Thursday, 14 September 2017

Hurricanes are not a matter of opinion

As I write, the southeastern United States is being torn apart by hurricanes, and the west coast ravaged by bushfires. I’d say I was wondering how long it’ll take before the global warming deniers admit they were wrong and apologize. But of course that isn’t going to happen. Individuals sometimes change their minds when presented with counter-evidence, but it never happens en masse. Don’t wait for it.

Perhaps the news shouldn’t be expected to make much difference. Science is already based on real-world facts; if you’re going to deny science, why should a hurricane in the Caribbean be any harder to handwave away than an oxygen isotope reading in the Antarctic? A small subset of deniers are consciously dishonest. Rush Limbaugh, for instance, told his listeners that Hurricane Irma was a government conspiracy and then quietly left town. More often, they query whether this or that particular hurricane is caused by global warming, which is hard to fact-check because it’s always difficult to demonstrate the causes of a single event by scientific means. What science can tell us is that phenomenon A (here global warming) will cause phenomenon B (hurricanes) to happen more often and get bigger. And lo and behold, hurricanes are happening more often and getting bigger. As evidence mounts, there comes a point where scepticism is just quibbling.

Once global warming becomes undeniable, deniers have a position to retreat to: yes it’s happening, but it’s not our fault. There are natural climate change cycles! they exclaim, apparently under the impression that climate scientists are unaware of this. (I wonder who they think the information comes from?) One particularly vociferous climate change denier in my Facebook feed keeps posting, over and over again, a graph showing cyclic changes in temperature over the last 450 thousand years from three sites in Antarctica – a graph which conveniently happens to be on too small a scale to show the drastic uptick of the last fifty years. Here’s a better visualization from xkcd.

Global warming is an imminent threat. We should be mobilizing against it the way our grandparents did against the Nazis. The problem with that, of course, is that it isn’t a personal enemy with a villainous face to trigger our primate “intruder-alert” instincts. The villain is ourselves and the very systems we have laboured so hard over generations to build so that those who come after us can have a better life. It’s not just one technology that can be stopped, excised, and cleaned up, like asbestos or chlorofluorocarbons. It’s everything. Part of the problem is that, having put off and put off and put off doing anything about it for so long, we now need both an urgent solution and a permanent solution, and those may end up being very different things. Nuclear power might have to be part of the urgent solution. It can’t be the permanent solution, because uranium, like fossil fuels, will run out.

Politically, global warming is a hard issue to pigeonhole: it’s scientific and environmental and economic and geopolitical and educational and a Left/Right tribal marker. And that leads to the weakest and worst last-ditch attempt to stop people talking about it in connection with the hurricanes: “Stop politicizing tragedies!” I mean, yes, sometimes politicians do cynically exploit unfortunate events to raise their own profile; I’m not excusing that. More often, however, “Don’t politicize this problem” means “Your politics offer a better way of fixing it than mine do, and I’d rather people didn’t figure that out.” I can sympathize with a preference for peace over contention, but politics can be operationally defined as the set of problems which are more important than not being contentious. Saving the world from disaster certainly qualifies.

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