are located on sea coasts. Between 100 million and 200 million people live in places that likely will be underwater or subject to frequent flooding by the year 2100. Some estimates put that number at 650 million, nearly 10% of the world’s population. Mathew Hauer of the University of Georgia estimated that 13 million Americans might be displaced by 2100, mostly in southeastern states.

Rising sea levels will do more damage than flooding coastal cities. Saltwater will contaminate our drinking water and interfere with farming.

There are many kinds of uncertainty in predicting sea-level rise. Not all geographic areas will experience the same rise. Some, like the East Coast of the US, will experience a much greater rise than the global average.

Can anything be done against the rising seas? After Hurricane Sandy, New York expanded its efforts to protect against the next flood. Based on careful geological analysis of the land, the city plans to reinforce beaches and breakwaters, build storm walls and levees, and protect sand dunes that act as natural barriers. That will cost money.

Another way to deal with unpleasant reality is to forbid it from happening, as the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un did last year when he forbade his population to use sarcasm. After the Science Panel of the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commissioner said it was possible that the sea level could rise more than a yard over the next 100 years, the Republican-dominated legislature in 2012 forbade coastal community managers from considering scientific projections of sea level rise, when they think about roads, bridges, hospitals and other infrastructure. In 2015, the legislature accepted a new report that looked ahead only 30 years, thus with much less dire predictions.

State legislators in Virginia were surveyed about their knowledge of sea level rise. Republican legislators viewed scientists as less credible than Democrats did, and environmental groups not credible at all. Republicans estimated dangerous long-term effects of sea level rise as less likely, and thought that federal and state government should play a lesser role in dealing with them.

Donald Trump’s budget proposal embodies the Republican solution to rising seas: it would eliminate funding for climate research by NASA, the EPA, and the State Department. Mick Mulvaney of the Office of Management and Budget said about funding for climate research: “We're not spending money on that any more. We consider that to be a waste of your money.” That response is cheaper now, and the future is uncertain, so why worry?

Predictions, projections, estimates – these words display uncertainty. Nearly everything about climate change and its consequences contains uncertainty, especially when trying to forecast the future. That is why scientific models include ranges of possibility. One major question mark is how fast Antarctic ice is melting due to the warming of deep ocean currents far underneath the ice pack.

But this is certain – if we don’t get beyond the conservative refusal to think about the consequences of climate change, our grandchildren could face social and economic catastrophe. My daughter is pregnant. Her child might still be alive in 2100, living in a society trying to deal with an unprecedented disaster, the flooding of American coastal cities.

Political decisions, or their absence, will determine how ready America is for that future.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 23, 2017

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Threats to Western Democracy

During the recent French presidential campaign, the far right candidate, Marine Le Pen, raised fears across Europe that France would drop out of the European Union, embrace fascism, and repudiate its long democratic history. She won only one-third of the votes, another defeat for right-wing populism in Europe, following the poor showing of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and of the Alternative for Germany in recent provincial elections. Although extreme conservatives have begun to dismantle some of the foundations of democracy in Hungary and Poland, so-called “populism” has not done well in western Europe.

The French election has been widely discussed as a unique situation, where the leaders of traditional political parties were tainted with personal scandals, making way for newcomers, like the overwhelming winner Emmanuel Macron, who had never held elective office. But I am struck by the similarity on key issues among the beliefs of French voters who supported Le Pen and supporters of Trump in the US.

Similar population groups supported Le Pen and Trump. Both are more popular among the less educated. Like Trump voters, Le Pen supporters are much more likely to have a negative view of Muslims, and to believe that refugees will take jobs, increase terrorism, and be criminals.

An obvious parallel is anxiety about immigration, not just illegal immigrants or refugees, but all immigrants. An American National Election Studies survey found that Trump got 74 percent of the vote among those who believe generally that “the number of immigrants” should be decreased. Le Pen promised a “moratorium” on immigration “as soon as I take office”. A Le Pen supporter said about immigrants: “It’s like whiteflies. They are just everywhere, everywhere. There are some who are good, but then there are others. And now they have more rights than we do.” The idea that immigrants get better treatment from government than citizens was also widespread among Trump voters.

Another similarity is disappointment in the economic consequences of globalization and the free market, shifting working-class voters to the right. Le Pen has strong support from former leftist working-class voters now unhappy with the economy. A CNN reporter who went to a depressed French mining town found Le Pen voters: “There’s a real sense of abandonment here by those at the very top, from the main political parties.” Trump did especially well in the so-called rust belt, a term also used to describe areas that supported Le Pen.

 “Make America Great Again” was Trump’s theme song. The young man who runs the National Front youth movement in eastern France, said, “What attracts young people to Marine Le Pen is her promise to restore French grandeur. We will not only have a better economy, but she will make us proud to be French again.”

Racism is a fundamental feature of the far right in France and the US, although that is consistently denied by its supporters. Although Marine Le Pen has avoided the kind of antisemitic rhetoric and Holocaust denial that her father, the founder of her party, freely employed, the National Front is still run by people who celebrate Hitler and laugh at Auschwitz.

One woman who planned to vote for Le Pen called her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, “a Hitler-like figure”. But she likes his daughter and so would vote for his party. Another woman said, “We didn't vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen because he scared us. His ideas were too fascist, too racist.” Now when similar ideas are expressed by his daughter, she is supportive.

A French political commentator said just before the election: “People are mad at unemployment. People are afraid of terrorism. And Marine Le Pen says look, ‘Marine Le Pen will do it all. I'm Superwoman.’” That uncannily echoes Trump’s frequent assertions that he alone could fix America and his supporters’ belief that he can.

The dangers that extreme nationalists pose to democratic institutions are not to be taken lightly. The assumption that the world is moving toward more democracy, seemingly confirmed by the end of the Soviet Union, has been shaken in the past few years by the growth of popular movements which promote racist nationalism over international cooperation, which push back against the expansion of full civil rights to minorities, and which attack the workings of a free press and an independent judiciary.

Voters for Marine Le Pen, like many voters for Brexit and for Trump, are disillusioned not just with their current government, but with their entire political system. They are so interested in finding some political “outsider”, that they are willing to believe impossible political promises. They close their eyes to deep personal failings of candidates who say some things that they want to hear. They either embrace the subtle, and not so subtle, signs of racism and authoritarianism, or they pretend they don’t exist. Feeling abandoned by their political systems, they accept the hatred poured onto outsiders by their candidates.

The drift of some French voters to the extreme right is part of an international movement in the supposedly advanced democracies. Trump’s victory was not merely an American event, but part of a Western trend away from conventional anti-racism, conventional economic policies, conventional rule by a self-reproducing political elite.

Keeping democracy strong will not be easy in the 21st century.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 16, 2017

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Whose Internet Is It?

I just watched “The Circle”, a thriller about a computer company which uses internet connectedness to eradicate privacy in the name of “transparency” and “democracy”. The film is fictional, but the conflict between privacy and internet capitalism is real. The giants of the computer world routinely collect as much information as they can about people who use their services, and then employ it to sell us products or sell it to others for that purpose.

An editorial in WIRED warned in 2015, “You aren’t just going to lose your privacy, you’re going to have to watch the very concept of privacy be rewritten under your nose.”

The history of “cookies” exemplifies both sides of the issue of internet privacy. Cookies are data stored on your computer by a website you are visiting, perhaps without your knowledge. They were developed in the 1990s as a way for the Netscape web browser, dominant at the time, to keep track of whether visitors had used the site before. Cookies turned out to be useful in assembling the “shopping carts” that we use to put together a list of online purchases.

Their potential to record and store information about individuals was soon recognized as a window into our personal preferences. When Amazon suggests that you might like to buy a book based on what you have looked at before, or any other advertiser seems to know your browsing history, they are using cookies.

Some cookies disappear when you turn off your computer, but others, called persistent or tracking cookies, are designed to remain on your computer for an indefinite time, monitoring your browsing habits and sending that information to private companies. Cookies are set into your computer not only by the website you are visiting, but by advertisers on that site. A visit to one website can result in 10 or even 100 “third-party cookies” being put on your computer.

Let’s be specific. The phone companies Verizon and AT&T allowed an online advertising clearinghouse named TURN to track customers’ habits on their smartphones and tablets. TURN used a “zombie cookie” which could not be deleted by the customer, even if they opted out of cookie usage. Only after this was reported by ProPublica, did AT&T agree to stop the practice, but Verizon didn’t. So cookies are useful commercial tools that invade what used to be our private spaces.

As Chris Hoofnagle, a lecturer at UC Berkeley Law School, says, “On a macro level, ‘we need to track everyone everywhere for advertising’ translates into ‘the government being able to track everyone everywhere.’”

One of the exciting new developments in computer connectedness is the “internet of things”, the networking among objects we own, like cars, refrigerators, thermostats, and light switches, so they can communicate with us and with each other. In cute ads on TV, a baby turns lights on and off at home by touching a smart phone. In real life, the most basic of your daily actions at home can be monitored and recorded by companies you don’t know about or be hacked by criminals.

Corporations are created to make money, not to be nice, or even fair to consumers. Nest Labs created a $300 device with a “Lifetime Subscription” that allows you to control many of the newly invented home electronics from your phone. Google bought Nest in 2014 and decided in 2016 to remotely disable these devices without notifying customers. Short lifetime.

Cookies were being stored on our computers without our knowledge for several years before the Federal Trade Commission began to question whether this was an invasion of privacy that called for some government oversight. This is the context for the current political argument about “net neutrality”. Should the Federal Communications Commission regulate internet providers, as they do for other utilities?

The idea of net neutrality is that internet service providers, who control what appears on the internet, should treat all reasonable content equally, not allowing companies like Google, Microsoft and Amazon to decide to create fast and slow lanes of transmission, putting their preferred content in the fastest lane and slowing down competitors’ content. Just like the phone companies have to let all calls through, not just the ones they like best.

Ajit Pai, Trump’s newly appointed head of the FCC, says he wants to dismantle regulations like net neutrality that have been placed on internet providers. Republicans in Congress, by party-line votes, are trying to remove regulations which protect our privacy and freedom of choice. If the government steps out of the internet, how much danger are we in?

A few days ago, perhaps 1 million Google accounts across the country, including mine, received fraudulent email messages purporting to be from Google Docs, trying to get us to click on a link so criminals could hijack our accounts.

Who protected me? The IT staff at Illinois College sent out a warning. Google itself noticed the attack very quickly and removed fake web pages. But my government did nothing in this case. Without government oversight we are at the mercy of rapacious corporations and criminal hackers. “The Circle” is a warning: the internet might not be your friend.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 9, 2017

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Better Living Through Chemistry

On Earth Day, April 22, a hundred thousand people marched all across the world for science. Tens of thousands demonstrated in Los Angeles and London, while 200 people marched 200 miles north of the Arctic circle in Norway. In 600 cities on every continent, citizens and scientists carried signs like “Fund science, not walls” and “Science trumps alternative facts”.

In Washington, DC, the biggest crowd protested Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts to scientific research in public health and climate.

Trump is carrying out normal Republican politics. None of the many Republican candidates for President in 2016 thought evolution should be taught in public schools. A majority of Republican voters believe in creationism.

The issue of climate change shows the influence of political ideology on attitudes toward science. A Pew poll found that only 15% of conservative Republicans believe “the earth is warming mostly due to human activity”, 34% of moderate Republicans, 63% of moderate Democrats, and 79% of liberal Democrats. A majority of conservative Republicans believes that climate scientists are influenced by desire to advance their careers and political ideology, not by scientific evidence or public interest. To put it simply, conservatives don’t believe in science or scientists, if it’s inconvenient.

Here’s how science denial works in real life. Lots of private websites offer their version of science, paid for by private money which they don’t disclose, using clever tactics to pretend to search for truth. An example is the Heartland Institute, which has been denying the existence of warming for decades.

On the other side is “Understanding Science”, a public project of the University of California at Berkeley, funded by the federal National Science Foundation. This step-by-easy-step primer offers a balanced and authentic understanding of “how science REALLY works”. But those who automatically accuse both government and the nation’s best universities of politicized scientific fraud would dismiss this site as propaganda. So they won’t learn from it how our scientific community does a far better job of policing high standards for honesty and frankness than either politicians or corporations.

And they won’t think about who pays for science: “Most scientific research is funded by government grants (e.g., from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, etc.), companies doing research and development, and non-profit foundations.” Public and private sources have different priorities for funding scientific research. My nephew works on the development of a drug to stop Alzheimer’s for a biotechnology company formed by scientists and venture capitalists. Their research is motivated both to find better medicines for our collective health and to make money. As I approach 70, the prospect of preventing brain degeneration before it hits me is exciting. Their profit might extend my useful life.

Some privately funded scientific research is not in the public interest at all, such as the tobacco companies’ effort to deny the link to cancer, funneled through sciency-sounding propaganda organizations like the Heartland Institute.

The Republicans in Congress are not waging a war on all science; they quote from Heartland’s fake science. They attack government-supported science because it might lead to government spending. For example, the discovery of lead in Flint’s water meant that old pipes must be replaced on 17,000 homes at an estimated cost of $7500 each, totaling $127,500,000. Government-paid scientific research documented how lead affects babies’ brains, supported the creation of regulations which forced industry to stop using lead, compared the levels of lead in Flint’s water to experimental evidence on poisoning, and thus demonstrated the need for federal intervention.

Republicans in the Senate voted overwhelmingly to deny funding to deal with Flint’s crisis, but that effort lost by one vote. Congress authorized $170 million for Flint.

In the words of “Understanding Science”, “Science affects your life everyday in all sorts of different ways.” Good public science saves lives and serves the public interest through government spending and government regulation. But those are Republican curse words. That is the deep secret behind the anti-science policies of Republicans in Congress and the White House. If they want to shrink government, they have to slow down or even stop science. They use tactics of obfuscation and delay. House Science Committee chair Lamar Smith attacked a 2015 NOAA study showing rising global temperatures. He used his old tactics, honed over decades in Congress: he demanded thousands of e-mails and other documents in search of malfeasance, misspent funds, or corruption. He has never found any of those things. But he slowed down science he doesn’t like.

This is not in our national interest. If we don’t prepare for the world’s new climate, if we don’t prevent health crises through regulation of pollutants, if we don’t spend now on inconvenient science, we will have to spend much more later in economic and social costs. Peter Muennig, professor of public health at Columbia University, estimates that the two fewer healthy years of the 8000 Flint children exposed to lead might cost American society $400 million.

The astrophysicist and TV explainer of science Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true, whether or not you believe it.”

The bad thing about Republican science politics is that our children and grandchildren will pay the price. Without science, it’s just fiction.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, Wednesday, May 3, 2017