We already know that Dot Earth science blogger Andy Revkin is harmless because he writes for The New York Times. Bland statements about "uncertainty" and contentious but unimportant scientific details flow easily from his pen, even as Homo sapiens carries out its not-so-secret agenda to destroy many of the ecosystems upon which that species depends. Boat-rocking is not permitted at the Times, which is dedicated to the proposition that regardless of the size and scope of the problems humankind faces, everything is OK, or will be OK, when all is said and done.
In fact, reassurance is an important purpose behind all mainstream media. No matter how bat-shit crazy the world has become, and assuming you find that insanity troubling, the corporate-owned media is there to reassure you that all is well, or will be well very soon. In fact, the problem clearly lies with you — you're the one who's crazy! But that's not a problem either because they have something to sell you which offers The Cure. Problem solved!
But I digress. Revkin's post An Earth Scientist Explores the Biggest Climate Threat: Fear beautifully exemplifies some points about optimists and pessimists I recently made in DOTE Has No Natural Constituency.
Here’s a ... contribution pushing back against apocalyptic depictions of the collision between humans and the climate system — written by Peter B. Kelemen, the Arthur D. Storke Professor and vice chair in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. Kelemen has done a lot of interesting work on possible ways to capture carbon dioxide from air (none being easy or cheap):
Kelemen is working on sucking up CO2 directly from the air! Which is not of course easy or cheap. Even before we read Keleman we know that we've got a techno-optimist on our hands. And here he is—
“We already know it is too late to reverse the planet’s transformation, and we know what is going to happen next – superstorms, super-droughts, super-pandemics, massive population displacement, water scarcity, desertification and all the rest. Massive destruction, displacement and despair. Our worst fears are already upon us. The reality is far worse than anyone has imagined.”
They capture its doomsday ethos, and its breathtaking certainty. Rich, a novelist, is sure he knows the causes of our present ills, and the nature of the near future. He probably feels that he learned this from the 98 percent of climate scientists who – famously – agree on some things. I am part of that community; we agree that human greenhouse gas emissions are having a huge, negative effect on global climate. But I don’t agree with Nathaniel Rich.
Ah, do you see the strategy? The inveterate optimist Kelemen is going to blame everything on Doomers like Nathaniel Rich. Andy Revkin approves of course.
Apocalyptic warnings sell newspapers, power Web sites, and are surprisingly good for marketing. Beyond the media, in the sciences and social sciences, if your research predicts a scary outcome, your name gets in the news, your grants get funded, and you feel like Paul Revere (though you might be Chicken Little). It’s a heady experience.
Meanwhile, my children are fearful of, and almost paralyzed by, the prospect of an inevitable, dystopian future. They would like to contribute to avoiding calamity, but they don’t see where to start, and they are told it is too late to begin. And my children are lucky, in a stable home, among the 3 percent, talented, athletic, well educated. In the face of an overarching climate of fear, people with less opportunity find there is nothing they can do to help avoid “destruction, displacement and despair.”
These over-the-top pessimists are scaring the shit out of Kelemen's kids! Stop me if I'm wrong here, but isn't it all for the children? We're going to suck that CO2 directly out of the air for the children, right?
However, climate catastrophe is not inevitable, let alone irreversible. Of course, it could happen. It is logical to expect that, as atmospheric greenhouse gases increase and the world warms up, the extra energy in the atmosphere and oceans will move things around in unusual ways for which we are not prepared. The costs will likely be very high. We should work to avoid this, for simple, practical reasons. Avoiding emissions now will be far less expensive than capturing carbon dioxide from air in the future. But the future is unpredictable, our mistakes are correctable, and there is plenty of reason for optimism about what people can accomplish in the face of necessity.
There it is. I could spend all day trying to come up with a single good example of why "there is plenty of reason for optimism" regarding our climate future, but then I would be very late publishing this post. In fact, I might never publish it if I wait for a good example of humans correcting their mistakes.
Throughout the past 10 to 20 years, despite many obstacles, worldwide wind and solar energy generation have grown exponentially, at more than 24 and 33 percent per year, respectively. They still constitute a small share of total energy production – not surprisingly, since they still cost more than other sources. A carbon tax would help to even the playing field, factoring in the likely damage due to greenhouse gas emissions. This is overdue. But my point here is that, despite the obstacles, some segments of society are sufficiently farsighted to invest in the future, even at a present-day premium. It is happening.
... Gas-fired power plants are a nimble addition to the overall energy grid. They are relatively easy to switch on and off, compensating for asynchronous variation in wind speed and sunlight on the one hand, and power consumption on the other. And the increasing supply of home-grown hydrocarbons is changing the global strategic picture in positive ways. All of these topics are debatable, but it is wrong to portray the [fracking] discussion as a contest between good and evil, or assert that the pro-gas path will inevitably lead to disaster. No one can know all the answers.
The standard techno-optimism, bolstered by great uncertainty. After all, no one can know all the answers!
But we don't need all the answers. Humans have only one answer, which consists of growth, growth, growth and more growth. More is better!
In coming years there will be plenty of big storms and deep droughts. They will come in unpredictable clumps, like the giant earthquakes that have been unusually frequent in the past decade. In the midst of this natural chaos, it is hard to discern whether the long-term frequency of destructive events is really increasing or not, and why. In the popular imagination, especially in this country, when something bad happens, someone is always to blame. But in the real world, stuff happens.
Over time, we will find out what will happen. As the costs and dangers of present trends become clear, people will react. Virtually the entire oil and gas industry was built in a century. Half of it has been constructed since 1980.
Think of what we, and our children, can accomplish in the next century, starting with the next 30 years.
I am optimistic about this. Climate, energy, and resource problems have solutions, and we can solve them when we muster the resolve to do so. This requires a costly commitment, which will only be made if most people believe a positive outcome is both attainable and worthwhile.
Kelemen is optimistic about all we can accomplish in the next 30 years, despite the fact that we have hardly begun to put even a minor dent in the climate problem. Of course he is! He's got kids! More is better!
I needn't remind you that all that optimism and growth created this mess in the first place. Keleman is just like the other 7,000,000,000 optimists on this planet.
Kelemen finishes up. Extreme pessimists are to blame for all our woes.
Therefore, the climate that worries me most is the climate of fear, the belief that our current trajectory leads inevitably to total disaster.
This belief discourages constructive action, and can result in irrational acts by people in despair, individually, or as nations, willing to do anything to derail the juggernaut we are told is carrying us, inevitably, to destruction.
Unlike environmental problems, it is less clear to me how we change this. But at least, those of us in science, social science and the media can seek to craft solutions and enlist engagement, rather than feeding fear. With hope comes action.
This final text is so delusional that Kelemen could be my 2013 nominee for Optimist of the Year.
With hope comes action? I have yet to see that. The reason "obligatory hope" is obligatory is that such hope is always offered up regardless of the total absence of any meaningful action which might make that hope realistic. I have defined the difference between false hope and authentic hope.
Pessimists are not the problem. Doomers are annoying, but they're not the problem. Optimists are the problem, and since nearly all humans are optimistic in the way Kelemen is, then we might as well say that humans are the problem. And of course realists are very rare, as I said in my DOTE Constituency post.
And thus in this particular case, we can conclude that Dr. Kelemen is the problem.
On that happy note, I will conclude this post.