The Better Letter: A Delicate Balance

Nearly everyone agrees the Earth is getting a lot warmer, faster. Why can’t we do anything about it?

The coronavirus may have temporarily reduced the amount of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere, but the pandemic has done nothing to slow the climatic effects of the carbon dioxide already there after decades of fossil fuel combustion. “The planet is still warming, the oceans are still acidifying, and more and more humans are experiencing the consequences,” as a wide and deep body of research demonstrates. The Atlantic basin anticipates an extremely active hurricane season. Greenland has suffered unprecedented ice losses. Rising temperatures will cause more deaths annually than all infectious diseases combined.

Here in California, heatwaves, fires, drought, and power outages foreshadow our climate-changed future. Last week, as a heatwave baked the West, Death Valley recorded a world record for the hottest temperature observed on Earth: 130 degrees Fahrenheit. A recent tornado wrapped in fire seemed like Hell itself.

Europe is cutting emissions further. U.S. companies (like Walmart) are, too. Except for the United States, essentially the entire world is united about the climate change problem. 

What’s wrong with us?

It should be clear to everyone that humans are causing climate change, but people and entities – pretty much only in America – with a major interest in denying it insist that’s false. As famously explained by Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

Whatever the cause, however, the earth is getting a lot warmer and the speed of increase is acceleratingAlmost nobody denies that.

But we can’t agree on what, if anything, to do about it.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo laments to Gandalf, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” Gandalf responds, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

The year 2020 has been dreadful and seems to keep getting worse. That’s disheartening, of course. But we still have to decide “what to do with the time that is given to us.” That includes the relatively near-term, like the upcoming election, as well as the longer-term, like the future of our planet. That long-term and what can and should be done about it is the subject of this week’s TBL.

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A Delicate Balance

Our world is in danger today, but nearly all of us are ignoring the threat in one way or another.

A shocking number of us believe stuff that is downright crazy. Fully half of Americans consistently endorse some wild conspiracy theory or other. Half

It’s easy to assert that these folks – flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, 9.11 “truthers,” and more – are simply anti-science denialists. But that isn’t quite right.

If I examine a piece of purported evidence that fits with my view of the world, I ask if it can be true. If I examine a piece of purported evidence that doesn’t fit my view of the world, I ask if it must be true. Those standards are wildly different.

If we are aware at all, we will frequently recognize these sorts of silly ideas in others – especially the most egregious examples. But we will almost never recognize them in ourselves. That reality – that failing – is bias blindness, our inability or unwillingness, even if and when we see it in others, to see the biases that beset us.

That’s because everybody else is expressing opinions while we are stating facts. Or so it seems.

From a large and representative sample, more than 85 percent of test respondents believed they were less biased than the average American. As Jesus said: “It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own.”

When Jane Curtin was asked if the person she was mimicking for a screen role knew that she was the source material, she replied, “I used to do my aunt when I was doing improv, and she always thought I was doing my other aunt.”

On our better days, we might grudgingly concede that we hold views that are wrong. The problem is in providing current examples.

That may explain why people on the freeway driving slower than I are idiots while people driving faster are…maniacs.

In the “Author’s Message” to his thriller, State of Fear, in which the hero scientist questions the global scientific consensus on climate change, the late Michael Crichton made the point that “politicized science is dangerous,” and then added, “Everybody has an agenda. Except me.”

Really.

And when others join in, we’re perfectly willing to be stupid together. For example, when others do it too, many people will ignore danger even when the evidence of the threat is clear and present.

So, we’re part of the problem. Which should surprise nobody whatsoever. But the nature of science is part of the problem, too (although science per se isn’t the problem).

Science always provides us a basis to say (video below NSFW): “That's just, like, your opinion, man.” 

Science is the careful, systematic, and logical search for knowledge, obtained by examination of the best available evidence and always subject to correction and improvement upon the discovery of better or additional evidence. It is the most powerful tool we have for making that determination, yet it advances only by ascertaining what is false. In other words, it works due to disconfirmation rather than confirmation. That’s why correlation is not causation, and why it is inherently tentative.

Aristotle, brilliant and important as he was, posited, for example, that heavy objects fall faster than lighter objects and that males and females have different numbers of teeth, based upon some careful – though flawed – reasoning. But it never seemed to have occurred to him that he ought to check. His erroneous idea was believed true until Galileo finally investigated, eighteen-hundred years later. 

Checking and then re-checking your ideas or work offers evidence that may tend to confirm or disprove them. Testing can also be reproduced by any skeptic, which means that you need not simply trust the proponent of an idea. You do not need to take anyone’s word for things — you can check it out for yourself. That is the essence of the scientific endeavor.

But that also makes science unwieldy. Coupled with our general human overconfidence and the amount of available information on-line, a plausible seeming case can be made for just about anything, especially when it confirms what is already believed.

For example, a flat-earther took a level on a plane to “prove” the earth is flat (“We’re not crazy, we’re just sick of the lies”).

“I recorded a 23 minute and 45 seconds time-lapse, which by those measurements means the plane traveled a little over 203 miles.

“According to curvature math given to explain the globe model, this should have resulted in the compensation of five miles of curvature. As you’ll see there was no measurable compensation for curvature.”

That idea is wrong, of course, but the “experiment” seems to support the claim. The democratization of information provided by the internet allows everyone to “do” science. However, the lack of professional oversight means most people’s enthusiasms often take over the “research” and become a substitute for real expertise. In the internet age, we all need an ophthalmologist to help us see red flags and bad arguments.

The Democrats declare themselves to be the “party of science” and label Republicans as science deniers. However, a study from Duke University (disclosure: I went to school there) finds that we evaluate evidence – even scientific evidence – based on whether we see its policy implications as ideologically palatable. If we do not, we tend to deny the problem even exists. “The more threatening a solution is to a person, the more likely that person is to deny the problem,” according to study co-author Aaron Kay

This solution aversion cuts across ideological lines

Ironically, one of the environmental movement’s biggest victories over the past five decades – crippling the expansion of nuclear power – has actually done irreparable harm to the environment. Nuclear power is responsible for exactly zero – none, squadouchenada – greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear power is unquestionably and by far the safest form of energy in existence, even safer than wind or solar, and is supported by a huge majority of the scientific community. While Americans generally are evenly split about the use of nuclear energy, only 42 percent of Democrats support increased use of it, compared to 65 percent of Republicans. 

We humans are equal opportunity denialists.

There may be a way through, however, at least for climate change generally.

As Charles Mann illustrates, there are (broadly) two approaches for dealing with the environmental problems that beset us. We must cut back dramatically to prevent global catastrophe (think regulation) or we must innovate spectacularly so more people can win (think capitalism). These are vexing challenges. As with every environmental improvement over the past 50 years, it will likely take some combination of both to make Earth a welcoming home for however many humans come to inhabit it.  

The argument over climate change in the public square is one-sided and almost entirely predicated upon a regulatory solution without significant effort to seek a technological solution  (for example, geoengineering such as solar radiation management) and that uses nuclear power as at least an interim measure. Moreover, a major research study promotes the idea that planting a lot more trees, especially in the tropics, can mitigate the impact of climate change dramatically. Ninety percent of Americans (and 87% of Republicans) support it.

Morgan Housel wrote a wonderful piece last week relating how pressure can drive innovation. His primary examples involved the horrors of the Great Depression in the 30s and how it powered and empowered innovation by those looking to survive it. I couldn’t help thinking of how climate change fits nicely into that narrative.

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich famously prophesied (with proposed authoritarian solutions) in The Population Bomb that “[i]n the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Obviously, he was wildly wrong. That’s because agronomist and later Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug instigated the “Green Revolution” — hybrid seeds, high-intensity fertilizer, and irrigation that multiplied grain yields in the ‘70s and ’80s. 

The late economist Julian Simon argued that what Ehrlich missed is the robustness of the market economy. As a useful resource becomes rare, it becomes more expensive, and that higher price incentivizes exploration (to find more) and/or innovation (to create an alternative). Fighting climate change effectively requires the vibrancy of the markets.

This doesn’t mean the problems are not real and enormous. It means we should seek both regulatory and innovative solutions, for reasons political and practical.

In the Beatles’ movie, A Hard Day’s Night, an interviewer asks Ringo if he is a mod or a rocker, referring to two camps within ’60s British counterculture. Ringo replies, “I dunno. I guess I’m a mocker.”

If we’re going to deal effectively with climate change, we’re going to need Ringo’s approach and strike a delicate balance between smart regulation and fostering innovative technological solutions.

Our children’s futures depend upon it.


Totally Worth It

Flor-i-duh. True is true. The funniest thing I saw this week, unless it was this. The most insightful, unless it was this. The coolest. The most terrifying. The most expected. The sweetest. The most powerful. The best.

After I featured “Angel from Montgomery” last week, I was pointed to this delightful version of the same song by the daughter of a reader.  


Benediction

This week’s benediction is literally that. It is from Numbers 6:24-26, which is probably the most famous blessing in Scripture.

May it be so. Amen.


Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

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Thanks for reading.

Issue 27 (August 28, 2020)