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September 24, 2005

Global colding revisited

Jeremy Rifkin says "we are all to blame" for the "harsh lesson of Katrina and Rita". To my ear, this claim sounds indistinguishable from those "Christians" wishing to sacrifice hurricane victims on the altar of a vengeful god. So, search and replace "gay" with "SUV" and the argument remains internally coherent drawing, as it does, on the same theological line of reasoning.

Best to clarify some lines of inference. Is it possible that human intervention in the carbon-cycle is responsible for more intense hurricanes? Certainly. There are plenty of instances where our species, even in the relatively low-density foraging version that was the standard model until about six thousand years ago, has effected dramatic changes in continent-spanning ecological relationships. It would seem more surprising if the effects of two-hundred years of world-spanning industrialization had not effected the atmosphere, its interaction with energy retained from sunlight and consequently the weather. And here is the first problem. Effects that have a colossal effect on people may have a neglible effect on larger systems. Whether something impresses a modified chimp neurology might make no odds.

Is it possible that indications of global warming represent a trend and not a statistical blip? In other words, is global warming "real"? It certainly could be. In fact, I assume that it is. The trick is to make a leap from that assumption to some causal relationship between human activity and that change. The reason for my confidence in a global warming trend is that any archaeologist who has paid minimal attention to the history of the last two thousand years should be expecting it. If anything, the world has been chilly these last few centuries and we are due for a bit of a thaw. I imagine the anti-SUV folks would be making with the wailing and the gnashing of teeth if they were to discover a wine-industry in Labrador but this would have been no surprise to the Vikings who settled Greenland a thousand years ago. That said, I am inclined to think what was nice for the Norse made for spectacular storms for the Caribs. It should go without saying that changes are going to entail costs and benefits and that from a human perspective these may not be equatibly distributed.

Shouldn't we be doing something about greenhouse gas emissions on the off chance there is a causal relationship between them and some possible super-hurricane? Well, no. Plenty of outcomes are possible. I for one would think twice about buying property in the blast zone around Mount Ranier but does my chimp-like calculation of the odds mean Seattle should be abandoned to the woods? Probably not. Will that last sentence look ridiculous when the supervolcano blows next week and screaming hordes flee into the Pacific as walls of pyroclastic flow, etc. and so forth? Yes. And I expect the usual suspects would be blamed for the catastrophe once the lava was on the way (the government, human hubris, God, etc.). Plenty of things look foolish after the fact. So is expectation that this time I might have bought the winning lottery ticket but I would not make that foolishness illegal either.

Does any of this imply I am opposed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Not at all. I think there are perfectly sensible reasons to be addressing issues such as our dependence on fossil fuels that may be entirely independent of a human contribution to climate change. Am I unconcerned about evidence of global warming? Quite the opposite. In fact, my impression that humans have relatively little impact on this warming trend makes me rather more alarmed at the prospect. If I thought the problem could be addressed by sacrificing sport-utility vehicles to a Semitic storm god, I could rest easy. This is the advantage the magical thinkers have over me when sin is thought to be the cause (be it sodomy or SUVs). A little dance around the fire, some ritual chanting, and we are ready to go. Figuring out what even the sum of human ingenuity, engineering and science can do in the face inclement weather is a tougher problem by far.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at September 24, 2005 08:01 AM

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