The War for Terra

There has got to be something wrong with me.

For the past year or so, I’ve been finding that I’ve been paying a lot more attention to stories about climate change — and then trying to act on the ideas in them. I bought a much more fuel efficient car, for instance. I don’t drive nearly as much as I used to. I turn down the heat (not that this matters much, since I have electric heating, and electricity in BC is essentially carbon-neutral). Elizabeth Kolbert’s magnificent reporting for the New Yorker has been a powerful tool for influencing me, but I think the real credit belongs to Terri Schiavo.

L’affaire Schiavo demonstrated many things, among them the depths of depravity some politicians will sink, but the one that really stuck in my craw was the absolute certainty of people who have no idea what they’re talking about. It was galling — truly, madly, infuriatingly galling — to watch non-physicians, non-neurologists, and people who’d never once cared for a PVS patient (or anyone else that was comatose, for that matter) explain how Terri was clearly not brain dead, and how she could wake up under some circumstances. I think this exchange captures it quite nicely; I’m not going to re-hash it again, because it will just make me very very sad.

You saw a lot of this with the Schiavo case, but you see it everywhere else science comes into conflict with articles of faith: Parents who think thiomersal (or the MMR vaccine, or anything else) gave their kids autism will never, ever listen to the evidence that said it doesn’t cause problems; anti-vaccination activists will kick and scream and cry bloody murder before they ever admit that maybe vaccines are useful. Creationists will shout to the heavens that something created the universe and that evolutionary biology is bunk, despite not knowing the first thing about evolutionary biology. It goes on and on and on, and every single time, I end up siding with the people who have the data to support their position, and not just random accusations of conspiracies. Laypeople (a polite word, really, for “idiots”) arguing with experts over expert subject matter makes me want to tear my hair out; we’ve reached a point where the fact that you know a lot about something no longer grants you special status in discussions about that thing; you are now subject to argument from people whose knowledge may range from zero to near-parity, and you are expected to take them all seriously. (See my comment in the above-linked Schiavo journalism story about Buzz Aldrin arguing with moon-landing skeptics.)

Which brings us to climate change.

For many years, I was in deep denial about climate change. I didn’t think it was real, didn’t find the evidence persuasive. I argued that it was too early to suggest that human behavior was causing all these weird things. I pointed at solar output variation, at the fear of global cooling as recently as 30 years ago (the causes of and cures for which were essentially the same as today’s proposed causes and solutions), at the dramatic effects Earth itself has on its own atmosphere. Part of this was a reaction to the hippies that dominated the environmental movement in the later 1980s and early 1990s, but part of it was my own healthy skepticism of certainty — or so I told myself.

And then, one day, about a year and a half ago, I found myself staring at a joint position statement from the national academies and societies of the G8 that explicitly endorsed the idea that anthropogenic climate change was occurring, and that we needed to do something about it. I started to argue in my head, and then I stopped. “Wait a minute. I am arguing with the Royal Society of Canada, among others. These are supposed to be the best and brightest scientific minds of our era. They know more about this subject than I do. Who the hell am I to argue with them?” Just as I would be annoyed with a climatologist who decided he knew what the best management strategy is for STEMI patients, I was getting annoyed with myself for arguing in opposition to people who, quite simply, know more than I do. There is, in other words, such a thing as expert opinion. It has spoken, and who am I to argue with it? I don’t have standing to argue.

With that realization I turned 180 degrees and started worrying about it. And today I took another small step: I bought myself and my 5.1L/100km Acura a TerraPass, I bought enough credits to cover all the flying I’ve done in the last twelve months, and I’ve vowed that I’m going to make sure I buy credits to offset the future air travel I do. (I’d buy one for the house but virtually all of the heating is electric and, as I said, electricity in BC is almost entirely hydro-generated, so it’s not making the climate problem worse.) I’m not fooling myself: This by itself is not going to save the planet.

But it’s a step in the right direction.

And for me, personally, it’s a kind of penance.