Denial can be encapsulating — totally so. It, not infrequently, is an emotion that takes over our brain and sometimes destructively. The hard right of the Republican Party is in denial on the subject of climate change. Those who populate that branch regard scientific findings as polemics from the Democratic National Committee. To put it another way, “if Democrats are for it, I am against it” — almost regardless of what the “it” is. Democrats often suffer from the same myopia.
I lack the necessary background knowledge to delve deep into the science behind the various and sometimes conflicting claims about the trajectory of our climate. While I have read quite a few articles and essays on the subject, I never pose as an authority.
I am probably more of an authority on the dynamics of people and groups who convert a narrow set of facts into political causes — they are never wrong. To admit being even a little bit in doubt seems tantamount to heresy with punishment soon to follow. Many climate-change activists are absolutists. The problem with absolutism is that it fights science — inquiry is no longer needed.
But, to me, climate change is personal. Are we ensuring the future for our children, grandchildren and their progeny? Are we leaving the earth better off than we found it? Are we meeting our obligation to be better stewards?
Some of my hard-nosed friends will say I have gone soft, and perhaps that is right. I know that the weather at any given point is a consequence of colliding patterns. Chaos Theory examples often start with the weather.
A study just published in Geology by Michael Toomey of the United States Geological Survey details a survey of sediment cores collected off the coast of Florida. The study suggests that “hurricanes which struck Florida during a cool period 12,000 years ago were more powerful than those during a subsequent time of warming.” This finding is contrary to the oft-stated (and if you state it often enough it becomes fact) conventional wisdom that warming translates into more powerful hurricanes.
But then I come back to the question of ensuring the future, after all, many more scientists believe climate change is affected by our carbon emissions than not. We buy insurance to protect ourselves from all sorts of unpredictable possibilities. The patterns in my life suggest I will not need automobile insurance this year, but I have it. When I was young, I would buy term life insurance even though mortality tables said I was very unlikely to die in the covered period. In fact, caution is probably our most conservative impulse.
So, what kind of insurance premium should we pay as it is clear that engineering a more rapid transition away from carbon-based fuels will carry a large price tag? In the world of insurance, there are actually “catastrophists” who specialize in the mathematical modeling of extreme risks. In our political system, we ultimately decide how much economic disruption we will bear — what insurance price we are willing to pay and how it might be mitigated.
The question does not give way to easy political solutions. Predictions, regardless of how skillfully modeled, are still predictions. Plus, we know that America alone cannot fix anything — the result, complexity squared.
And when there is an honest debate about alternatives, we find that the use of alternative fuels is driven by, what else, environmental considerations. Environmentalists fight coal generation under any circumstances but also nuclear generation, which offers the most scalable carbon-fighting alternative.
Ultimately, we must do what we are no longer good at doing. We need an honest debate, not overwrought polemics. We need to debate not just weather change but also insurance policies. In short, what environmental and economic policies will fulfill our obligation to protect the future? Or, are we prepared to go uninsured?
Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, and mathematician, argued that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. He said if God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss, whereas they stand to receive infinite gains and avoid infinite losses if they bet on God and are right. Seems to me, taking rational steps to lessen our real or even theoretical effects on the weather is a sound wager.
Al Sikes’ leadership helped shape the arc of 21st century communication technologies from positions as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and then President of Hearst New Media. In 2004, the Manhattan Institute chose Sikes as one of eight winners of the Social Entrepreneurship Award for having founded READ ALLIANCE, which trains teenagers to tutor children with reading deficiencies. Sikes second book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow was recently published by Koehler Books.