The Daily Parker

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An analogy about climate change

Imagine you're a fisherman in an English village sometime in the 10th century. You notice, on the horizon, some longboats. You get worried, because you know the Norse have raped and pillaged from Dover to York for many years, which always ends badly for those raped and pillaged.

You mention it to the lord of the manor, who asks, "how many boats?" You say you don't know; it could be two, it could be four, they're still a ways away. "Come back when you know for sure," he tells you.

Another villager runs in to tell the manor lord essentially the same thing: He has seen Norsemen coming, they're heading right for us, hadn't we better get the men at arms ready?

No, says the manor lord, and further if you challenge my authority again, I shall shackle you to the wall.

A third villager runs in, shouting that the Norsemen are coming, at least two boats with 160 men, they'll arrive within the hour.

The manor lord shackles the third man to the wall, and shortly thereafter gets a Norse battle axe through the skull.

This is, of course, an (admittedly bad) analogy to the Bush Administration's handling of the ongoing global warming crisis, which has just gotten worse. Scientists now have stronger evidence that we're heading to a "tipping point" where climate change will accelerate beyond our ability to adapt, never mind our ability to prevent it.

Notice I said "stronger evidence." Climatologists have, in fact, predicted this scenario for at least 20 years, and until Dubya our government was listening—sometimes with only half an ear, true, but that's better than now.

Our current administration just doesn't want to hear about climate change. Their prinicpal argument has been that since the actual degree of change is uncertain, we don't know what actions to take yet, so we should do nothing lest we do the wrong thing. This, of course, makes no sense, as the principal actions to take are quite obvious to anyone remotely paying attention.

As they have done with other bits of evidence they didn't like, they've exerted political pressure to squelch it:

"There's no agreement on what it is that constitutes a dangerous climate change," said [President Bush's chief science adviser, John H.] Marburger, adding that the U.S. government spends $2 billion a year on researching this and other climate change questions. "We know things like this are possible, but we don't have enough information to quantify the level of risk."
This tipping point debate has stirred controversy within the administration; [NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies director James E.] Hansen said senior political appointees are trying to block him from sharing his views publicly. When Hansen posted data on the Internet in the fall suggesting that 2005 could be the warmest year on record, NASA officials ordered Hansen to withdraw the information because he had not had it screened by the administration in advance, according to a Goddard scientist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. More recently, NASA officials tried to discourage a reporter from interviewing Hansen for this article and later insisted he could speak on the record only if an agency spokeswoman listened in on the conversation.

(Personal aside: the Washington Post article quoted above ends with this bit:

The small island nation of Kiribati is made up of 33 small atolls, none of which is more than 2 m (6.5 ft) above the South Pacific, and it is only a matter of time before the entire country is submerged by the rising sea. "For Kiribati, the tipping point has already occurred," Schneider said. "As far as they're concerned, it's tipped, but they have no economic clout in the world."

...which is interesting to me because my friend Danielle just got back from Peace Corps duty there.)

I chose the analogy to Norsemen because I'm just finishing up Jared Diamond's book Collapse, whose central thesis is that societies collapse primarily because of ecological changes combined with the societies' responses to them. Witness the Norse in Greenland dying out after 450 years, while the Inuit happily lived on to the present day.

Someday, when we spend half a trillion dollars to build seawalls around New York and Miami, we're going to look back on this Administration the way the French look back on Louis XVI.

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