The United States remains one of the few developed countries where a significant portion of the public does not accept the scientific consensus that dramatic climate change is occurring and is the result of human activity. In a recent essay in Science the philosopher Philip Kitcher of Columbia University examined this phenomenon.
While he remains polite, Kitcher’s message is clear: the American media has completely abdicated its responsibility to report accurately on scientific matters. It is much easier, and entertaining, to present scientific ideas in the context of a debate, whether such a debate exists or not. In the case of climate change, the skeptics are overwhelmingly on the payroll of oil and coal companies. And, in many instances, have no expertise in climate or earth sciences. The strategy has been used before; use a few prominent scientists to sow just enough doubt to prevent action. Maybe you will remember the efforts to suppress information about the dangers of smoking, or the inability of “Star Wars” to work, or the effects of acid rain, or the existence of the hole in the ozone layer.
A second problem relates to the nature of our public discourse. In a democratic society, should all voices be given equal weight? In other words, should the opinion of a Senator who has no background in science and receives campaign donations from oil and gas companies hold the same weight as the opinion of a scientist who has spent her entire career studying the climate? Many climate skeptics say yes. I say no, as does Kitcher. He argues that we are each responsible for our own area of expertise and, to have a functioning democracy, must rely on others to explain their own areas of study.
Kitcher mentions quite a number of recently published books. Some deal with the massive disinformation campaign that has been waged against action on climate change. Others deal with the science itself and present options for future action. He also points to a future problem: once public acceptance of climate change is achieved, many countries have failed to act because of an inability to come to conclusions about what the future effects of climate change will be.
However, whether option A will happen, or B, or both is not an excuse for inaction. NASA’s great climate scientist James Hansen has provided us with the reason why in the title of his book: Storms of My Grandchildren. (It’s a title that gets to me; I’m not all that much older than his grandchildren). Is there an ethical obligation to act to prevent a future environmental disaster? Some, unsurprisingly, say no; they argue that future generations will be in a better economic position to deal with the radical changes that are being called for.
I have to depart from Kitcher to respond to this. Climate change means many things, all of which will cost money and lives. Drastically increased incidence of drought in some regions, and crop-killing floods in others; we will be watching the poorest parts of the world starve to death live on CNN. Sea levels are already rising and will continue to rise; over the next few centuries they are predict to rise as much as 65 feet. A warmer climate not only means more diseases but easier transmission; epidemics like the swine flu, except with more virulence, will become all too common. As glaciers and mountain snows melt, the world will not have nearly enough fresh water; the American West is already entering its own fresh-water crisis. The list goes ever on.
The recent oil spill provides a nice analogy to think about as we move forward. BP decided to cut corners on safety in order to marginally increase profits. But because of this spill they are now losing a much, much larger amount of money. The choice was to spend a little money on safety or to spend a huge amount on cleaning up a natural disaster. In much the same way, we can choose to spend a relatively small amount of money cutting emissions and moving to a green economy or we can continue to put off making the hard decisions, leaving to our grandchildren (or rather, your grandchildren/my generation) an infinitely larger cost.