Secretary-General of the United Nations and LinkedIn “Influencer” Ban Ki-moon wrote earlier this month, that “In 2014, we must turn the greatest collective challenge facing humankind today – climate change – into the greatest opportunity for common progress towards a sustainable future. Next year is the year for climate change.”
I hope he is right about this being our greatest collective challenge; my concern had been the nutburger in Pyongyang playing footsie with Dennis Rodman, a nuclear Iran, violence in Africa or Asia, terrorists (Islamic or otherwise). Whatever.
As is often the case, Mark Twain has the last words on the subject: “No matter how rich you become, how famous or powerful, when you die the size of your funeral will still pretty much depend on the weather,” and “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Weather can be humbling; predictions about it more so.
Einstein was famous for his thought experiments. Here is one: would you think that near-term or long-term predictions about the weather and climate would be more accurate?
Of course, near-term SHOULD be more accurate. At the beginning of this year, most forecasting agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, predicted an above average hurricane season.
This was the first season since 1994 with no major hurricanes. Only two tropical storms reached hurricane force; it was the weakest season in almost 50 years.
The future is opaque; we are not given to see it clearly. The closest we have to a soothsayer of any sort, Warren Buffett, would readily concede he has no crystal ball and makes mistakes.
Mortality and the human lifespan of 75 years, give or take, means that our long-term perspective doesn’t really encompass climate; when I was in college, Time magazine famously did a cover story on the coming ice age. That was conventional wisdom then.
To those like President Obama who say, “When it is 75 degrees in Chicago in the beginning of March, you start thinking,” (and drawing conclusions that lead to legislation), I say that the plural of anecdote is not data.
Similarly, predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the collective of scientists and politicians whose views are shaping the global discussion on climate, have proven to be off.
There has been an unexpected and unpredicted ‘hitch’ over the past 10-15 years when the warming trend of the past half-century, which was real, has either slowed dramatically or halted.
That does not mean we ought to go crazy. Fossil fuels are exhaustible and ought to be used, if at all, sparingly.
If I ruled America, I would increase the tax on a gallon of gasoline by a dime a year for ten years.
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THAT will get you smaller cars, reduced gas consumption, and closer to energy self-sufficiency. (Foreign policy benefits not to mention.)
As important, we owe it to future generations to leave them a planet better, not worse, than we found it. Recycle. Drive a Prius. Take public transportation. Support conservation.
But part of that obligation involves dispassionate discussion and study of the burdens and the benefits of a warmer planet, and remembering with humility that we get things wrong and that maybe a warmer planet is not our greatest risk.
Those who wish to control consumption of fossil fuels should note, and get fixed in their minds, that the consumption of such fuels WILL NOT SLOW while the billions of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America catch up with First Worlders in Europe, North America, Australia and developed Asia.
Notwithstanding what may seem bad news for those who want us to revert to bicycles instanter, there are three bits of good news for Americans.
First, when you look at recent earth climate, by which I mean the past million years rather than the past 20 minutes (or 500 years, selected by Al Gore for comparison), cold has been a greater issue than excessive warmth.
Chicago has been covered by glaciers for about 90% of that last million years. Our 12,000 years of rapid human development has occurred during a particularly warm period in earth’s history.
Second, we have the time, knowledge and brainpower to deal with climate issues, regardless of the extent to which we have had a hand in creating them. The authors of "Freakonomics" have in an interesting fashion scratched the surface.
Finally, we in the United States, thanks to our founders, have a government set up to move slowly, when consensus is reached as to important issues, such as hydrocarbon regulation and climate change.
I look forward to continuing this important discussion and to seeing a consensus emerge as new information and new human skills and technologies develop.
Happy New Year ! Happy Holidays !
*Kevin Conboy is a retired lawyer, who served most recently as a partner with the global firm of Paul Hastings LLP. He has taught on an adjunct basis at Emory University and the University of Georgia Schools of Law, and at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School. He is also a member of the Global Irish Network and has served for eight years as the President of the Irish Chamber of Atlanta. The opinions expressed are of his own.The author may be reached at kevinpatrickconboy @ gmail.com.