Thursday, June 07, 2007

If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?

The right-wing base is in a tizzy over some comments made by NASA chief Michael Griffin dealing with climate change. In an interview with NPR, Griffin said:

I have no doubt that global -- that a trend of global warming exists. I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with. To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of earth's climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn't change. First of all, I don't think it's within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown, and second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings -- where and when -- are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that's a rather arrogant position for people to take.

Griffin has come out recently as saying that these are his own beliefs, not the official position of NASA, but his position lends a credibility to his comments that the Luddites are clinging to like a polar bear clings to the last ice floes in the arctic. While it is indeed true that the world has undergone dramatic climate changes in its multi-billion year history, the point of view espoused by Griffin is dangerously short-sighted and ignorant.

There are two primary problems with this idea. First of all, the current climate change is *not* a natural phenomenon. The evidence is overwhelming that it is being caused by human activity. Secondly, regardless of the mechanism of change, we have a moral obligation to respond to it. The last major fluctuations in the Earth's climate occurred when the population was much much smaller than it is now. There are roughly 6.6 billion people living on the planet right now, many of whom live in cities on the water (New York, anyone?). Consider the devastation caused by the tsunami in December 2004, and think about what would happen if every city around the world that was on an ocean was flooded. Indonesia. India. London. New York. How many refugees would there be? How much farmland would be under water? What kind of burden would this place on the economies of the world? Even if this was entirely a natural process, if we didn't respond in some way, we would be witnesses to the greatest disaster humanity has ever faced. Do we ever hear any of these pundits blathering on about how this is natural, etc, discussing the cost of housing a billion refugees? Feeding them? Rebuilding whole segments of societies (think New Orleans on a global scale)? And that's only considering the rising of the oceans - I'm ignoring the other effects of climate change - habitat migration, different seasonal patterns, increases in storm frequency and intensity, etc.

Now, consider that we know that we're causing this. It is most decidedly not arrogant to think that if we're messing with the global ecosystem, it's our job to fix it. Think about Griffin's logic for a minute - if we follow his path, then there is no such thing as responsibility. Who says that you wouldn't be hit by a bus tomorrow, so if I shoot you today, why is that wrong? It's absurd. So, we have a situation where we know that we're changing the earth's climate. The consequences of the change could be devastating on a scale we can't fathom. We can (a) ignore it, and say "well, maybe it will be better that way - who are we to say which way it should be", or (b) try to limit the damage we cause, and hope that within the span of existence of humans on the planet, we find the means to prevent the death and destruction global warming will bring, whether it is caused by us or a natural event.

Doesn't seem like a tough choice to me, nor apparently, to Mr. Voltaire. Michael Griffin, on the other hand, is an idiot.

1 comment:

schmidlap said...

Great post, doc.

Another point about past climate change episodes: they are closely associated with mass extinctions.

The current episode is unique in that there are beings here capable of detecting it, assessing the threat it presents, and very probably doing something about it if there is enough collective will.

Or, we could go the way of the brontosaurus. That's an option, too. People talk about coastal flooding -- maybe we should talk about what happens if we can't grow wheat or corn south of the 60th latitude.