The Path of Totality

On August 21st, 2017, I had the privilege of traveling with a band of cosmic pilgrims to the Path of Totality. What follows is my account of and reflections on the experience of the total solar eclipse.

As Totality neared, a pale grey-purple haze overtook the land and sky. Shadows became murky, yet emanated a deeper contrast, as if vibrating with detail. A cold wind blew, and then, in an instant, everything stopped; the air, the sounds of birds and bugs and rustling trees, the very pulse of the planet came to an eerie stillness. A dark wave crept over the ground from across the lake until it settled right above us; at the horizon it was like sunset, orange and red, with planets before unseen suddenly bright in the sky. And directly overhead a brilliant white ring with a center of the blackest black stared down at us, like a great empty eye, with its gaze reflecting both the infinite void of the endless universe and a radiant fullness of the unchangeable fact that all of existence is ultimately one inseparable being, timeless; beyond time itself. And as quickly as it came on, dawn broke for the second time in one day, as if to remind us that day and night are not truly two, but one, constantly flowing into one another; one becoming the other, over and over again, forever, in the eternal cosmic cycle of being and becoming—and that we, too, are one; that even when we are apart, we are a part of the same; that even when we are apart, we are always together.

Solar eclipse

Apollo. Ra. Amaterasu. Kinich. Utu. For millennia, human beings across civilizations have worshiped the Sun. The center of our solar system, the energetic source of life on Earth, bringer of day; every being on Earth, through all of history has had an existential relationship with the Sun. None would be if not for it. The Sun, unlike anything else, unifies the human experience; it shapes the very nature of our condition, embodies the passage of time, and moves the causality of life itself. The great cosmic dance of our planet, moon, and humble star radiates the magnificent contingency of our existence and inspires the most fundamental questions of consciousness: Why are we here? What reason explains our existence? What is our purpose?

Human beings are the only animals concerned with the notion of purpose. Its pursuit defines the nature of our consciousness. We do indeed seek explanation for our existence, on one hand, but even more so, we seek its justification. What is the point of our existence? What are we supposed to do? It is from this idea of purpose that we derive our senses of meaning in life – and perhaps, it is the most fundamental of truths that we all want to live meaningful lives.

Ultimately, however, it is unclear that any absolute answer to the question of purpose exists—that there is any certain point to being alive, or that there is any supposed to at all. Grappling with this uncertainty is the very core of ethics: Some suppose that we’re supposed to do our duty (but what is duty?); or that we’re supposed to do what’s good (but what is the good? And for who?); that we should do what’s right or just (right in what sense? And what is justice?); or what’s virtuous (but what is the nature of virtue?); or that all we’re really supposed to do is keep the promises we make to each other (But what are contracts, and what contracts us to them, really?).

Ethics and the question of purpose are a great wheel that will turn forever, as long as human being are the kinds of agential creatures that act and seek to justify our actions to ourselves and to each other – and it seems a fantasy to suppose that we will ever discover or articulate any ultimate or universal answer. Perhaps if we were perfect beings we would be capable of knowing in certainty, but we are inevitably fallible, and in that fallibility we must accept and embrace a certain agnosticism about the purpose of consciousness and the purpose of living. All we can do is suppose and engage in the process of consideration: to suppose and to consider—to think and to judge, and then to act. Indeed, it is the process that makes us ethical beings and gives our lives meaning – not necessarily the answer. The question, in a sense, is the answer:

What are we supposed to do? Never stop wrestling with that very question! The question of purpose makes us what we are. When you strip it all away, all we can say is that we are just the kinds of beings that wonder what we’re supposed to do, and maybe that’s all we’re supposed to be. Maybe that question is, at its core, what makes reflective consciousness what it is.

the thinker

But while the justificatory question of purpose may be unanswerable in finality, the question of explanation is tangible. We may never know for certain the purpose for why we are here, but we can indeed know the explanation—the reason—for our existence, and as human beings have intuited for tens of thousands of years, the Sun is just such an explanation; the Sun explains why we exist. Of course, even material explanation entails is own infinite regress. If the Sun explains why we exist, then it is natural to then ask why the Sun exists – and the material chain of causality can extend as far back as we are willing to ask. We can explain the creation of the solar system, the births and deaths of stars, the origins of galaxies, and, as distant as we have been able to discern, the birth of the universe at the Big Bang. But what explains the Big Bang? What sparked the great explosion of matter and energy from which all of the known universe was born? There are suppositions, of course—an eternal cycle of Big Bangs and “Big Crunches” wherein the universe is forever expanding and contracting on itself; the multi-verse or parallel realities; some see only God as the ultimate explanation of existence—the “Prime Mover” of all that exists and the great chain of causation – the Alpha and Omega.

I have even toyed with an ontological explanation for the existence of existence (though, admittedly, not to much satisfaction); something like: “Existence, by its very nature, must always and only exist because for existence to not exist would make existence non-existence, and for existence to be non-existence would be a fundamental contradiction. Therefore, what explains the existence of existence is the nature of existence itself.”

But none of these suppositions are immune to the prospective interrogation of infinite regress. No matter the origin, we can always proctor successive questions and inquire as to the origin of the origins. And at the end of the day, we may never know. Even in terms of the material explanation, we may have no choice but to accept and embrace, in our inherent fallibility, a fundamental agnosticism about the explanation of our existence. We may never know—and indeed may never be able to know—in any ultimate sense either the explanation or the purpose underlying our existence.

Nevertheless, we need not stare into the face of infinite regress as if it entails nihilistic futility. The privilege of being distinction-making beings is that we can choose the distinctions to which we ascribe meaning. We need not see meaninglessness in infinite regress; infinite regress is just infinite regress, and for no reason should we assume that infinite regress necessarily means meaninglessness about the distinctions we unveil along the way. We need not know in absolute certainty the explanation of the entire universe to understand the relationship between the Sun and Earth that explains the existence of life.

earth sun and moon

To be sure, life would not exist were it not for the harmonious relationship between the planet from which we sprang and star that emanates our essential energy. We owe our very lives to the alignment of the Sun and Earth; and in so knowing that celestial relationship we can derive the values of gratitude, appreciation, respect, awe, and love for the contingencies that explain life’s existence and ultimately unify us all.

Solar eclipses, unlike much else, are significant because they illustrate for us so explicitly, so obviously, the cosmic alignment at the heart of our existence. In the great dance of our solar system, every so often the Moon crosses directly between the Earth and Sun, and in those few, rare moments we feel, more powerfully than is usual, our oneness with the cosmos of which we are a part. We are never not one with the universe, but in the bustle and distractions of modern life, it can be easy to forget the bigger picture of our existence. Sometimes we need reminding of our unwavering universal unity.

The world often seems so estranged from itself and we from each other, so carved up by nations, interests, or politics, so wrapped in discord—and we, in turn, can lose ourselves to a sense of division and alienation. But the unchangeable truth is that, for all our dissensions, we are all here, together, and indivisible in the fact of our existence. And solar eclipses, in all their majesty, evoke in all who experience the Path of Totality a blissful comfort about our fundamental oneness and shared place in the universe.

Nothing can ultimately separate us, for even when we are apart, we are a part of the same, and thus, we are always together. And where we are together forever, we can be together, in love, for all eternity.

So honors the Sun Sage: To the Sun god, the Earth, and Moon—and the cosmic ecology to which we owe our existence.



“Re-coupling science and policy” — an elaboration

Hello fellow humans! I hope you are well. My friend, colleague, and co-author Dr. Alexander Lee and I wrote a short opinion piece, “Re-coupling science and policy”, for the Daily Camera–a local Boulder newspaper–earlier this week.

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This short piece is concurrent with the argument in another of our recent articles, “Two problems of climate change: Can we lose the planet but save ourselves?” published in the journal Ethics, Policy, & EnvironmentThere, we argue that the variety of values-based claims central to the climate ethics discussion, from concern with the burdens of harmful climate impacts to the priority of rectifying the wrongdoing of climate change, are given disproportionate emphasis; most emphasis–we think problematically–is put on the harms-dimension of the climate problem, while we believe the latter is closer to the true heart of the immorality and unethical nature of anthropogenic climate change.

In this new short opinion piece, Alex and I consider the recent turns of events concerning The March for Science, Scott Pruitt’s mass-firing of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, and the general trend of unreasonable decision-making, silencing of scientists, and dismantling of values-discourse altogether in the age of Trump.

Science, as it were, is being de-coupled from the policymaking process. Why the decoupling? Because science, and our reliance on science in making decisions of public import, ultimately reflects the progressive values central to the age of reason, i.e. the value we place on collaboration, fostering open discourse among even and especially those who disagree, the importance of evidence, the approach of objectivity, the testability of hypotheses and reproducibility of methods, and the centrality of cooperation to social, political, and ethical progress; values which, I think rather clearly, the Trump Administration does not share. And thus its leaders have taken significant steps to decouple science from the policymaking and public decision-making process. Yet another sign that the age of reason is dead. 

Decoupling science from the policymaking process is yet another move in the Trump Administration’s course to remove representatives of reason from the public discourse; the scheme to silence reasonable public discourse outright. As Alex and I argue, “silencing scientists silences values” — and the open consideration of values is indispensable to the march of progress. As progress in ethics and social order is non-linear, and certainly not guaranteed or immune to regress, we must be tireless in its defense. And to be sure, where science and values discourse alike are squelched by the Trump Administration, it’s not just the age of reasons that’s under siege — it is the very possibility of progress in society.

Let’s get it together, humans.

The age of reason is dead

Fake news, merchants of doubt, alternative facts, silenced scientists, and the con-mander-in-chief. The end of the age of reason is upon us. It’s been dying. But it’s finally dead. And so we eulogize:

As Carl Sagan (1997) prophesized:

“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…”

Our regressive descent into mysticism and superstition has reached terminal velocity. Late capitalism and the Anthropocene have delivered us to a new medieval period of human history, coupled with a neo-feudal socioeconomic order and global klepto-plutocratic oligarchy.

Most have been deluded by radical progress in science and technology to believe that progress in ethics and social order is necessarily concurrent. Among the most delusional are those who remain ascribed to the leftist dogma that globalization and the worldwide liberation of human beings from the barbarity of the human condition are guaranteed. Progress in science and technology may be a fact but it is all the more evident now that inevitable progress in ethics, politics, and social order are a myth.

The rise of Trump, Brexit, and right-wing populism in western Europe are mere symptoms of the utopian and fundamentally unsustainable project of global neoliberalism and installing western-style democracy the world over. Even the bastions of liberal social order in Europe and North America are buckling under the pressures of globalization and the task of governing radically pluralistic society.

The political right many live in a fantasy of denial about the trajectory of diversity and demographics in Western culture, the science of climate change, and the possibility of sustaining the longstanding heteronormative, patriarchic, and anti-ecological social hierarchy amidst unprecedented pluralism, but the left is perhaps worse off in remaining faithful that human beings will universally “see the light” and reject the superstitions and prejudices that are seemingly inseparable from the rapacity and tribalism of human nature.

As isolationist plutocratic oligarchy becomes the new governmental norm of 21st century politics, there’s a little evidence to support that our gradual dissent into darkness will reverse course.

As Dan Kahan and the Cultural Cognition Project of Yale University have confirmed for years, people’s superstitions, values, and world views invariably precede their acceptance of empirical data that contradictions their predispositions. It’s simply easier to accept facts that confirm your worldview than to change one’s mind, potentially upending one’s sense of order and meaning in life. To accommodate our cognitive dissonance we rather pretend the world isn’t what it is. Instead of untangling the moral valence of scientific research in civic discourses, we prefer to silence them altogether—to silence scientific and ethical communication outright.

For years now our politics have been shrouded in mis-information about everything ranging from the ills of smoking cigarettes to the causes of human induced climate change. Merchants of Doubt have been among us for decades and now they remain among the only voices not silenced by the current US federal administration.

Some representatives of the scientific and progressive community have “gone rogue” on Twitter and remain dedicated to contesting the slew of falsehoods perpetuated by those with financial interests in the status quo of energy production, gender norms, and institutional oppression across races and genders and sexualities. But ultimately these outbursts of indignation will be consumed by the indiscernible din of hodgepodge identity politics and conflict among the elites and populists of the left.

The unwillingness of the political left and right to even engage in coherent civic discourse and has brought upon us the era of fake news and alternate facts. Rather than wrestle with truth, untangle the diversions of values and moral assumptions underlying our disagreements, and cooperate, we prefer to submerge ourselves in echo-chambers that make us comfortable and self-righteous, only reinforcing what we merely presume to be objective truth about the direction and order of the world.

It should come as no surprise that the challenges of experimenting with pluralistic society have culminated in the reemergence of intractable tribalism; tribes that refuse to even listen to one another. The age of reason worked while it did because discourse enabled constructive disagreement and ultimately collaboration, but our inability to be discursive about our treatises of ethics and social order evidences that for all our technoscientific progress, reason will succumb to the barbaric disposition of human beings to use the power of technology to wage war on ourselves and the non-human world alike rather than create a world without poverty, oppression, and ecological degradation.

We have abandoned our reasonable capacities to take responsibility for human agency in the world. Trump’s reinsertion of interest in torture; the reinstatement of black sites; the embrace of dictators from Putin to Assad; nuclear re-proliferation; the outright denial of human-caused climate change; the rapid backpedaling of progress in women’s, non-heterosexual, and non-cisgender rights; voter suppression; white nationalism; the retraction of US humanitarian aid around the world; the beginnings of mass deportation or internment of Mexicans and Muslims; and the refusal to accept political and climate refugees simply on the basis of their ethnicities and religions are the tip of the regressive iceberg. If anything, the rise of Trump demonstrates that the liberal progressive vision of the world’s trajectory toward global tolerance and pluralism is a secular utopian myth.

Ultimately any remaining exaltation of liberal utopianism is a matter of secular faith. Some will surely attempt to cast their faith as optimistic confidence in the capacity of human reason to overcome the primitive barbarism of our animal condition, but such a subtle difference in framing cannot cover up the apparent mysticism of liberal millenarianism.

As the age of reason comes to a close the only reasonable prediction left is that by John Gray in his book Black Mass. As the project of globalization fails to deliver its promise of universal economic and political liberation from the hardships and barbarity of the human condition, succumbing to the laws of entropy, the human experience will again be characterized by a resurgence of fundamentalist religion, superstition, and allegiance to mythology as a last ditch effort to maintain any sense of order and direction and meaning and purpose in our existence.

I still find happiness, contentment, and solace in my loved ones, in music, in beauty and art and literature, in exploring the wilderness, in pluralism, and in the catharsis of writing; but my faith in human reason has been eclipsed by the swell of fear and barbarity around the world, paired with the fervent but unfounded insistence from the left that “this too will pass” and the arc of progress will once again and necessarily take route. I will continue to do everything in my power to protect and assist people and the nonhuman world in need; to take responsibility and act for good reasons; to live ethically. I will continue to write and speak out and petition and defend what I believe to be justified and right. But liberals, now more evident than ever, cannot take progress for granted. When we assume that progress in ethics is guaranteed or inevitable—the natural and righteous evolution of humanity—and that this is just a hiccup—we’re no better than the mystics of the ancient world for whom reason had little value.


On non-heterosexuality, religious absurdity, heteronormativity, human dignity, love, and freedom

A friend of mine—in reaction to Oklahoma Federal Judge Kern’s overturning a ban on non-heterosexual marriage—recently authored a blog outlining his condemnation of homosexuality and disapproval of the current trajectory of Western marriage culture. Ordinarily I would just shake my head and move on, but this particular instantiation of dogmatic heteronormative religious anti-queer ideology is so utterly rife with contradictions, non-sequiturs, equivocations, conflations, hypocrisy, platitudes, and empty distinctions unconvincingly presented as redeeming or reconciliatory that I simply cannot stomach remaining silent.

His post begins with an especially empty and confused distinction: “We should not disapprove of people as a class. […] We must always make a distinction between the person and their actions. We disapprove of the actions, not the people.”

This distinction is nonsense. Of course there is an obvious difference between a person and her or his actions—the former is a performer and the latter is a performance—but with regard to the regulatory goals of anti-queer rights advocates, the actor and action are inseparable. Action does not exist in a void. Action presupposes an actor, so to condemn an action concurrently and necessarily condemns the actor. We do not oppress or socio-legally imprison actions, but the people who act. Actions do not have inherent rights to freedom and self-determination, people do. It is not the freedom of an action that anti-queer advocates aim to curtail, but the freedom and agency of, not just one class of people—the queer community is not monolithic—but numerous classes of people; all classes of people except heterosexuals, in fact. There is no practical difference between regulating the action and regulating the actor in this case. You cannot criminalize a person’s natural mode of being and expression of agency without criminalizing the person.

Also, as a writing teacher I feel compelled to point out the lack of grammatical agreement between the singular “the person” and the plural “their actions” in the aforementioned quotation.

The author goes on to say that his disapproval of homosexual actions actually comes from love, and that we “must always love and accept people [original emphasis]. In fact,” he continues, “in order to truly love someone, we have to disapprove of things that hurt them as people. Homosexual actions are contrary to the dignity of the human person and thus we must always disapprove of such actions.”

Contradictions and mistakes abound. Let’s deconstruct each of the three premises individually:

Premise 1: “We must always love and accept people [original emphasis].”

Counter-argument 1: If you “love and accept people,” then you must love and accept them for who they are, not who you want them to be. Otherwise you’re not accepting, but rejecting their identities. And non-heterosexual identity is precisely that: identity. Non-heterosexuality is fundamentally intertwined in the selfhood of non-heterosexuals. You cannot separate the two and purport to love and accept one but not the other. To think otherwise is an error.

Premise 2: “In order to truly love someone, we have to disapprove of things that hurt them as people.” (Note again the lack of grammatical agreement between the singular “someone” and the plural “them as people”).

Counter-argument 2: To begin, the notion of “truly lov[ing] someone” is a loaded and problematic one. By who’s truth should “true” love be judged? Who’s to determine whether one person’s love is more or less true than another’s? Is love even the kind of thing that can be “true” or “false”? False love—should such a thing exist—it seems to me, would not be love at all, but deception. The author suggests that “true love” is contingent upon disapproval of harmful things; in other words, disapproval of harm or hurt is the criterion he proposes for distinguishing “true love.” This is a specious, capricious, and arbitrary criterion. To what measure of hurt does he refer? In what sense is non-heterosexuality hurtful? In no way apparent to me does non-heterosexuality cause harm to individuals or society. If anything it’s the opposite. For non-heterosexuals, non-heterosexuality is not hurtful, but a means of flourishing. Non-heterosexuality and non-heterosexual love are equally natural, beautiful, admirable, defensible, and commendable expressions of the human condition as heterosexuality and heterosexual love. Only in context of intolerant dogmatic archaic religious ideology is this equality contestable. And only in said context is non-heterosexual socio-legal equity contested. The argument that “in order to truly love someone, we have to approve of things that enrich or fulfill them as people” is made just as easily—and I think more convincingly. If anything, the denial of such enrichment or fulfillment constitutes harm or hurt, in which case, by the author’s own logic and criterion, if we truly love all people, then we must disapprove of those who disapprove of non-heterosexuality.

Premise 3: “Homosexual actions are contrary to the dignity of the human person and thus we must always disapprove of such actions.”

Counter-argument 3: I agree that we ought disapprove of actions contrary to human dignity, but homosexuality (& other forms of non-heterosexuality) and homosexual (& non-heterosexual) actions are not contrary to human dignity. Non-heterosexuality may be contrary to fundamentalist Christian doctrine or other anachronistic universalist religious dogma, but it is not contrary to human dignity. In fact it’s exactly the opposite. Denying freedom, self-determination, and social equality to human beings because of antiquated mythological religious ideology is contrary to human dignity. Human dignity means being free to live and express one’s natural identity without oppression or discrimination insofar as said lifestyle and expression brings no harm or socio-legal imprisonment to others. The liberty and expression of non-heterosexuality has nothing to say about religion and does nothing to limit the freedom of religious zealots, but the socio-legal institutionalization of uncompromising anti-queer fanaticism moves precisely to limit the freedom of non-heterosexuals. By Mill’s Harm Principle, the former is obviously permissible, and the latter is both impermissible and ethically repugnant.

The author next attempts to hedge or mask his distasteful condemnation of non-heterosexuality by saying that “We need to always treat homosexuals, regardless of their life choices, with charity and love, WITHOUT [original caps] condescension, patronization, or moral arrogance.”

This rhetorical attempt to placate the queer-community and its allies is socially intolerant hypocrisy at its finest. There are several problematic components of the above claim. First, the author makes a category mistake in asserting that being homosexual (and presumable anything other than heterosexual) is the kind of thing about which one chooses. Non-heterosexuality is not a choice, but one of countless natural dimensions of the human condition. Non-heterosexuality is not a “life choice,” it is simply life. Furthermore, to treat non-heterosexuals as pariahs, reject their natural identities, and support the prevention, revocation, or demolition of non-heterosexual socio-legal equality is, in no way, to treat non-heterosexuals with charity or love. And what, on grounds of ancient religious dogma, is advocation for non-heterosexual socio-legal inequality if not moral arrogance? Is it not moral arrogance to arbitrarily claim that non-heterosexuality is contrary to human dignity? Is it not moral arrogance to inexplicably argue that non-heterosexual actions are hurtful or harmful and that, in effect, the religious community knows what’s best for all people—especially non-heterosexuals? Moreover, to reject non-heterosexuality, deny non-heterosexuals socio-legal equality, espouse oppressive, exclusionary, and discriminatory religious myth as if it were simple fact and then call it love is both offensive and antithetical to the very idea of love and smacks with precisely the condescension and patronization which the author argues the anti-queer cause should avoid.

The author then—referencing Judge Kern’s reasoning that the sanctity of marriage and the encouragement of procreation are not valid or logical reasons to ban same-sex marriage—in a profound non-sequitur moves to argue that the rejection of non-heterosexuality somehow entails a narrow teleological prescription about heterosexual marriage; namely, that the purpose of marriage is to have children and that he “would be in favor of limiting marriage to couples who have to say on record that they are at least open [original emphasis] to having children.” This is an absurd—remarkably inane—line of reasoning. What of love? What of commitment? What of legal rights of access and decision-making power that come with marriage? What of inheritance and the social securities that marriage entails? Are these not valid reasons to marry? What of the infertile or the elderly or those uninterested in having children of their own? What of couples who would prefer to raise adopted children while in wedlock? The author now not only wants to preclude the socio-legal equality of non-heterosexuals, but to limit the freedom of all people who do not share his precise ideology. “The stability of our society” depends on it, he argues.”Just a suggestion, America.” I can think of no more appropriate term for this than fascism; for as Sinclair Lewis so aptly stated, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

Marriage is a human institution, not a Christian one. It is a social and civil right of all citizens of age and sound mind, not a privilege of heterosexuals, the devout, or those bent on reproduction. Marriage is a natural human freedom to take the long walk with someone for whom you care deeply and with whom you wish to build a life of mutual devising, together. Freedom is essential to American prosperity, not its curtailment or the institutionalization of discrimination, inequality, inequity, exclusion, and oppression on the basis of outrageous dogmatic ideology rooted in ancient religious mythology. Love, sex, commitment, shared experience, partnership, cooperation, and companionship—these are among the aspects of being human that make life worth living, and in no way are they—nor should they be—reserved for the close-minded, the bigoted, the hyper-religious, or the heteronormative. Life is an opportunity to live together with the people important to us, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, fertility, or religion. That is what’s worth protecting—worth fighting for—and that is what the stability of our society depends upon. Of this I have never been more sure.

The ethics of rising sea level (I)

Rising sea level: Inevitability and responsibility

The physics of climate change—the greenhouse effect—are well established. As the Sun blasts the Earth with energy, the Earth absorbs some of it and reflects the rest. Then, depending on surface conditions and the composition of the atmosphere, more or less of the reflected energy makes it back out to space. But if the atmosphere gets in that reflected energy’s way because it’s full of carbon, for example, it gets reflected again back down at the Earth. Since much of that energy is heat, global temperatures go up. Just like an enormous greenhouse. Meanwhile, the Sun is still blasting the Earth with energy and the process continues.

Photo courtesy of the Florida Sierra Club

Photo courtesy of the Florida Sierra Club

The Earth functions much like an organism. Certain homeostatic processes are physiochemically determined. If the system overheats, symptoms start to develop as the system adjusts to stabilize itself. For humans, we might sweat, feel light-headed, lose consciousness, or worse. For the Earth, landscapes change, ecosystems adapt, weather gets more erratic and intense, land ice melts, the oceans expand, and, in turn, sea level rises.

Climate change and sea level rise

Climate change means many things—uncertainty among them—but the relationship between global temperature and sea level is straightforward. When the planet cools, sea level drops, and when it warms, sea level rises. This happens for two reasons: 1) the thermal expansion of water and 2) melting land ice.

The former means that as heat diffuses from the atmosphere into the ocean, the volume of the ocean—the literal space between the water molecules—increases. If that’s not intuitive, think of steam rising from boiling pot of water: if you add enough heat to water, the space between the molecules increases so much that they fly apart and into vapor form.

As for the latter, you can probably guess Antarctica’s role.

As Antarctic temperatures rise, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will continue to melt, the amount of water in the ocean will increase, and sea level will rise. For obvious reasons, any amount of sea level rise poses problems for coastal communities everywhere.

Photo courtesy of WaterSISWEB

Photo courtesy of WaterSISWEB

According to the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), we can generally predict 2.3 meters of sea level rise for every °C increase in average global temperatures over the next 2000 years, more than a third of which will be attributable to the melting West Antarctic Ice Sheet. By that math, even if the world manages to keep global warming within 2°C (which is doubtful), we can still expect sea levels to rise by nearly 15 feet.

You can click on the map below and zoom in to see for yourself what the world looks like with 15 feet of sea level rise.

Map courtesy of CReSIS

Map courtesy of CReSIS

In North America, 15 feet of sea level rise would mean cities like New Orleans, Miami, New York, and Boston are flooded, as are sizeable portion of the Yucatan Peninsula and Alaskan coast. Around the world, Bangladesh and the Maldives, large parts of South East AsiaNorthern Europe, much of the Amazon Delta, and the northern coast South America would be underwater.

Though I use hypothetical language, it is important to be clear that some degree of sea level rise is now inevitable. Given present atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, the relevant question is not if sea level will rise, but when, and by how much?

Expectations and inevitabilities

To put expectations in perspective, FEMA’s most recent assessment projects sea level rising by more than a meter by 2100. Miami, the Maldives, the southern tip of Vietnam, swaths of Indonesia, and the mouth of the Amazon Delta are flooded with just one meter of sea level rise.

Southeast Asia with 1m of sea level rise--Map courtesy of CreSIS

Southeast Asia with 1m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of CreSIS

Here’s a world map of 1 meter of inundation for reference.

And it won’t stop then or there.

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations measured in April 2017 logged around 409ppm (updated May 2017). The last time there was this much carbon in the atmosphere was the Pliocene—3 million years ago. The Pliocene was significantly hotter and sea level was more than 20 meters above what it is today. Given the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere, in coming centuries as the Earth’s natural feedbacks to carbon forcing play out, we are likely justified in anticipating something like Pliocene-era sea levels.

With 20-25 meters of sea level rise, the map looks very different.

North America with 20m of sea level rise--Map courtesy of

North America with 20m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of

Here’s an interactive map tool you can use to check out various amounts of sea level rise.

In the United States, 20 meters of sea level rise means the state of Delaware, California’s bay area all the way to Sacramento, the entire edge of the Gulf Coast (Houston’s port becomes the coast and much of Louisiana goes the way of Atlantis), and the bottom third of the Florida Peninsula are all underwater. Elsewhere in the world: Shanghai, Bangladesh and the Maldives are long since submerged.

Southeast Asia with 20m of sea level rise--Map courtesy of

Southeast Asia with 20m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of

But it could be much worse depending on how global climate policy evolves and how the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and other stocks of land ice respond to climate change.

Catastrophic sea level rise

For sake of thought experiment, let’s consider the catastrophic scenarios projected by the IPCC’s A2 and A1F1 emissions pathways, putting us somewhere between 800 and 1000ppm CO2 by 2100. These worst-case scenarios mean that eventually, as Earth systems respond over centuries to come, we reach Eocene conditions—a world entirely without ice. Without ice anywhere on Earth, sea level sat more than 100 meters higher than today. The map tool only displays up to 60 meters of sea level rise, but that should be motivating enough. Just consider it a conservative portrayal of Eocene-era sea levels. BuzzFeed also recently issued some interesting depictions of what the world looks like without ice.

North America with 60m of sea level rise--Map courtesy of

North America with 60m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of

There are good reasons to think that this is bad, or at least undesirable, in and of itself. Maybe we want land ice to exist for its own sake. It might just make us feel better to know that glaciers are out there. Moreover, perhaps we have an obligation not to destroy the natural condition and function of the Antarctic ecosystem, even if not for the ecosystem’s sake but out of respect for Antarctica inhabitants’ right to habitat.

Relevant concerns, to be sure. But the human implications of catastrophic sea level rise are more than disturbing enough to warrant the catastrophic hypothetical. With Eocene era sea levels, cities flood the world over, many coastal countries are submerged entirely, and hundreds of millions of people lose their homes.

Asia with 6m of sea level rise--Map courtesy of

Asia with 6m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of

In the United States, the Gulf and Southeast Coasts are fundamentally reshaped. Florida is completely submerged, the Mississippi Delta consumes all of Louisiana and extends into northern Arkansas and Tennessee, and Georgia and South Carolina lose large stretches of eastern territory. Bangladesh and much of India, vast amounts of Northeastern China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, all of Denmark and the Netherlands, as well as much of Northern Germany including Berlin are entirely flooded.

Europe with 60m of SLR

Europe with 60m of SLR

Some nations like the US and China have large amounts of inland territory into which their populations can move (albeit still at huge costs), but many do not. Many people, Bangladeshis for example, will lose their entire country in the catastrophic scenario. This raises several questions.

Bangladesh with 60m of sea level rise--Map courtesy of

Bangladesh with 60m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of

Where should people of entirely submerged nations go? How should responsibility for adaptation assistance be divided? Should neighboring nations take on climate refugees simply because they’re closer, or should nations with greater contributions to climate change or greater ability to pay shoulder more of the responsibility?

The forced migration of countless individuals to new regions within and without their own nations—i.e. population displacement—is perhaps the most obvious ethical dilemma presented by the catastrophic scenario. Bangladesh is commonly considered with regard to the catastrophic sea level rise and population displacement because it is densely populated and especially vulnerable to rising sea level.

Moreover, Bangladesh’s cumulative and annual contributions to climate change inducing greenhouse gases are negligible. Compared to the United States, Europe, India, and China, Bangladesh is not, in large part, complicit in causing climate change, the melting of land ice, or the rise of sea level. That Bangladesh bears little responsibility for causing climate change and its impacts on sea level, yet shoulders the most extreme conceivable consequence is intuitively objectionable by most common conceptions of justice, wrongdoing, rights, and fairness. And if we were to weigh the marginal benefits of industrialization against the resulting change in climate and sea level rise, it would be a strange calculus indeed that rules the prerogative to continue burning fossil fuels over and above the global costs of lost coastal territory and massive population displacement.

Continue reading to Part II

Our new hydroverlords

The image below is one of four precipitation models published by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) that together forecast extreme global drought less than 50 years from now as a consequence of climate change. What follows illustrates predicted global precipitation levels in 2060-2069 assuming a moderate greenhouse gas emissions scenario as defined by the International Panel on Climate Change. Moderate.

Climate prediction map 2060-2069

Precipitation Model with Climate Change: 2060-2069

Take a moment to let all the purple, red, and yellow sink in. These are Dust Bowl conditions and worse. Take another moment.

It is difficult to emphasize enough the gravity of this predicted drought. We should all keep the above image in mind when we consider the value of water. Water is fundamental to the existence of life as we know it. Not just human beings. All life on Earth. For obvious utilitarian and deontological reasons, by the land ethic and the difference principle, by the precautionary and proactionary principles, and by our natural moral sense, water is of the highest non-arbitrary value and it is our responsibility as constituents of the human world and of the Earth itself—if we even entertain such a distinction—to do everything in our power to prevent and prepare for this possibility.

Pause to consider what it would mean for governance, for geopolitics, for the world if we fail to curb climate change beyond this moderate GHG emissions path and simultaneously 1) fail to implement and enforce the universal human right to water as recognized by 122 countries of the UN in 2010, and/or 2) consent to the privatization of water resources by multi-national corporations. I, for one, would not welcome our new hydroverlords.

What’s worse, the map shown above is only the third of four models. The fourth model extends from 2090-2099. Brace yourself for the purple: Precipitation Model with Climate Change: 2090-2099

Water resource management, conservation, and preservation will likely fall into their own compartmentalized regime complexes—as discussed by Keohane and Victor—fragmented from other initiatives focused on mitigating and adapting to the various impacts of climate change. According to Keohane and Victor, there’s reason to be optimistic about the capacities of this regime structure. But simply adapting to new conditions of water scarcity equates to treating the symptom rather than the disease. While adaptation is absolutely necessary, we must simultaneously confront climate change at its source: human greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, etc.) and the several positive feedback cycles that global warming entails.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations alone are currently around 397 parts per million (ppm), which essentially guarantees an increase in average global temperatures of ~4 degrees Fahrenheit (~2 degrees Celsius). What’s more, unless we reduce GHG emissions by ~80%, we can expect the increase in average global temperature to be even more dramatic.

Confronting climate change means one of two things (and maybe both, but probably not—the former would render the latter largely unnecessary and the latter would likely preclude the former). We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions through 1) an immediate significant reduction in energy consumption or 2) a techno-scientific revolution in renewable energy, energy storage, energy transmission, transportation, agriculture, infrastructure, manufacturing, and architecture.

Coupling either approach with reforestation and afforestation projects would be a good idea too, especially considering the Brazilian government’s recent report that deforestation in the Amazon has actually gotten worse since May of 2012.

In all likelihood, the future holds an increase in energy consumption, not a decrease, so we must—at some level—prepare ourselves to rely on faith in Julian Simon’s infinite resource of the human mind to spark the large-scale techno-scientific advances that the climatic consequences of our industrial behavior demand. We must have faith in progress, despite the paradox therein. A daunting task, to be sure, but we have little choice as we have collectively agreed, both implicitly and explicitly, that the Good Life is an energy intensive one. The climate challenge is upon us. If we are to progress, we must progress toward sustainability—and hopefully to a future with more water than NCAR has predicted. Let’s get it together, humans.


Congress’ assault on knowledge

Last month, half of Congress decided that political science isn’t worth NSF funding unless it advances economic development or national security. Imagine, politicians making it more difficult to study politics. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) and the 72 other senators who voted for the bill seem to have forgotten that knowledge is the foundation of the economy and the root of our security. But the congressional assault on knowledge does not stop at political science. Science itself is now the target.

Under the guise of impartial austerity, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has drafted a bill—ironically named the “High Quality Research Act” (HQRA)—to replace the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) peer review process with an arbitrary value-latent euphemistic circumlocution of funding criteria. Instead of peer reviewing the broader impacts and intellectual merit of scientific research to decide what projects deserve funding, Smith would rather cut the NSF budget and micromanage.

Jeffrey Mervis of Scientific Insider reports:

(FTA): “Specifically, the HQRA draft would require the NSF director to post on NSF’s website, prior to any award, a declaration that certifies the research is:

1) ‘…in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;

2) … the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

3) …not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.’

NSF’s current guidelines ask reviewers to consider the ‘intellectual merit’ of a proposed research project as well as its ‘broader impacts’ on the scientific community and society.”

Regarding HQRA’s first criterion: Is there a nefarious ploy playing out within the scientific community to stagnate national health, prosperity, welfare, or security? Progress in science is a bulwark for national security, so shouldn’t we increase NSF’s budget and make funding more, rather than less, available? Innovation takes freedom. So unless Smith (et al.) can clearly identify other-regarding harm that stems from NSF research, national policymakers should not further limit, i.e. regulate, innovators freedom to innovate. If anything, HQRA would stifle innovative liberty.

To the second criterion: Not all science can or should be “groundbreaking.” Scientific advance is piecemeal. Some research is groundwork for groundbreaking discovery. Think of outwardly banal research like infrastructure: the state must invest in roads before sports cars can cruise. Roads might not be flashy, but they are necessary—and their construction is actually profound when studied in any depth. The seemingly insignificant of today is the foundation for tomorrow’s profundity.

To the third criterion: Duplication is essential to the very nature of science. “Groundbreaking” results should be duplicable. Scientific redundancy hedges against fraud. If results are neither duplicable nor duplicated, how can we tell what research is trustworthy? Precluding scientific duplication de jure strikes me as creating a quack haven. Unless HQRA sponsors intend to protect quackery, stipulating non-duplication is nonsense. More cynically, HQRA’s non-duplication clause would shrink publicly funded competition for “science” advanced by wealthy private political interest groups—re: Oreskes, Conway, & Fox’s concerns about climate change deniers and frackademia.

HQRA smacks of big government—and given its Republican sponsors, libertarian hypocrisy. Congress should not decide what science is worth doing. Natural demand generated within the scientific community should guide research priorities—the invisible hand of the scientific marketplace, in a sense. If Congress shouldn’t “pick winners and losers” in business, why should it in science? Scientists, not Congress, should be the authority on what science is worth doing.

HQRA constitutes an arbitrary imposition of its sponsors’ beliefs pertaining to the value of science—the value of knowledge—in society and policymaking. If HQRA sponsors want to debate the value or proper role of science in society and policymaking, then we should explicitly talk about those values and beliefs. We should discuss the principles underlying the policy. Smith (et al.) should not pretend their motivation is financial. To frame HQRA as a fiscal issue insults public intelligence.

We’re talking about an annual NSF budget of less than 7 billion dollars, people ($6.9B appropriated in FY2013—cut down from the full $7B in FY2012). The US spends $7 billion on defense every three days. Not that defense spending isn’t money well spent, but let’s keep things in perspective when discussing national financial expenditure—and might I reiterate the importance of scientific progress to national defense. NSF’s budget is not the source of US financial woes. In fact, scientific research is among the safest of investments.

Science policy should build roads and get out of the way—unless there are obvious risks of harm related to experimentation, which by rule of the harm principle, can and should be regulated. Scientific innovators do their best work when free to experiment, free to fail without accost, and free to prune the mysteries of the mundane. Of course, freedom means funding. But we, the people, provide that funding via taxes—NSF funded scientists included. We deserve sound public investment with high rates of return. Science satisfies both.

Congress is constitutionally empowered to appropriate the national budget, but to do so on the basis of arbitrary values and beliefs disguised as objective financial necessity is morally questionable at best. Congress is not a group of generous feudal benefactors with absolute prerogative over we peasantry as it seems to have forgotten. Our representatives must be held accountable and to a higher standard of moral sense, which this recent assault on science—on knowledge—offends.

Science is iconic of American idealism: exploration, new frontiers, adventure, accomplishment, mystery, unexpected wealth, innovation, freedom and progress. Unless Congress is in the business of curtailing freedom and progress, the Coburn and Smith policies are a mistake. For all our sakes, Coburn’s anti-political science amendment should be rejected in the House and Smith’s anti-science policy should never see the congressional floor. But only time will tell. Progress in science may be a fact, but progress in ethics is often phantasmal.