Friday, September 9, 2005


Further reflections on Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans have helped me to draw together some of the threads that have run through this blog.

At least part of what it means to be a skeptic in public life is to steer a course between credulity and incredulity, and between the perverse relish for the apocalypse and simple denial. This is a difficult course to steer: the extremes exert a powerful influence on the human psyche (or, at least, on my psyche; I shouldn’t over generalize).

So, (for me, at least) to be a skeptic in public life is to maintain a tension among these influences, and to somehow find a way to live within and through this tension.

This is very hard to do.

I sometimes wonder if, for most people, denial exerts the strongest pull. Consider a column by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, which appeared in the Atlanta paper this morning.

Krauthammer begins by recalling “less enlightened times” when every natural disaster was blamed on some human agency, leading to the burning of witches, the massacre of Jews, and so on. He then laments that “our progressive thinkers have not progressed an inch. No fall of a sparrow on this planet is not attributed to sin and human perfidy” . . . including global climate change and tax cuts.

His response: “This kind of stupidity merits no attention whatsoever, but I’ll give it a paragraph. There is no relationship between global warming and the frequency and intensity of Atlantic hurricanes. Period.”

What an astonishing claim! On what authority and with the support of what evidence does he make this declaration?

No respectable or self-respecting scientist would speak or write in such absolute terms. Scientific projections of the effects of climate change are couched in terms such as “likely” or “very likely”, which may be defined precisely as ranges of probability.

On the face of it, this is an obvious straw man: The doomsayers are a bunch of regressive liberal whackos who want this disaster to somehow be our own fault, if only to teach us a lesson. They can’t be right. Therefore, this disaster is not our own fault.

Of course, there is something to this argument, insofar as environmentalists must struggle with our own hopes for an instructive apocalypse. But between hope for the apocalypse and the simple, categorical denial issued by Krauthammer, there are myriad possibilities.

My own take on the matter goes like this: Human beings burn fossil fuels in order to do all sorts of good and useful things (as well as bad and useless things). This has consequences of which we are only beginning to become aware. It is all but certain that our use of fossil fuels has led to a change in the composition of the planet’s atmosphere, and very likely that this is leading to an increase in average global temperature. In any case, average global temperature is rising. One very likely consequence of this is a warming of the oceans, and warm water fuels tropical storms. While no one storm can be blamed on global warming, an increase in the frequency and intensity of tropical storms is consistent with projections of the effects of that warming. This leaves us with a number of important policy choices, including the extent to which we will continue to use fossil fuels, and whether we will make public investments to find alternative sources of energy or, at least, investments to prepare for likely consequences of global warming.

There. No doom, no gloom. But no denial, either.

(Later in the same column, Krauthammer refers obliquely to the extent to which the American public has stood in the way of “any responsible energy policy” over the past 30 years. I wonder what a “responsible” policy would look like that denied the very likely consequences of global warming.)

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