In AI, his brilliant, little watched 2000 masterpiece, director Steven Spielberg visits a greatly hobbled, much disabled New York City of about 200 years hence.
In the film, Empire City is a still-gleaming, if bizarrely waterborne realm with tall, iconic structures punctuating deep, flowing water channels that are clearly the once-great avenues of the Big Apple. The film is Steve Spielberg's energetic, deeply personal rendition of a project originally conceived by the great director Stanley Kubrick who died before this long-delayed project could be completed.
Widely seen as an epic film about advanced robotics and the enchanting, if very disturbing prospect of endowing machines with feelings, specifically for affection, the film is organized around the life of a robotic child (child actor Haley Joel Osment) and his undying love for his human mother. The story chronicles the synthetic child's more than two-thousand-year quest for his missing mom.
But AI is also a powerful imagining -- maybe the only big commercial movie vision we have -- of the deformed and hellish world we will inhabit should global warming, in its most advanced form, live as an "untreated" player in our world. And you could see a piece of the sad atmospherics of Kubrick's grand film in this week's Hurricane Sandy disaster: in NYC, in places like Hoboken, in spots in New Jersey and all across our ravished eastern seaboard.
"We know the weather changes all the time -- we've had extreme weather at other times -- it goes up and down, gets cold and warm -- we get dry and go wet -- the cycle has been going on for millions of years and it's doing it now -- that's the way it is."
"The real situation is in between what we say it is -- but nature doesn't care what human beings do, and humans are too limited to really understand it -- and we can't do anything about what it does -- it's the way things are now and it's the way it's been forever."
I was at the fab new downtown S&J's restaurant the other day with friends. S&J's is a fateful and lively restoration, of a great Tulsa '80s Brookside eatery. The comments of my buds (above) are reconstructed fragments -- actually small pieces of a varied and broad-scope lunch conversation with two Tulsans, two professionals I'm close to in T-Town, about Hurricane Sandy and the then-still-developing trauma on the eastern seaboard. Both of them are very committed, intelligent folks who are very knowledgeable and caring people. One is an outsize contributor to downtown Tulsa's fantastic recent evolution and the other is a newcomer with a very cosmopolitan design and architectural background. And both obviously don't believe that we, that is, the denizens of planet Earth, are in deep trouble.
I have, as UTW readers may remember, a different take: I am an active, unapologetic advocate for another outlook: an exponent for the overwhelming scientific consensus on the sufficiency of evidence and the looming dangers of global climate change. And last week's Frankenstorm/Sandy event, its history-defying, trans-seaboard movements, peerless intensity and "parley tactics" with a nor'easter storm in the region, makes for additional, on-the-ground evidence.
For two years running, Tulsans, during our hot season, have witnessed an explosion of water line breaks, record-breaking water usage and a huge spike in power consumption. And we experienced a freakish winter in January and February of '11.
I've asked, in these pages, if we should assume that climate change is implicated in these events. No one can say with certainty that global warming is in play in these anomalies, or in the Hurricane Sandy disaster, but there is a line of emerging analytics that earth/climate gurus called "detection and attribution."
These methods, a flood of new data from polar ice core samples, new ocean surface temp data and increasingly precise super-computer modeling results, add up to a sort of climate forensics toolkit -- one not available until lately. But there is more: and it goes beyond ominous droughts, odd, freakishly frequent flood events, wild-hair storms, super hot spells and other things we've seen recently -- it traffics in what some in the scientific community call "feedback" or boomerang effects.
A great example: a new (November) article in Scientific American about novel climate kinetics that are very scary. In the current issue of the magazine, science journalist John Carey writes:
"Scientists thought that if planetary warming could be kept below 2°C, perils such as catastrophic sea level rise could be avoided. Ongoing data, however, indicate that three global feedback mechanisms may be pushing the earth into a period of rapid climate change even before the 2°C limit is reached; meltwater altering ocean circulation; melting permafrost frost releasing carbon dioxide and methane; and ice disappearing worldwide." Carey goes on to say that: "These feedbacks could accelerate warming, alter weather by changing the jet stream, magnifying insect infestations and spew more and wilder wildfires."
It looks increasingly likely that gonzo climate dynamics are pushing our region toward colder, more intense winters, hotter summers, shorter springs and strangely volatile precipitation levels.
Dr. Heidi Cullen is a celebrated climate scientist who has worked with folks at the OU National Weather Center (Oklahoma's world class "dog" in this hunt) and is a leading professional at a research/reporting venture called Climate Center. Cullen's singular offering, one that hits you straight in the face given the traumas of the last week: Climate change is not some far-off, abstract drama starring arctic ice and polar bears.
In her lucid 2011, The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet and a persuasive set of essays, traveling presentations (she was in Tulsa briefly last year) and media appearances, she conveys the intensely local, in-your-face character of climate change and says rightly that this epic challenge has as many facets as America's many regions and towns. And interestingly, this existential challenge is one in which local ingenuity, regional scientific talent, local political realism and adaptive moxie will make or break communities.
So what should be done locally about climate change and global warming?
"Doing" PlaniTulsa is our best local economic and development response: but really effective local engagement with the climate change challenge also means a massive reduction in local/national fossil fuels use and an even more aggressive move to the housing, transport and denser development modes outlined in Tulsa's new comprehensive physical plan. It's increasingly evident that absent a decisive embrace of the new "urbanist"/denser city lifestyle/design regime, more alternative energy sourcing, including geothermal, reformed nuclear, solar, wind and advanced bio-fuels, that there is nothing to look forward to but exploding average temperatures, weird precipitation and sometimes lethal weather volatility.
In a week or so I'll take a look at other local paths we need to look at -- it's all really serious stuff.
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