I had the great pleasure last night of meeting Melissa of Shakespeare’s Sister fame and some of the great cast of characters she has assembled over at her blog, including Mr. Shakes, Litbrit, Paul the Spud, and others. The occasion was a visit to our northern suburb of Evanston to catch Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth. In fact I had already seen the movie, but was more than willing to see it twice. I am quick to admit that I am not a Gore fan, and the thought of paying hard cash to see a movie that consists mostly of him giving a Keynote presentation (there was plenty of Apple product placement) falls somewhat below “drinks at Clooney’s villa in Tuscany with the gang” on my list of exciting ways to spend an evening.
But it turns out to be a great film, oddly compelling, with at least one priceless joke about gold bars. It’s not a science documentary — many graphs have no labels on their axes (much less error bars), and much of the evidence adduced is anecdotal and aimed at the gut rather than the brain. But what anecdotes they are. It’s hard to see pictures of Russian fishing boats stranded in a barren sandy landscape that once was a major lake bed without thinking that something needs to be done.
There isn’t any scientific controversy over whether or not climate change is happening, or whether or not human beings are a major cause of it. That argument is over; the only ones left on the other side are hired guns and crackpots. But the guns are hired by people with an awful lot of money, and they’re extremely successful at sowing doubt where there shouldn’t be any.
Their task is made easier by the fact that the atmosphere is a complicated place, and the inherent difficulties in modeling something as messy as our climate. But climate models are not the point. The point is not even the dramatic upward trend in atmospheric temperature in recent years. The actual point is made clear by the plot of atmospheric CO2 concentration as a function of time, which I just posted a couple of days ago but will happily keep posting until I save the planet.
Here is the point: We are taking an enormously complex, highly nonlinear, intricately interconnected system that we don’t fully understand and on which everything about our lives depends — the environment — and repeatedly whacking it with sledgehammers, in the form of atmospheric gasses of various sorts. Statements of the form “well, we don’t really know what that particular piece of the system does, so we can’t be rigorously certain that smashing it with a sledgehammer would necessarily be a bad thing” are, in some limited sense, perfectly true. They are also reckless and stupid. The fact that there are things we don’t understand about the environment isn’t a license to do whatever we like to it, it’s the best possible reason why we should be careful. And being careful won’t spell the doom of our economic system, bringing global capitalism crashing to the floor and returning us all to hunter-gatherer societies. We just have to take some straightforward steps to mimimize the damage we are doing, just as we very successfully did with atmospheric chloro-fluorocarbons to save the ozone layer. And the best way to ensure that those steps are taken is to elect leaders who are smart and determined enough to take them.