Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Same as it ever was...

Response to DawnCoyote's post on Wikifray.

My father remembers once, when he was a kid, it snowed in Sandy, Utah on the Fourth of July - enough to cover the ground (though of course it melted in short order).

The difficulty is, it's easy enough to point at an anomaly, or even a set of anomalies, and argue variously 1) I've never seen it, so it must mean the end of things as we know it, or 2) it's just not all that significant, when you take the long (like, thousands of years) view. Compounding this are the climate models that only seem to be doing a marginal job at prediction up to this point, and the disparity in dire predictions (ice age versus Venutian summer days).

But while I'm sympathetic to the people who (almost invariably rightly) want to resist catastrophization, there is a terrifying danger in routinely dismissing doomsayers - especially when they constitute the vast majority of reputable scientists who know a whit about climatology.

I think people fatigue easily when you confront them with an overwhelming problem they feel powerless to deal with – it’s a too-familiar scenario among us depressives that fosters learned helplessness. If you think about things like catastrophic climate change too much, it sort of saps your motivation to busy yourself in the pesky details of everyday life – like, going to work, paying bills, buying stuff etc. If you ignore them completely, you face an increasingly predictable situation in which you face true catastrophe unprepared.

So I guess I’m not surprised to see people coming down on all sides of this issue – it’s so human. On the other hand, the climate models seem to be saying that, if there’s anything productive to be done, it’s going to require a vast, coordinated effort. Given the variety of dysfunctional coping strategies being expressed and the manner in which this interferes with cooperative, organized response, the more thoughtful and educated among us are getting more and more depressed about the whole problem (when they allow themselves to think about it at all). Well, and those survivalists up in Montana are starting to make all kinds of sense to a much wider variety of people than I even anticipated – leading to a real-estate boom thereabouts, I’m sure, and inflationary pricing on things like water purifiers, solar panels and 50-gallon drums of wheat.

Perhaps most distressing to me is the smug attitude of some of the same Christians who seem almost happy about the perpetual unrest in the middle-east; it’s all happening just like they said it would, in the bible (as though predicting future catastrophes without timeframes would ever prove to be false – duh). This also interferes with effective problem-solving, though it does seem to vindicate the Mormons, who’ve been extolling the virtues of having a year’s supply of food etc. ever since they were starving in great numbers, out on what used to be an arid plain.

Oh, and believing that Jesus was coming again, well, like next week. I’m sure it was an attractive fantasy, given living conditions at the time.

While it’s encouraging to think (as B-A would point out with smug satisfaction, I’m sure) that humans, more or less, have been around for several million years, and there’s no reason to think we’ll be extinct very soon, the rational comeback is that there’s also no reason to think we can reasonably expect to survive in large numbers, should the dreaded catastrophe actually strike. Which it will – because even if the climate models prove inexplicably wrong, eventually a meteor will hit, or nuclear war, or something, if only we wait long enough (Evangelical Christians take heart!).

So, I try not to think about it too much. And though I try in small ways to behave in a responsible manner, I’m not over-estimating the miniscule impact I could have on any global phenomenon. It’s not like I can afford to quite driving, or anything, and as environmentally unconscionable as it might be – I like the air conditioning in my house.

I’m not sure that the current events, even in the face of likely impending catastrophe, really change things as much as it might seem anyway. Frankly, we’ve always lived on borrowed time, under the threat of our eventual personal extinction, and facing the real, rarely acknowledged possibility of widespread catastrophe.

Existentialism never made as much sense as it does right now. We should be trying to find solutions to problems, instead of ignoring them, and helping each other out as much as we can, because it is an intrinsically worthwhile set of activities to be engaging in. If there’s any hope for humanity at all, it’s that enough people will continue to view such things as inherently worthwhile, instead of being lulled into paralysis by the belief that destruction is inevitable (or might be a good thing), or denial.

As Vonnegut so aptly notes, we’ve just lost the luxury of not knowing what’s actually going on, which is no fun at all. It’s a good time to appreciate what we have, and busy ourselves trying to preserve it.

Same as it ever was.


Anonymous said...


the models may or may not turn out to be wrong, but if they are wrong, it won't be inexplicable. if you want follow some modeling in real time, check out this page when the next tropical cyclone appears somewhere in the world. once there's a storm, that page will have a link to the various tracks predicted by the various models.

these are models that an awful lot of smart people have been working on for an awful lot of years now, using historical data from an awful lot of cyclones. you'll probably be surprised at the divergence in forecast only 24-48 hours out into the future.

i'm fascinated by mathematical modeling, of a lot of phenomena, but i'm truly skeptical about the accuracy of the models we have now for global climate change, beyond, oh, next week.

fortunately, i'm a tree-hugger non-pareil, so i already believe we need to be conserving resources and cutting back on the greenhouse gases and ozone-destroying chemicals, and ......

TenaciousK said...

Back in the day when I cared about such things, I was sort of a fan of systems theory: General systems theory, then dynamic systems theory, and then a more distant fan of chaos theory. Weather prediction was always kind've the holy grail of complex systems models, in part because there some huge blind spots when it comes to factors that impact the weather. Even if not identified, those factors can be characterized to a degree, which though it sounds profound and innovative, might actually describe an unacknowledged aspect of everyday cognition.

A similar problem set is human interaction, and I remember being quite impressed that one researcher was able to utilize chaos theory to accurately predict an interactional code 8 lags down the line. Not really applicable to human interaction, perhaps, but most impressive nonetheless.

I really do try not to think about it too much - what's the point? I'm no planetary scientist, and I could just as easily get hit by a bus when I leave my house tomorrow as perish in the next freak weather occurence. More easily. Life has never been certain; we just try not to think about it so much.

But I have been impressed with the little I have seen, in the degree to which scientists are taking protective factors into account. That whole thing I read awhile back about how the ocean has been serving as a co2 sponge, but that it's sponge-like capacity is very close to exhausted. No matter what the naysayers might assert, it is never been like this before, and the critical difference appears (at least this time around) the collective impact of humanity.

On the other hand, I also understand somebody finally figured it all out. The solution is obvious.