“Study Before Action” and Other False Choices in the Climate Debate

August 13th, 2007

Brad Feld quotes an article by Freeman Dyson that talks about how little we really understand about how the climate works, and how we need to study things more before we can diagnose the problems accurately. Dyson also says that exaggerated concern about the environment takes attention and resources away from other pressing concerns, like poverty and disease. These two arguments set up false choices that drive me crazy.

Dyson is completely correct that no one understands climate perfectly. No one understand cancer perfectly, either, but that has never stopped doctors from trying to treat it. Research and action have gone hand-in-hand in medicine and just about every other discipline humans have ever studied, and every problem humans have tried to solve. To say that we need to study the climate more before can hope to act just sounds like inertia to me- we have so much momentum in one direction currently that it’s just too hard to stop.

Study or act is a false choice. We’ve never done that before, There’s no reason to act differently now.

The “we need to solve other problems first” is another one. There have always been more pressing problems that we can deal with at once, but still we chip away at all of them to the best of our ability. Saying we shouldn’t think about climate change until we have solved poverty and disease is absurd. Taken to the extreme, this argument means we would have to focus every dollar on eradicating AIDS before we touch malaria, or cancer or any other disease.

Brad’s point is that contrarian viewpoints are valuable because they can lead us to think in new ways. I agree with that heartily. If Dyson’s arguments challenge anyone to think through their beliefs, then great. They did that to me, and what I come up with is that he has his head in the sand.

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