Monday, July 28, 2014

Global Warming and Historical Regret

Shortly after 9/11, the Bush administration adopted what was later characterized in the eponymous book as the "One Percent Doctrine".  This national security doctrine required action on any activity that presented a 1% chance of an attack on US citizens or property.  Said otherwise, if there is a 1% chance of an attack, it was treated in terms of response as a certainty.

I thought about that book while reading The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, a novella written from the perspective of future historians about the final consequences of inaction in the face of climate change.  I wish I could fully recommend the book, but the authors are not particularly gifted in the art of fiction, which leads to some heavy-handed preaching in place of narrative.  If you read fiction to help your mind grasp topics too hard to manipulate in nonfiction, read it.  Otherwise, you can probably get the gist elsewhere.

One of the most damning indictments in the book falls on the science community for imposing standards that were too stringent to allow a platform for action.  In particular, the authors slam the pervasive use of a 95% confidence interval that requires near certainty before being accepted as true.  Projecting out into the future with unknown variables and insecurity about the underlying foundational data, 95% is an untenable standard for public policy, particularly when such policy relies almost entirely on the projections of scientists. 

This is even more concerning when you consider charts like this from the Global Trends Survey:
US - 54% Agree, 14% Don't Know, 32% Disagree
 I found these results shocking.  In an age when American Hegemony and leadership is a near daily topic of discussion regarding world affairs, we still have not made up our mind on what may be the most important threat of our time.

Similar to a Magic Eye picture, once you see Climate Change for what it is, you can't un-see it.  You see US response to the current immigration crisis as a precursor to the waves of displaced immigrants that will come with sea level change.  You see the droughts in the mid-West, and the subsidy-mediated price spikes, as a precursor to food shortages and inflation caused by unfarmable heartland country decades from now.  You see the near endless wars on foreign continents as a small representation of the intercontinental wars that will inevitably develop as resources become more scarce and governments are pushed into panic mode.

Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin wrote an important editorial in the Washington Post this weekend addressing the paralyzing claim that in order to address Climate Change, we will need to forfeit economic growth.  He notes how short-sighted, and flawed, that argument is in the face of all of the consequences of Climate Change noted above:

We do not face a choice between protecting our environment or protecting our economy. We face a choice between protecting our economy by protecting our environment — or allowing environmental havoc to create economic havoc.

But this analysis, and concern, comes back to the same question every time - what are we going to do about it?  The problem is just so big and all of the energy-saving in the world may not be enough to save our existence on this planet (we don't need to worry about saving the planet - she will live on without us).  I am absolutely positive there is something we can do on the individual/personal level that amounts to more than counting kilowatts. Use your political power.  Can you really believe that we just made it through Primary Season without any serious discussion of this issue?  Can you really believe that there will be candidates on your ballot who refuse to acknowledge the anthropogenic roots of Climate Change?  Can you believe that for a problem of this magnitude we are sitting like frogs in a pot?

I'll close with an important piece by Enric Sala, a National Geographic Explorer, who offers a (mostly pessimistic) report from Greenland.  After observing 20 kilometers of loss to the Illulissat glacier in Greenland, Sala ponders the question we ask ourselves here - what can I do?

At the end of the Greenland journey, we all wanted to commit to doing something. No one person alone can convince governments to price carbon, or industries to move towards cleaner practices and reduce carbon pollution. The question is: can we do something that has a measurable positive impact? In my case, as an oceanographer and explorer, I will try to help protect as much as the sea as possible from fishing and pollution, so that ocean life can be more resilient against the effects of global warming. I leave it up to you to think about what you are willing to do.

The answer cannot be "nothing".

That's all for today.  Have a great Monday doing what you love!