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Friday, May 20, 2005

Paul Parker, guesting for Rodger

Piggybacking on Avery's Thursday post regarding Bike to Work Week, I highly recommend Elizabeth Kohlbert's recent three part New Yorker series. They are online, The Climate of Man I and The Climate of Man II, and The Climate of Man III.

Reading them, I was reminded of the state of tobacco-is-bad-for-you research a generation ago. As we all know, the industry funded its own studies and attempted to discredit studies linking their product to health woes. Sowing doubt allowed "reasonable people" to avoid having to think, or act, on the problem. I remember trying out the "mixed evidence" argument once, on a fellow graduate student named Rodger. While I never saw Rodger debate, I hear he was accomplished (scroll to 1983); his response to me was simple and devastating: "Nobody believes that except the tobacco companies."

Just as the tide turned quickly on tobacco (in my mind, it snowballed shortly after Presidential Candidate Dole's statement in 1996 that he was not even sure that people can be addicted to tobacco), we might turn quickly on global climate change. Indeed, Kohlbert relates one scientist's analogy to other times of great social change, such as the New Deal in response to the Depression: within a few years, the social and political order changed radically. Might we once again muster political will to radically remake society? (the third installment most directly talks of scientific and political challenges)

In this regard, progress is not linear, but occurs when we reach a tipping point, not unlike a boat that rocks back and forth and back until the present equilibrium is broken and the boat tips over. Unfortunately, Kohlert reports this last analogy as being used by another scientist in thinking about how sudden and dramatic global climate change might be. From the first installment:

... the climate record shows that it would be a mistake to assume that change, when it comes, will come slowly. Perovich offered a comparison that he had heard from a glaciologist friend. The friend likened the climate system to a rowboat: “You can tip and then you’ll just go back. You can tip it and just go back. And then you tip it and you get to the other stable state, which is upside down.”.

Of course, we do not know how fast the climate will change, and for whom the changes will matter the most, at least in the short run (although the Dutch, some of whom inhabit land below sea level, are on it now). But despite the many viewpoints represented in the series, and the many unanswered questions, what struck me was the scientific consensus that the boat is really rocking.

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