November 26, 2007

Chicken Little vs. the Pipe Smoker

I write more about legal matters than other blog subjects because my education and work life have made me more familiar with the language and concepts of law than, say, economics or neurosurgery. In the age of the blog, however, any subject seems like fair game, especially impressionistic reactions to the "state of society" or the world in general. I read many such mind farts on the blog-aggregating sites such as the Huffington Post or the Daily Kos. To generalize about the generalizations, you can break them down into the Chicken Littles and the Reassuring Realists, or The Pipe Smokers. The Pipe Smokers dislike theories of massive economic collapse or climate crises. Chicken Littles revel in apocaplyptic scenarios and conspiracy theories. One way you can resolve the "controversy" is to settle at a midpoint; each has "something to say." And yet, when you think about it, there is no reason such moderation is necessarily closer to reality when it comes to scientific subjects.

Climate crisis is probably a good case in point. The Realist viewpoint is that global warming is a problem like other human problems and that gradualist responses will work just fine without the social dislocations of a frenzied reordering of energy use in transportation and industry. I see this style epitomized in the relaxed and confident analyses of such pundits as Patrick Buchanan and George Will; they are bemused by the Chicken Littles and their hysterical raving. There is no particular reason that these journalists know a damn thing about climate science; rather, their "conservative" response has been conditioned by the success or vindication of their opinions about other fields of human activity, such as politics and the economy. These metaphors or analogies, of course, have nothing to do with Earth's atmosphere. The presence of heat-trapping gases in the troposphere and the myriad feedback processes which lead to warming of the air and oceans, acidification of the seas, and changing weather patterns are not, in any sense, related to the human psychology which affects the outcomes of political races or economic activities. They think because humans temper their irrational reactions over time and behave in predictable and cyclical patterns that the atmosphere will do the same thing; the Earth will "settle down," see what's best for it, and cooperate with human beings. At base, such thinking is flat-out stupid; it arises from an inability to distinguish factual situations from each other on the basis of their disparate elements.

As an example, if you place a small pan of water on an oven burner, and you know the BTU output of the burner, the conductivity of the the pan, the atmospheric pressure in the room, and the starting temperature and quantity of the water, you can make intelligent estimates about when the water will boil. Chicken Little has no advantage over the Pipe Smoker; there is no "Liberal" or "Conservative" position on this experiment. Multiply this experiment by the complexities of climate change and you essentially have the political situation vis-a-vis global warming. The only difference is that the variables and feedback processes are so complicated that there is room for differences of opinion; how one resolves the difference depends, I would be willing to bet, on two factors: one's natural temperament and the extent to which one is familiar with the science of the subject. Where a pundit or politician (such as Buchanan, George Will or George W. Bush) has no empirical grasp of the problem, the "conservative" attitude that all changes must be incremental and gradual is decisive (in Bush's case we have to add the element of corruption). The same thing, of course, happens on the "liberal" side; a politician or journalist who favors "progressive" positions identifies the "Chicken Little" response as the hip way to think, with or without any handle on atmospheric science.

It isn't difficult to see why climate change presents a scientific challenge distinct from the usual arcane questions posed by the scientific world. If we were dealing with a question of brain surgery, for example, Patrick Buchanan and George Will would not weigh in with the "conservative" position on the right approach to excising a tumor; nor would they inquire into the "liberal" or "conservative" biases of the neurosurgeon, as such troglodytes as James Inhofe (Cretin,-OK) routinely do about climate scientists. But adapting to the problem of greenhouse gases gores the oxen of the conservative lifestyle, which first and foremost favors comfortable affluence based upon the existing state of things. So they have to react, and since there is just enough wiggle room to hem and haw about the "pace" of change, and the relative necessity of Draconian versus gradual adaptation, the "conservative position" on climate change arises.

As I say, none of this posturing has anything whatsoever to do with the greenhouse effect. If we could, in some way, transport ourselves to a high vantage point, looking down upon Earth and its comical dominant species, and listen in on their stupid reactions as they boil themselves alive, we could get some sense of how ridiculous all of this is. Since we can't do that, we'll have to wait till 2009 and then see if the world's largest polluter, in throwing away eight critical years near the tipping point of the change, can lead the world away from the abyss.

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