Demonstration Effects

The Gulf oil spill has a way of putting in perspective our other troubles.  Suppose the first few shards of evidence hold up – that BP engineers were under some pressure to cut costs by electing cheaper safety methods against the possibility of a blowout?

What would be the cost, going forward, of increasing tenfold the precautionary apparatus installed at every undersea well-head around the world? Fifty cents a barrel?  A dollar?  That’s not much in a world of $75/bbl oil – surely not much more than a penny a gallon at the pump.  That the costs of enhanced safety methods, including better governmental oversight, will be borne, mostly by the consumer, is a foregone conclusion

The really daunting risks have to do not with the production of oil but with humankind’s accelerating consumption of it, and other fossil fuels – not that this is a bad thing in itself, except that it has undesirable side effects that may be accelerating even faster.  

For more than thirty years, mainstream climate scientists have been warning about the potentially disastrous effects of growing emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. They have sought to understand what the intricate effects might be – massive dust bowls, rising sea levels, changing weather patterns and so on. And they’ve recommended various precautionary measures. 

These usually begin with a global tax on carbon emissions, requiring big transfers between the rich countries (whose atmospheric carbon contributions are of long standing) and newly industrializing ones.

The price of a sensible insurance policy with which to begin might be a tax of $30 per ton of atmospheric carbon release, according to William Nordhaus, of Yale University, in A Question of Balance. That translates into about nine cents a gallon at the gasoline pump in the United States.

Yet a significant number of American citizens believe that scientists are crying wolf.  Their doubts have been reinforced by the hoopla, amplified by Fox News, the The Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal, over the East Anglia climate center “conspiratorial” emails, and mistakes in a report of a unit of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the rate at which Himalayan glaciers have been melting.

At the beginning of his persuasive review of eight books about climate change in the latest issue of Science magazine, The Distinguished historian of science Philip Kitcher, of Columbia University, quotes this passage from John Milton’s Areopagitica, a tract against authoritarian rule and censorship that was written against the backdrop of the English Civil War.

And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter.

If you have a few minutes and want to see what a very smart guy has to say when addressing the community of science in its broadest sense, you can find Kitcher’s essay here. He gives special attention to Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, by Naomi Oreskes, of the University of California at San Diego, and Erik M. Conway, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with what he describes as its painstaking description of 

a web of connections among aging scientists, conservative politicians, and executives of companies (particularly those involved in fossil fuels) with a short-term economic interest in denying the impact of the emission of carbon into the atmosphere. But it also could not have produced the broad public skepticism about climate change without help from the media.

Kitcher worries that mistrust of expert authority will delay meaningful action until it is too late to act. But perhaps he gives too little weight to the way that Truth usually wins its battles with Falsehood and error – by confrontation in experience. The drama unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico is sudden and vivid – so much for the cheerful abandon of “drill baby drill!” The laboratory in the case of climate change is the world itself. Gradually, perhaps suddenly, nature will resolve the issue.

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