Oct 152007
The one thing I find most infuriating in debates about anthropogenic warming is the inevitable point in the conversation when the denialist states that we shouldn’t do anything because we aren’t really sure that humans cause global warming. If you point out to him that the vast majority of scientists believe the evidence supports this conclusion, he will either point out that scientists 30 years ago were wrong about something relating to climate (the “global cooling” gambit), or that people have been wrong about things before (“everyone believed the earth was flat”). Both these points are irrelevant: forecasting technology has improved vastly, and it was not scientists who believed the earth was flat (most educated people knew it to be a sphere), but backwards hicks like himself. But there’s a more important point to be made: when it comes to policy decisions, it doesn’t matter whether we cause global warming or not.

In the first case, most of the things we need to do about climate change are just plain good ideas, whether the earth is warming or not. We need more efficient ways to grow and transport our food. We need to end our dependence on the finite resource of fossil fuels. We need to make our cities better filters of their own pollution. We need better water management. We need to end suburban sprawl. We need to control the global population of human beings. It doesn’t matter whether our planet is warming, cooling, or staying the same: almost all mitigation policies make sense in any context. For policymakers to sit on their hands and ignore these steps is inexcusable, regardless of their belief in anthropogenic warming.

When it comes to emissions caps, however, the typical denialist will draw his line in the sand. Why ruin the economy if we aren’t sure that warming is our fault? Leaving aside the fact that economic forecasts are at least as unreliable as climactic ones (and therefore just as bad a reason to make decisions), there is a very good reason to alter our policies to eliminate emissions of all kinds. This is the law of prudence: If you don’t know how it works, don’t mess with it, especially if you’re stuck with it.

You don’t try to jack around in the engine before you board your passenger flight to Miami. You don’t screw with the wheels before you get into a roller coaster. Why not? Because you don’t know how it works, and once you get on that thing you can’t get off. The same principle applies here. We’re stuck on this planet; we can’t leave and start over. If we ruin it, we will all die. Thus, if you truly believe that our best scientists really don’t know enough about this planet to say how its climate system works, then your only rational choice is to minimize our impact on that system.

Denialists love to argue that we’re uncertain about climate change as if ignorance is a reason for inaction, but this does not follow. Inaction is a decision, and it is the wrong decision to make when faced with uncertainty. When ignorant of an essential system’s mechanics, we do not want to damage it, and that means not screwing with it. The reduction of all forms of pollution (including carbon) as rapidly as possible is the best decision we can make if we’re unsure of what’s going on with our environment. If, as is the case, we suspect or believe that our actions are outright harmful, then elimination of emissions is the only reasonable option.

You’ll hear the uncertainty argument again; in fact, you’ve probably already heard it once today if you’ve had a discussion about Gore’s Nobel Prize or the environment generally. Uncertainty is always used as an justification for inaction, but it actually supports the opposite.

For Blog Action Day

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