The Two Mile Time Machine by Richard B. Alley

I just finished reading Richard Alley’s little book The Two Mile Time Machine. It’s by far the best climate change book I’ve read so far. More information, less polemic. Personally I would have loved more plots and fewer long complex sentences explaining the relationships between different climatic variables, but maybe that’s just because I’m a scientist.

The most basic argument to be made on climate, as I said in response to Freeman Dyson’s recent article in the NYT Review of Books, is that we don’t understand it well, but we do know it is unstable and non-linear from the paleoclimate record. We also know that we depend on it utterly. Millions (Billions?) of people would die very quickly if the climate abruptly changed states, as it has done many times in the past, upsetting the entire agricultural system. Ergo, perturbing the climate is almost certainly a bad idea.

Unfortunately, this rhetorical position doesn’t seem to be particularly persuasive. We might call it “argument from uncertainty”. And actually, after reading Michael Pollan’s Eater’s Manifesto, and watching The Business of Being Born, it strikes me that this is actually a general failing of scientific communication, and possibly of human nature. We just don’t find “I don’t know.” to be particularly convincing. This happens in finance too. We want a story. We want an authority figure. We want to know. When that’s not possible, we’d rather be taken for a ride than make decisions consciously based on uncertainty. We don’t know exactly how nutrition works, but we depend on it working, so we shouldn’t mess with it. We don’t know exactly how the birthing process works, but it’s important, so we shouldn’t mess with it. Obviously there are exceptions: eating limes at sea is a good idea, and when your baby is going to be born breech, it’s nice to know ahead of time, and be able to deal with it. But we take ourselves and our understanding too seriously.

In the case of the climate, it’s as if we are pointing a revolver to our collective head, and in order to figure out whether there are any bullets in the gun, we’ve decided to pull the trigger. It’s worse than Russian roulette, because we don’t even know how many rounds the gun holds. We also just keep pulling the trigger. Every additional 100ppm of CO2 we put into the atmosphere is another gentle squeeze with our finger. Maybe the gun’s not pointed at our head – maybe it’ll be a gutshot when it comes, or a hobbling shot to the kneecap instead of splattering our brains all over the wall. We don’t even know what part of our body we’re pointing the gun at.

In aggregate, we are insane.

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