As I compose this, it is July 31, 2011. [I apologize for the delay in posting. I’m old–okay?]
[Anyway] This morning, at about 11:30 PDT, I looked at the satellite photo of the clouds (http://www.goes.noaa.gov/browsw2.html) to see how the portion of the sky I was seeing out my window fit into the overall weather pattern. I wasn’t sure how to read the image I saw, so I then clicked on the jet stream image for the Northwestern U.S. (http://squall.sfsu.edu/gif/jetstream_pac_init_00.gif). That was startling, for it showed almost no jet stream. From there I went to the image of the jet stream in the northern hemisphere at http://squall.sfsu.edu/gif/jetstream_norhem_00.gif. Here the jet stream was, at best, weak and fragmented.
I was reminded of the description of the recent heat wave in the U.S. as being a “bubble” sitting over the middle of the country. Now, I don’t normally watch the jet stream during the summer, for it is mainly winter storms that interest me here in the high sierra, so I can’t say how usual or unusual the almost total absence of a jet stream in all of the northern hemisphere is during this season.
But neither can I tell you how frightening I found it. The cessation of the jet stream, after all, is one of those indicators I would say is a criteriun we can use to evaluate whether Gaia has already died. Of course, there was still some activity in the jet stream–I can even see what appears to be normal movement amongst the clouds from my window–and I have no idea whether it being summer in the northern hemisphere makes this pattern routine. So to cry out that “the sky is falling” would seem a rather Chicken Little-ish thing to do at this point.
But one way to read the Chicken Little story is to consider the little chicken’s fear as being real. In fact, to be convincing on the face of it, the fear was almost certainly real.
In view of that, the story of the boy who cried wolf once too many times is probably the much better analogue. After all, that story seems more appropriate on at least two, perhaps several, points. First of all, the parallel to why so many people discount climate scientists today is pretty obvious. People have been “crying wolf” on environmental issues for literally centuries.
It’s not surprising so many people with literally no understanding of even the slightest thing scientific are so eager to dismiss the cacophony from the scientific community trying to alert them to an imminent and unprecedented disaster.
But another aspect of the story, it seems to me, is equally important. At the end, because the people no longer gave the shepherd boy the benefit of the doubt, his warnings go unheeded, and the true wolf ravages the community”s herd of sheep.
I encountered a global warming denier just the other day. I didn’t argue with him because I’ve found that to almost always be a waste of time. Most of their information–all of it, usually–comes straight from the talk show hosts of the right wing media.
I’ll bet not more than one in twenty of those pundits has ever been able to state and prove the quadratic formula. That was the task I used to tell my intermediate algebra students was the criterion they needed to pass before they could even claim to be mathematically literate.
Of course, I had a reputation for being old school and unreasonably demanding, so let’s just say I still maintain that only about one in ten of the clever sounding talk radio hosts can rattle off the quadratic equation, and fewer still can tell you the difference [between it and the formula].
But people like this denier are adamant about proclaiming that “climate change is a myth” based on nothing more than these people’s passionate advocacy of that position.
The mathematically illiterate have gathered a devoted following of the scientifically stupid.
And the morally corrupt political class has opted for reelection over their obligation to respond to the most informed purveyors of knowledge in time to prevent the crises from inundating us all.
We are, as always, at a crucial junction relative to our future. Deciding the best course is never an easy or clear choice. But cliches and sound bites are not a good basis on which to make these choices, independent of how clever and/or passionate the speaker may sound. Or how easy he or she may make the choice sound.
What if there really is a wolf this time? What if the sky really is falling (or ceasing to circulate, as may be more likely)?
What if the cries scientists have been making about greenhouse gases ever since they first became aware of their increasing presence in the atmosphere in the 1950’s never were false alarms, but were just drowned out by the drone of industry?
Why have the scientists come back to this concern again?
What if it’s not the radio talk show host, with his or her Will Rogers-like “wisdom” but the true experts, that have it right?
What if the only reason we think Malthus and all the other doomsayers of long ago were wrong is that we have such a very tiny view of time? It’s like trying to understanding global weather patterns by looking out the window–at night.
We’d better be sure before we continue on with business as usual. And the best way to be sure is to listen to those who are at least literate in their field of study–and, of course, to make sure that field of study is in science, not propaganda.