Sunday, October 7, 2007

From skeptic to activist?

Time was you could have called me a GW skeptic (I'm talking environment here not the other; in that regard I have become one). Recent history is punctuated by soothsayers proclaiming the imminent demise of the planet due to the latest human activity and to date the predictions have never been realized - fortunately for us I suppose. Was it only thirty years that the climactic doomsday was predicted to be that of global cooling? You might wonder then, if global cooling was thought to be so bad, then how can global warming be bad too? Obviously the cooling never took place; rather it has morphed into the warming.

So I said I was a skeptic; it is my nature. I would argue that scientists ought to be healthily skeptical. I am no longer. As Pascal once argued in regard to faith in God, it is of far better value to bet on GW being real than betting on it being without foundation. What, after all, would be the problem if, after taking action to reduce carbon emissions and promote alternative energy sources, current climate change models were found to be completely false? Society would benefit from these new technologies with or without GW.

What if the planet continued to warm even as the carbon emissions were reduced? This would indeed be an alarming thing because that would suggest another mechanism was actually at work. Given the absence of plausible models other than the greenhouse effect, we would be facing a situation we could do nothing about. In a way, it is to our advantage if the greenhouse effect is really the cause of GW, because at least there are measures to be taken.

To my surprise I found myself chatting with a paid member of Greenpeace, one of the more aggressive environmental groups, rightly known in some quarters as ecoterrorists. One of my students wanted him to meet some environmentally minded COD people. I guess I qualify. I ended up writing a letter in support of their rally outside the office of Peter Roskam who, according to Greenpeace, is not sufficiently "green." I used to do a lot more letter writing to politicians, normally about issues I probably wouldn't write about anymore. Anyway, seeing as how I had used an assignment about GW to have students craft letters to elected officials, it seemed like a good assignment for me to do to. Rather hurried it is but I reproduce it below.

You might think that one person writing a letter achieves nothing. That is probably accurate. Groups of people writing each their own letters can achieve something. It's important to believe that you can make a difference.

The Honorable Peter Roskam
House Office Building
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515.

October 4, 2007

Dear Representative:

I am writing to encourage you to set a standard for your colleagues in the Congress to follow by taking a strong leadership role in supporting policies that will combat the threat of global warming. I think you would agree that, although the exact consequences of global warming are still a matter of debate, the need to begin taking action urgently is universally acknowledged. Future generations cannot wait for details to be clarified.

To that end, it is a disappointing to note that you have voted against recent bills such as The Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Tax Act of 2007, The Renewable Energy Standards Act, The Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act, The Farm, Nutrition, and Bioenergy Act of 2007, and The Clean Energy Act of 2007. In their various ways these bills sought to improve standards of fuel efficiency for vehicles, decrease the quantities of carbon released into the atmosphere, promote the development of alternative energy sources and decrease the nation’s dependence on foreign supplies of fossil fuels. At the same time I do acknowledge that you were outspoken against BP’s plan to increase the amounts of pollutants released into Lake Michigan. However, more must be done by the government to give leadership to the quest for alternative, clean, cost-effective energy solutions.

As individuals, we can each play a role in the fight against global warming through the choices we make in transportation and domestic energy use. As John Lanchester wrote in the London Review of Books, “It is a good thing to choose to pollute less, to ride a bicycle and take the train and turn down the thermostat, and to fit low-energy light bulbs, but there is a serious risk that these activities will come to seem an end in themselves, a meaningful contribution to the fight against climate change. They aren’t. The changes that are needed are global and structural.”

Individuals cannot by themselves produce global and structural change; that is the job requiring strong government leadership. As a citizen responsible for developing scientific literacy and concerned about the future of his children, I exhort you to be part of that strong leadership.

Yours truly,

Richard H. Jarman, M.A. D.Phil (Oxon)
Professor, Chemistry

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