Recently I had a discussion with an acquaintance that put me to thinking about our often flawed way of thinking. Also, Bill McKibben had a piece quoted in the LA Times a day or so ago that illustrates perfectly the point. It’s printed below in toto as if it were an earlier Blog entry here for your convenience (see the real reference for full context and a good cross-reference).
The conversation came down to a discussion of three questions. Anyone familiar with the debate will recognize them:
1) Is Global Warming real?
2) Is it man-made?
3) If we change our behavior, can it be stopped?
The other party to my debate, whom I’ll call Agathon (not his real name), had decided that global warming is real. He could see the impacts in various physical realities himself. Personally, I’m not sure whether any of us can claim such observational skills, save, perhaps the scientists who spend their lives studying climatology, but, since I tend to agree with Agathon on this point precisely because those scientists do, suffice it to say here only that this represents progress for the resistance to the entire global warming proposition. For at least 16 years they refused to acknowledge that the entire phenomenon was real. Now, all but the most ardent true-believers have given up that ghost.
As to whether it was man-made or not, Agathon and I had serious disagreement on where the scientific community currently stands on this issue. I’m under the impression that approximately 99% of the scientists that study the question are now in agreement with Gore on this point. He thought the division deep, approaching nearly an even split.
My overture to him, in fact, was “who are your sources?” That seems like the most appropriate question for each of us to examine when such a different understanding of the facts arises. I, certainly, am in no position myself to ascertain what the percentage is, and, if I know anything of Agathon, neither is he. So we both must be relying on sources, and we each need to try to assess their motivations, biases, and trustworthiness.
Oddly, I thought, this question met with extraordinary resistance. In nearly an hour, I never pulled an answer from him, nor was I invited to offer whence my own information came.
The conversation, however, revealed Agathon is using a rather interesting kind of “logic.” It went something like this: “Okay, Global Warming is Real. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, the result of human activity. But, even if it is, mankind is arrogant to think he can do anything about it. Whatever we’re doing is so small compared to the oscillations in the Earth’s orbit, or the Sun’s output, or the farting of the bovine population, that nothing we do could change anything. Better to invent a better Seran Wrap® than spend one thin dime on what won’t do any good, anyway.”
Anybody else see the hole in that logic? “Even if it is, it can’t be.”
Most of my readers will have already seen this failing in the arguments of their opponents: the unspoken assumption that, “if the whole climate is changing, then it’s just got to be natural. We might be speeding it along, but it’s really not us causing it.” Even if it is, it can’t be.
What bothers me, though, is that almost everyone who’s already on my side on this one makes the same mistake in an only slightly different circumstance. When I start talking about the end result of what happens if we don’t stop it, they go just as mush-brained. To illustrate, let me quote McKibben–ordinarily no dummy–a bit:
“our foremost climatologist, NASA’s Jim Hansen, submitted a paper to Science magazine with several co-authors. The abstract attached to it argued — and I have never read stronger language in a scientific paper — “if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm.””
“ Hansen didn’t just say that, if we didn’t act, there was trouble coming; or, if we didn’t yet know what was best for us, we’d certainly be better off below 350 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. His phrase was: “…if we wish to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed.””
“People will doubtless survive on a non-350 planet, but those who do will be so preoccupied, coping with the endless unintended consequences of an overheated planet, that civilization may not.”
Here’s my point. Where’d he get that “doubtless” bit? His source, Hansen, also said “and to which life on earth is adapted.” “Life on earth.” Doesn’t that, sort of, include us? Why is it so “doubtless” that people will survive? Why, even, is it so “doubtless” that Life on earth will survive? What, exactly does the word “adapted” mean? Remember, we’re not talking geological time here. “Re-adapting” is not likely an option.
McKibben is making exactly the same mistake that Agathon made. It’s the same mistake most of the people I talk to make. “Life is simply too big and too resillient for us to impact.” Earlier we’d have substituted “the earth” for “life.”
Even if Global Warming turns out to be Runaway Greenhouse Effect, with literally no determinable upper limit on the ambient temperature–with no way of predicting that it might not reach an intolerable level for any form of life known to mankind at this moment–“Life will survive.” Even if it is, it can’t be.
Sorry folks. It can be. That’s exactly what my Vision said was in process and would be the end result. Worse yet, for the skeptics out there, it’s what a life time of logical training confirms.
That the hope in the Vision–that of getting some form of Earth-based Life off this planet–is beyond our mind’s eye’s current ability to comprehend, isn’t that surprising. We can’t even seem to get our heads around the simple fact that: “If it is, then it is.