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Existential Friday: Climate Change, Smallpox and Mastodons

Mauricio_AntónToday, we are channeling filmmaker P.T. Anderson, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and British sociologist Anthony Giddens, to talk about uncertainty and interconnectedness. Why not? It’s Friday, we like P.T Anderson movies, we find Rumsfeld strangely oddly fascinating, and Giddens is great.

P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia features various people and storylines that are tangentially connected to each other, though the characters are generally unaware of the connection (and, of course, frogs fall from the sky at the end, and they all unwittingly sing an Aimee Mann song together).

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once spoke cryptically about “known knowns,” “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” when discussing the national security risk of the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Anthony Giddens, the son of a clerk with London Transport, developed the concept of time-space distanciation, which describes the process “whereby remote interaction has become an increasingly significant feature of human life, and through which social systems that were previously distinctive have become connected and interdependent.”

These three people, together, raise issues of core importance to the climate change discussion: uncertainty and interconnectedness. While there is a lot that we do know about the threat of climate change, there are many things, and interconnections, that we do not know and cannot know at this point in time.  In this spirit, we offer below a list of items that may (or may not) be connected to each other, and may (or may not) be significant to understanding past and future climate and security risks.

  • A conference in London this week, organized jointly by the UK Climate and Health Council, BMJ, and senior military figures, discussed how climate change represents a threat to human health, survival, and global security.
  • In 2008, thawing Siberian tundra revealed old, well-preserved corpses riddled with potentially viable smallpox scabs.  Archaeologists are taking more precautions with excavation projects, and the United States and Russia maintain smallpox stockpiles as a security precaution.
  • Around 20,000 years ago, woolly mammoths sought refuge from humans in northern Siberia. According to R.D. Guthrie, their urine and feces became a critical part of the ecosystem, providing nutrients and fertility that is missing from the frozen, acidic tundra of today.
  • Roughly 13,800 years ago, weakened mastodons in North America, stressed by climate change and poor vegetation, were hunted by non-Clovis humans using mastodon-bone projectiles. This is far earlier than scientists thought, and suggests that the megafauna extinction in North America may have been a more gradual process than previously estimated.
  • Two days ago, a man in Zanesville, Ohio released 58 lions, tigers, leopards, bears and monkeys before committing suicide. The authorities shot nearly 50 of the animals, including 18 endangered Bengal tigers representing a reported 1% percent of the total remaining population.

How are all these things connected to each other, to the climate, and to security? We don’t know for certain. But there’s probably enough there for P.T. Anderson to make a movie about it.

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