The doctor and the life coach: A question for Andy Revkin
I’m working on one last follow-up to my brutal-logic posts, but lemme just take a time-out to ask a question of my friend, NYT journo-blogger Andy Revkin, who seems to have thrown his lot in with Bjorn Lomborg and decided that talking about greenhouse-gas emissions is a drag.
First, to frame things, a thought experiment:
Say you are morbidly obese — you weigh 350 pounds. You go see a doctor and she gives you some blunt, upsetting news: Unless you lose 100 pounds within a year, you’re likely to develop a variety of life-threatening complications. It’s impossible to predict these things with precision, she tells you, but based on the best current health science, your chances of dying within the year are quite high and getting higher every day. And even if you don’t die, you’re likely to live the rest of your life in suffering. Just to be sure, you check with a few more doctors, but they all tell you roughly the same thing.
So you go see a weight-loss specialist. She gives you even more grim news: To lose 100 pounds in a year, you’ll have to embark on a crash program. You’ll have to strictly limit calorie intake, cut out most of the foods you love, and exercise every day, twice a day. Relative to your current lifestyle, it seems like an impossibly (and miserably) huge undertaking.
But wait! The following day, you get a call from a life coach. She says, “This focus on your weight, on pounds, it’s so limiting! There’s no way you’re going to pull off that crash program. So let’s focus on achievable goals. We’ll find you some more friends, get you a better haircut and some new clothes, maybe get you in yoga. We’ll figure out a diet and exercise routine, too, but one that works with your lifestyle.”
Good news, right? After all, she’s right that the crash program is unfathomably difficult. And she’s right that you’d like to be more handsome and more flexible and have more friends. Those are important goals too, which will increase your quality of life. And you’ll lose weight, too — maybe 25 pounds, which isn’t a ton, but it isn’t nothing either.
So what’s the problem?
Well, as you think it through, the problem seems obvious. The life coach’s prescription, while seemingly more achievable and definitely more pleasant, has a good chance of resulting in your death. Nothing about what she’s said changes the original doctor’s grim diagnosis. You’ll be more handsome and flexible for a while and then you’ll fall apart, suffer, and probably die.
What is the point of this analogy? The point is that on climate change, lots of folks seem to be playing the role of life coach these days — and very few the role of weight-loss specialist.
There are any number of examples, but this post by Andy is good and recent. He says we can’t accomplish the big emission (“pollution”) reductions scientists tell us are necessary to avoid the disaster of 4 degrees C (7.2 degrees F), so we should focus instead on reducing energy poverty and ramping up innovation, which seem more achievable, not to mention worthwhile for reasons unrelated to climate change.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m all for reducing energy poverty and I celebrate Andy’s call for innovation “not merely in the laboratory, but also in education, communication and policy.” And in all of culture! Huzzah for all of it. And I agree that it’s probably more achievable than sharp emission reductions, which would require substantial institutional reform and possibly even a period of economic contraction. But as with the analogy above, I can’t help coming back around to the fact that it leads to disaster. We’ll be happier and richer for a while and then water tables will dry up and agricultural crops will start to fail and mass migrations will start and sea level will rise and our children’s children will live in a miserable sh*thole of a world, if they live at all.
Andy doesn’t say, “these piecemeal, long-term actions will, contrary to appearances, produce the necessary emission reductions.” Nor does he say, “We can’t avoid disaster, so we’ll just have to brace ourselves for 4C and hope it doesn’t rise even higher.” He doesn’t say anything about it at all! The energy-focused path is presented as a more realistic alternative, not an abandonment of the goal.
So I’m going to use this 21st century blog technology to ask Andy (and others thinking along the same lines): Is my analogy mistaken in some way? If so, where does it break down? Do you not think 4C (or the 6C [10.8F] and higher to which it will probably lead) is a disaster? Do you think prosperous adaptation to 4C is meaningfully possible? Or do you think the energy-focused path can succeed in avoiding 4C? Or do you secretly accept that we’re screwed and you just don’t want to talk about it publicly?
Temperature rise above 3 or 4C is increasingly likely. If we fail to talk about what that means, aren’t we being the life coach?
PS: Just to be clear, this isn’t meant to be some kind of rhetorical trick or trap. I’m genuinely curious what Andy (and others! please weigh in) think about this.
PPS: And just to be clear about something else: Neither I nor, as far as I know, anyone else is advocating a Terror Only strategy, or even a Terror First strategy. I’m just wondering why, with the brutal logic we face, terror seems to have dropped out of the picture entirely.