This morning I heard the Administrator of NASA, Michael Griffin, interviewed on the radio Michael Griffin NPR Interview (broadcast 31 May 2007)
. The interview included many subjects including both NASA's exploration missions and NASA's Earth observing missions. The interview was placed in contrast to an interview of Gregg Easterbrook
presented the day before. In the interview Dr. Griffin made the following statement, "And second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings--where and when--are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that's a rather arrogant position for people to take." This was in response to the question, "Do you have any doubt that this is a problem that mankind has to wrestle with?"
First, I will say that Dr. Griffin's statement is consistent with those posed by some of the writers who respond to this blog. It is a statement that extends far beyond the science of climate change. It is a statement of belief, and as I stated in an earlier blog, the foundation of what one believes is an important element in our discourse and actions or inactions. There are a number of elements of Dr. Griffin's statement that I will respond to.
I recently saw a talk where a bracket was drawn around the carbon dioxide observations and the global average temperature record of the last ~ 10,000 years. This bracket was labeled the "sweet spot." The recent rise of carbon dioxide and temperature rose out of this "sweet spot." My response to this plot is that we do not have knowledge that says the climate of the last 10,000 years is, indeed, the sweet spot, the optimal climate for humans. We do know that humans have thrived during this period; the climate has been conducive for us to thrive. We also know that humans have been greatly impacted by local changes in "climate." There has been expansion; there has been decline.
As we look to the future, we see that we have placed much more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that was in the atmosphere at any time when humans were thriving. I want to be explicit, I did NOT say at any time in the history of the Earth--I said at any time that humans were thriving. This carbon dioxide is our waste. That this carbon dioxide will lead to global warming is a more certain fact about the future than virtually any other future fact that we hold. This change will occur on times scales that are fast compared with the changes that we have experienced during any period in which we humans have thrived. Hence, it will be disruptive.
Which human beings are accorded the privilege to make a decision about the climate? This could be posed as a justification of inaction at anytime. If we make the decision today about mitigation of climate change, we in no way say that our current climate is optimal. We already have assured a different climate for our descendents. If we take action today, then we are saying that we have some responsibility to try to maintain the climate in regime in which we know that humans have thrived. This is much more rational than speculating that rapid change to warmer climate might in some way, in fact, be optimal. We already have evidence that small past changes in climate are disruptive; we know that a stable climate, climate security perhaps, is an important element of civilization. We have fact-based knowledge that significant populations of the world will be negatively impacted by climate change; there will be migrations, and in today's world migrations mean refugees. It is both unethical and irresponsible for us not to use our knowledge to make decisions that impact the stability of our climate--the ability of our environment to support our species. It is not a matter to be deferred because we might be presuming some privilege; it is a matter of saying that the waste of our consumption must be managed.
Arrogance: There is a certain arrogance presumed by anyone who steps out of their individual little world and say something about society and the world. Arrogance - overbearing pride. Arrogance and selfishness are weak elements of argument. If it is overbearing pride for us to view that we are presuming some privilege of imposing our climate on future generations, then it is also prideful to presume that our waste, which comes from a privilege of easy access to energy, will provide a secure, perhaps better, environment for future generations. This is not a matter of arrogance; this is a matter of having knowledge, and whether or not we believe that there is an encumbrance of responsibility that comes with that knowledge.