The Heart of the Problem

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMay 2, 2012 9:01 PM


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Is there an example from human history of a culture taking action with the intended beneficiaries being two or more generations downstream, when there's no benefit or maybe even sacrifice to the current generation? I haven't been able to come up with one, and I suspect we're just not genetically programmed to worry about two generations downstream. That may be the heart of the problem.

This is MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel, in an interview at the NYT Green blog, on the vexing climate change conundrum. The whole piece is worth reading. I think what he says above speaks to one big reason why it's so hard for climate change to get traction with the public. And that's why, I believe, climate activists have latched on to the extreme weather/global warming campaign. It makes climate change more tangible and less distant. But that's a problematic frame, as I recently discussed here. In his interview with Emanuel, Justin Gillis writes:

Part of our discussion centered on rhetoric. A favored tactic of contrarians, and especially skeptic bloggers, is to set up what scientists like Dr. Emanuel consider to be straw-man arguments that they can then knock down. We routinely read, for instance, that climate scientists are predicting imminent catastrophe, the deaths of millions, mass starvation, galloping sea-level rise and so on. The goal seems to be to paint the scientists as alarmist so that when a catastrophe does not materialize right away, they are made to seem foolish.

This is a bit of a strawman itself, for it's true that the climate science community doesn't make such predictions. But high profile surrogates for climate science routinely talk in catastrophic terms. Also, let's not forget, to cite just one example, this highly publicized report released in 2009 (reviewed by the IPCC chairman and other notables), which the Guardian reported on (like others) without the least bit of critical assessment:

Climate change is already responsible for 300,000 deaths a year and is affecting 300m people, according to the first comprehensive study of the human impact of global warming.

But wait, I thought that such immense tragedy from climate change was not yet upon us? So I'm confused when Gillis, in his interview with Emanuel, writes:

Not only do most scientists not predict imminent catastrophe as a result of the warming of the planet, they formally acknowledge a wide range of uncertainty in the potential outcomes. Catastrophes of all sorts are among those possible outcomes, but few scientists claim these are certain, much less imminent.

Do you see what I'm getting at? There's a lot of double talk going on, which no doubt confuses the public. On the one hand, influential figures that shape climate discourse claim that global warming is already killing hundreds of thousands of people a year. On the other hand, we hear that climate scientists are unfairly accused of being alarmists. Well, guess what: The people that speak tacitly on behalf of climate science are often alarmist (with a little help from the media), and that's where the impression comes from. So where does the climate science community come down on the potential danger of climate change? Here's Emanuel in the NYT article:

I can say that my field is almost unanimous in saying that we are facing serious risk. Things could turn out to be fine "” I hope they do. But there's no evidence at all that would support an assertion that we're not facing serious risk at this point.

I would agree with that. And I bet many rational-minded people along the climate spectrum do as well. So where do we go from here? Well, that's the rub, concludes Gillis:

Scientists like Dr. Emanuel argue that the exact magnitude of the risk cannot and will not be quantified until it is too late to head off the potential ill consequences. Until society learns to think of the problem that way, the political discussion about climate change is likely to remain paralyzed.

True, but it might help if we could debate the magnitude of the risk without getting sidetracked by all the tenuous claims made about consequences of climate change purportedly happening right now. That may not be the heart of the problem, overall, but it's a problem.

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