"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Quote of the Week, Elaborated

Hi Michael - as I write below, I was indeed pleased and surprised to see my quote at the top of your blog. But it is sufficiently different from what I would say if I were to craft the sentence carefully, that I felt motivated to elaborate. I don't want you to alter the quote itself because any alteration would be no more faithful to the original than your version. But if you feel like posting the letter, I try to clarify and justify the argument. Fairly concisely, or at least that was my goal.

Let me know what you think.


A word from the horse’s mouth…

I was surprised and pleased to see my words at the top of MT’s blog. It wasn’t a perfect quote of what I think I said, but I’d already forgotten the exact words when Michael asked me to repeat it mere seconds after.

What do I mean “to scare the people out of their wits”? Well, the “out of their wits” part is just melodrama. But the part about scaring people is completely serious.

I believe strongly that the threat of anthropogenic climate change is such that fear is the proper response. In a very real sense what we are doing may kill (many of) us. For those of us in the wealthy world, the risks may be smaller and come later. But deaths from extreme events, famines or other causes are growing steadily more likely with our GHG emissions, and while we may or may not be the victims, we are responsible even if we are not. And it is first and foremost those who understand best why that is so – the scientists who study the subject – who must convince the rest of us to fear the consequences of not acting.

This of course is a major simplification of the situation. I will not raise issues of the transmission of ideas and arguments between scientists, politicians, activists, the media and others. But the point is this: those of us who have seen the picture and have been scared by it – a reaction that is widespread in the scientific community – are morally obligated to do our best to get others to feel the urgency and severity of the problem. For there to be a possibility to act to prevent it, it is necessary both to believe that climate change is a huge risk, and to have an emotional reaction to that belief.

The last part of the quoted statement – that scientists are ill-trained and ill-suited for this task – I suspect is less controversial than the claim that it should be our task. The question then is, if you buy the premise that how to deal with the fact that scaring people is not part of our job description: what we should actually do? I will end here with only this thought: it can't be done quickly, but it can't be done quickly enough.


EliRabett said...

As Eli put it to Andy Revkin, he and his pal Kloor, when seeing a child run out in front of a bus, whip out their writing pads to report on the news and then brag on how professional they are.

Steve Bloom said...

Andy more or less reports it straight, although there is a narrative lurking in the background, but Kloor encourages the witnesses to dwell on their differing views so he can report on them, Rashomon-like.

Steve Bloom said...

Paul and everyone else should review Kevin Trenberth's slide presentation (h/t Tom Yulsman). I've been saying we need a climate equivalent to the "smoking causes cancer" message, and apparently KT read my mind. :)

Michael Tobis said...

"It's always both"... Hmmm...

I don't know. That's the point. Someday we will roll a thirteen, if we haven't already.

"The way climate change is experienced is through individual extreme events, whose odds increase with global warming."

I like that, if I have to say "global warming"...

Steve Bloom said...

Johann Hari in The Independent (h/t Hot Topic):

'As Professor Tim Flannery, one of the world's leading climate scientists, explains: "My great fear is that within the next few decades – it could be next year, or it could be in 50 years, we don't know exactly when – we will trap enough heat close to the surface to our planet to precipitate a collapse, or partial collapse, of a major ice shelf... I have friends who work on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and they say [when a collapse happens] you'll hear it in Sydney... Sea levels would rise pretty much instantaneously, certainly over a few months. We don't know how much it would rise. It could be 10 centimeters, or a metre. We will have begun a retreat from our coasts... Once you have started that process, we wouldn't know when the next part of the ice sheet would collapse, we don't know whether sea level will stabilise. There's no point of retreat where you can safely go back to... I doubt whether our global civilisation could survive such a blow, particularly the uncertainty it would bring."'

Well, that sure fills the bill. OTOH Tim Flannery isn't one of the world's leading climate scientists, it's news to me that the WAIS is capable of producing such a large-scale abrupt event, and even if it was it seems unlikely to be civilization-ending since the WAIS only has ~6 meters-eq. of ice, among other things. This is odd indeed, since Hari generally isn't irresponsible.

Anonymous said...

As Professor Tim Flannery, one of the world's leading climate scientists, explains

Since when is Flannery a "climate scientist"?

Michael Tobis said...


I mean, no, it won't be "heard" in Sydney. Even the Larsen B bustup, which did not raise sea level but which surely made a lot of noise, wasn't "heard" far away. It's not like Krakatau erupting or such.

But yes, a sea level rise of meters per century does look to be in the future somewhere, and it would be a good thing to avoid, even if meters per month is not going to happen.

Flannery is a professor with an interest in climate. Nobody decides who is and who isn't a climate scientist. Let's put it this way: if RP Jr is a climate scientists then so is Flannery.

Actually, I think people need permission not only to be wrong once in a while but also to admit it.

Does this go too far in scaring people? By itself, clearly it does. But it doesn't overbalance all the type II errors out there.

Anonymous said...

What is wrong with you guys? Why should anyone be afraid of climate change??

"fear is the proper response..."


Smoking heavily can cause cancer, but smoking definitely causes anticancer. :)

Steve Bloom said...

I take it back about Revkin. In his current post (summary: "Does climate science have any credibility? Discuss!"), he has become Kloor. He can't have missed the irony of the juxtaposition with the immediately prior post discussing Pachauri having been completely cleared of charges fabricated and repeated by the media, and obviously doesn't care.

He makes a particulat point of saying that he thinks the talk was much too alarmist during what he terms the "Katrina-Gore-IPCC era." Meh.

Michael Tobis said...

My impression: Kloor is gearing up for a big Breakthrough Institute push and has an actual political agenda, albeit substantively an incoherent one.

Revkin is just trying to weave around something he perceives as a political middle. His idea is to please all of the people some of the time and none of the people all of the time. I think he doesn't matter anywhere near as much as he used to when he has actually in the employ of the NYT. But I also think he's not quite as toxic as he used to be. Maybe he thinks moving to a sensible position has to be done very slowly and with occasional steps backward for some reason.

Kloor, oddly, is doing a better job of managing a not entirely worthless conversation than anyone else has done since sci.env self organized effectively in the early 90s and disintegrated a few years later once the hoi polloi showed up.

But the "adaptation" drum he is banging is pure RP Jr., music to the politicos but devoid of much in the way of any detectably useful strategy.

Steve Bloom said...

Michael, if you're not already you will want to be aware of this effort by John Carlos Baez.

Unknown said...

Michael, good to see you're providing a nice vehicle for all this rumor-mongering and character maligning in the thread.--kkloor

Steve Bloom said...

Oh, c'mon, Keith, you've just been held up as a role model for Andy Revkin! Can't you take a compliment? :)

Seriously, if you do not 'splain yourself, others will 'splain you. If you want to be perceived as something other than a cheerleader for the Breakthrough Boys, you need to be clear on what you are instead.

WV comments with double meaning: press

Gail Zawacki said...

I loved the quote, ESPECIALLY the "scared out of wits" part, and put it on my blog!

Unknown said...

Any comparison with Revkin (and I have said many times before, I am not in his league) is indeed a compliment.

That he and I don't adhere to your particular party line will of course always be reason for you to speculate about personal motives. Looks like Michael wants to play the same game. Tsk, tsk. Straight out of the Romm playbook.