Year 3, Month 10, Day 25: Also Younger Than The Sun

The Belleville News-Democrat (IL) runs an opinion piece on the need for a transformation in our way of thinking about the environment:

For decades environmentalists have been guided in their work by what became known as the “precautionary principle.” This decision-making guide was first put forward in environmental terms by pioneering naturalist and biologist Aldo Leopold in his landmark 1940s essay “Round River.”

His focus was the complexity of the environment.

“If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering,” Leopold wrote.

This is the major logic behind the Endangered Species Act, the strongest environmental law ever written. For the United States to allow a species to go extinct, it must go through an exhaustive process that is politically perilous.

This imperative has strong support. John Turner, the director of the U.S. Wildlife Service under George H.W. Bush, was a Republican president of the Wyoming Senate and a rancher. He regularly told a story of how his grandfather had kept all of the broken farm equipment he ever owned.

“My granddad and my dad used to say ‘It’s important to save all the parts,’ ” Turner said. “You never know when you’re going to need them.”

Protecting all the parts was a daunting task before. In the face of climate change that could dramatically transform or destroy ecosystems across the globe, it has become impossible.

This is a fairly generic letter; it could go to any source that admits the existence of the problem. Sent October 18:

Earlier this year, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson finally admitted that climate change was both real and caused by human activity. But the oil baron also blithely asserted that humanity would adapt; the problem, he said, was essentially one of “engineering.”

Well, maybe so. Our innovative, forward-looking, technological species will undoubtedly find ways of fixing some of what we’ve broken and restoring some of the things we’ve destroyed. But as environmentalist Bill McKibben asked recently, “What are you going to develop that replaces Iowa?” Global warming is going to drastically reduce agricultural yields, which is hard to reconcile with our expanding global population. Unless we address the causes of the climate crisis, adopting better farming practices essentially amounts to putting a band-aid on a sucking chest wound.

And if climate change can actually be “solved by engineering,” isn’t it time for our fossil-fueled politicians to stop denying the existence of the crisis — and instead aggressively fund the engineers and scientists we’ll be needing more than ever over the coming decades?

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 9, Day 11: Eppur Si Muove

Originally from the Guardian (UK), but reprinted in the Hindustani Times:

No one would want a novelist to perform brain surgery with her biro. No one would want a man with a PhD in political science to then write textbooks claiming that those misadventures are best medical practice.
Society understands the architecture of academia and knows there are
relevant qualifications in different fields, and the media accepts the idea of specialisations and accords greater respect to those with greater expertise. With one exception: climate science.

When it comes to this academic discipline, it seems that if you are a specialist in public sector food-poisoning surveillance or possess a zoology doctorate on sexual selection in pheasants, editors will seek your contrarian views more avidly than if you have qualifications in climate science and a lifetime’s professional expertise. The press is further littered with climate “heretics” almost all of whom have academic backgrounds in history, literature, and the classics with a diploma in media studies. (All these examples are true.) One botanist trying to argue that glaciers were advancing took his data (described as simply false by the World Glacier Monitoring Service) from a former architect.

I recently watched a debate between a climate scientist and that pheasant-expert-turned-journalist. An audience member asked: “Please could you explain how it is that you are ‘right’ while all climate scientists are ‘wrong’?” He could not. I almost felt sorry for him. I know that he has lectured publicly on scientific heresy. I think that he wants to be Galileo.

Well said. Sent September 4:

When Galileo turned his eyes outward to the stars and planets, he was setting the power of direct observation and analysis against a body of received knowledge that, although internally consistent, was unverifiable and unfalsifiable. He was also taking on the church of Rome, the most powerful institution in the world at the time.

Given that fossil-fuel corporations are the most powerful economic forces of our era, it takes no courage whatsoever to align one’s opinions with their interests. Denialists’ attempts to assume the mantle of one of the founders of modern science is ludicrous at best and deeply cynical at worst.

While it took the church many centuries to acknowledge that it was mistaken and Galileo was correct, even big oil companies are now recognizing the factuality of global warming, as witness the recent remarks of EXXON CEO Rex Tillerson. Climate-change deniers aren’t “heretics” — they’re just plain wrong.

Warren Senders