Volcanoes, air travel, climate change, probability… and frogs

(copyright Reuters/Lucas Jackson, from the Boston Globe website photoessay.)

All those Eyjafjallajokull volcano-stranded air travelers reminded me of a story:

I have a small pewter pin in the likeness of a wide-mouthed frog that I wear when I travel.  Three weeks after 9/11, I was in Detroit on business and heading home.  Security protocols were in flux; travelers were not yet removing their coats and footwear; the line through security was an hour long and wound slowly around the terminal.

When it was time for my frog and I to walk through the metal detector, the machine gave off a  peevish “breep”.

The TSA agent – a large, large individual with an even larger voice –  boomed,  “MA’AM, PLEASE STEP BACK AND COVER YOUR FROG.”

I glanced over my shoulder, obediently covered my frog with the palm of my hand, and stepped through the screener again.  It was silent.

I imagined other requests to the good folks in back of me: “Ma’am, please cover your Glock?” “Sir, would you mind covering that Bowie knife?” I am not a nervous flyer by nature, but at that moment I began to wonder if another mode of travel – say, hitch-hiking home to Colorado – might be less risky.

There is an ongoing debate – rekindled recently by the advent of  full-body scanners – about whether heightened security in airports makes us safer.   Odds of dying in a air (or space) related accident? A little over one in 5, 000.  The odds of being killed by, let’s say, a volcano during one’s lifetime? 1 in 80,000. Odds of becoming shark lunch? One in eight million. The odds of dying in a terrorist attack?  See responses to this question here, here, and here for a selection of numbers and opinions across the political spectrum.

2006 National Geographic Magazine

Meanwhile, climate scientists are calculating the odds of global catastrophe caused by climate change. The numbers are sobering. At temperature increases above 2 degrees Celsius,  millions of people may experience increased coastal flooding globally and  up to thirty percent of species are at increasing risk of extinction. If temperatures increase more than 1.5 degrees, small island nations like Tuvalu will very likely be underwater.

If we stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at 450 parts per million CO2, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates at least a fifty-fifty chance that temperatures will rise at least two degrees by 2100.  To reduce odds of a 2 degrees increase down to a mere one in three, the target is 350 parts per million.

So where are we now? According to Climate Interactive, current international goals for reducing greenhouse gas will put CO2 at 770 ppm – a  temperature increase of between 2.3 and 6.2 degrees Celsius. At a three-degree increase,  the IPCC predicts a 30% loss of coastal wetlands; at four degrees, we’re contemplating serious decline in crop yields.

A statistician might argue that comparing these odds to one another is misleading. Author and former hedge fund manager Nicholas Taleb says there are two types of risk: risk of volatility indicated by fluctuations in the system, and risk of a shock to the system that is large, severe and abrupt. Taleb believes that they are often confused with one another but are not connected.  Arguably, risk of a shark attack would fall into the first category and risk of climate change into the second, and we should not compare the two.

But here’s the kicker: we should be much more worried about the second kind of risk. It’s not just that the odds are high.  It’s the long-term consequences of a massive, irreversible shift in the system.  Climate risk is more likely and (to me)  more scary than the threat of runaway lava or a Glock-toting grandmother in the airport security line.

As an early warning of changes to the system, climate change is already impacting  frog populations.  Persistent shifts in temperature have been linked to a  fatal skin fungus in mountain frog populations, disruption of habitat range, and general population declines.  They act, effectively, as slimy green canaries in our planetary coal mine.

So, please.  Step back.  Take a deep breath.  And for Gods’ sake cover your frog.


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