It’s only the “i-word” to me personally, but I felt like mentioning it just the same.
And that word is… Irreversible.
Just like my rain coat!
I understand the passion of the people pushing for action on the climate issue, I really do. I don’t necessarily agree with them; way too much of what I’ve seen from that group has fallen into the category I generally thing of as “research done to prove a bias” rather than “research done to discover truth”, but I’m willing to let it slide because regardless of whether I agree with their rationale, I agree with their goals.
I do tend to think they grotesquely overstate some aspects of their argument, however, and this is one of those instances.
I suppose it could just be a matter of time scales. They might be thinking of “irreversible over a period of a century”, and I might be thinking of the literal definition of irreversible.
But let’s consider the Eocene, for a moment. Sure, the Eocene ended in a mass extinction… but unlike those who favor fire, this was an ending in ice.
An ending in ice, incidentally, from a planet with CO2 levels over double what we have today, and methane levels also vastly higher. In fact, if you take a look at rather a lot of the worst-case scenarios projected for 2100, it rather resembles a slightly “better” atmospheric composition than that found though a good chunk of the Eocene.
Which lasted on the order of 20 million years or so.
Now, I’m not going to bring up the Miocene, or the E-O extinction event, or anything else from the geological record as a means of arguing against the concept of anthropogenic climate change. We change the climate all the time, after all, and not just by driving SUVs. We were pretty damned good at it before we discovered iron, after all.
I am, however, going to bitch about the concept of climate change being “irreversible”.
First off, they’re right, in a sense. It is irreversible. Not because it’s going to get hot and stay hot forever, or because the loonies who think that suddenly it’s going to be 180 degrees Fahrenheit in the tropics are right, but rather because the climate is so enormously complex a system that it can never be reversed to precisely mimic a previous stage. It’s just not going to happen. The climate isn’t a tape that we can rewind so we can listen to our favorite songs over and over again; it’s more of a live freestyle jazz performance that might eventually sound kinda like it did earlier, but it will never be exactly the same.
Secondly, they’re wrong. And not in a sense, literally wrong. There’s no such thing as “irreversible climate change”. The climate can always change, even drastically, from a period of relatively stability. Those changes are often marked by extinction events, of course, but to imply that somehow the Earth is going to be destroyed if we don’t all start driving tiny cars (incidentally, don’t buy a Fiat 500 thinking you’re going to be saving the planet. For such a tiny car, it has pretty damned unimpressive gas mileage) is disingenuous.
So why say it?
To scare people. To hammer home the idea of immediacy, that we have to do something now or we’re all doomed! I agree, it’s definitely time to start weaning our economies off of fossil fuels and start looking for cleaner and more sustainable energy sources, but trying to frighten people with apocalyptic predictions is, frankly, unwise.
Because they’re not going to actually see it, and people have a hard time dealing with abstract apocalypses. If I tell you that the sky is falling, you’re going to look out your window and take a peek for yourself, and if the sky looks pretty much the same as it did yesterday, which was pretty much the same as you remember it looking the day before that, and the day before that, you’re going to call me a liar.
Predicting a slow environmental apocalypse that might reach its culmination a century or so down the road might backfire when people start looking out their windows and not seeing the trees on fire. It doesn’t matter if you’re right.
Which is why I’ve been arguing for a while that the environmental movement should be reworking their arguments more towards energy sustainability, cleaner air, things people can understand and appreciate in an immediate sense.
The end result, after all, is vastly more important than the argument that gets us there.