What if We Stopped Pretending the Climate Apocalypse Can Be Stopped?

Image: Leonardo Santamaria


This story in the New Yorker made quite a splash the other day. Many climate scientists were angry, but I’m not. They took particular issue with the author’s use of “model”, in the sense of a purely subjective flight-of-fancy. I deal with all sorts of models that attempt to predict the future, even if they do a poor job of explaining the present. No model is perfect; they’re not intended to do all things for all purposes; they’re all meant to reduce complicated reality, to be mappings of multi-dimensional complexity onto simplified, usually Euclidean, vector spaces; they’re full of embedded subjectivities. Most important, they rest on assumptions, and behave according to structural choices their designers made. And the most difficult thing to model (in my world anyway) are feedbacks related to human choices. So, he’s not wrong. Actually, he’s verging on correct. (Also, the art is great.)

My take on the piece is that it’s arguing for (1) a performance of future-focused action, which the author finds beneficial anyway, and (2) honesty about the state of things. The former something that is familiar in the literature for transformational change and sustainability, and has become common in things I’ve heard among Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion people. The argument usually goes something like this: let’s commit ourselves to stopping climate change because if we do, and the scientists are right, we’ve stopped global warming and built a cleaner society; if we do, and the denialists are right, we’ve built a cleaner society. I would argue that, because I find it reminiscent of Pascal’s wager, it dates to the 17th century at least. So, I don’t find it surprising nor upsetting.

The second point — that we should be honest — is simply good practice. Fortunately, it’s foundational for good science, which we should all practice. It’s also a more durable strategy (game theorists will tell you) in a social context in which decisions are made in a political process. The well-meaning but dishonest scientist, who falsifies results for a noble reason, destroys her own credibility, and erodes that of her colleagues. So let’s be honest. Humanity can take it. The truth (a synthesis of the best available evidence to date, which may change as new data and methods become available) is that the present temperature-state of the planet has no precedent over the past 120 thousand years, and likely longer. Uncertainty arises from different methods of measurement from the modern, instrumental record, and the prehistoric, paleoclimatic-proxy based record. It is not possible to find the same precision in space or time (temperatures normally vary by location, season, and year) in proxy records as we can produce today, with ground-based data-loggers or satellites. I am not aware of an individual measurement of atmospheric greenhouse gases (GHGs), and certainly there is no statistical mean of GHGs, from any pre-modern period for millions of years; that is, over the entire of human (Homo sapiens) experience. Alarming? Sure. But not worthy of causing depression.

I remind myself that we have awesome capacities to adapt, societally and individually; that these capacities ought to increase with time; and that we must commit ourselves to solving this climate crisis. But it’s something I’ve spent years thinking about and studying. I will add that we cannot forget who has moral responsibility for the state of things; and that we or our descendants will end up paying for this, which I see as reprehensible. I imagine that the author, Jonathan Franzen, likely has a more nuanced take than his essay shows. Whether he does or not, it’s better to use the piece as the start of a larger discussion, not a reason to freak out, which does no one any good.

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