Climate Change: Science Vs. Emotion

Recently Steven Koonin, former Undersecretary of Energy for science under Obama and former professor of theoretical physics at Caltech and chief scientist at British Petroleum, published an elegantly balanced, nuanced and extremely informative article on September 19th in the Wall Street Journal about the debate on global warming.

Basically he makes the point that the data that suggest there is a human factor in climate change that can be addressed is clearly there but he believes it needs a longer time frame to be definitively clear without doubt. His position is perfectly appropriate for a two-handed economist/scientist. Accordingly, he implies that it may be premature to start now.

While he may be quite right that the reasoning, pro and con, about taking human steps to control the human variables is not yet fully dispositive, the very fact that he is so credible as a scientist is very likely to have a, hopefully, unintended consequence of deflecting political will from gathering steam to get ahead of the problem before it becomes too late.

We know that opponents of taking steps to reduce human effects on climate grasp at all straws to try to stop progress, and Koonin’s legitimate caution as an academic is all too easy to be misunderstood.

It is true for sure that all human impact on climate is smaller than the effects of nature. But, that does not at all mean that at the margin human effects are altogether irrelevant. He says that, but cushions his observation by observing that it will take a lot more time to be positive of what the effects have been or could be.

The case for beginning to address the human effect on climate matters is grounded on solid evidence that there very well may be a trend underway, which if addressed timely and properly could be reduced early enough to save our planet from extinction in due course.

Therefore, why wait until it might be too late, particularly if the costs of proceeding wisely now are manageable by global society?

Perhaps Mars is the best available example of what can happen with climate change. Admittedly, another few thousand years on Earth is hard to imagine or even deal with now, but it is mere blink of an eye in the life of a planet. I doubt if anyone on Earth today would like to see Earth look like Mars. And, if there is anything we can start doing now to avert an end result like Mars, the price is right.

I salute the wisdom of Koonin’s article. I do wish, however, that he would have been clearer that despite his scientist’s caution, he supports the steps being taken to BEGIN to seriously address climate change and should be continued aggressively subject only to reassessment and change if in due course the science clearly indicates over time that it is not necessary.

No one yet has argued persuasively that human steps to address the problems of climate change can do earth any harm. Quite the contrary.

We really do need to demystify the subject and eliminate emotional and visceral responses to this goal to make Earth safer for our descendants.

Evolution needs its chance to survive so that the whole Universe can benefit from humans’ extraordinary intelligence and understanding of the Universe. It is not just us that matter; it must include all intelligent beings everywhere in the Universe.


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