Sunday, October 28, 2007

THE FIRST CIRCLE OF HELL?

It dawned on me that when you begin to enter Hell, the sensations are rather pleasant. It was pleasant in New Orleans (the Big Easy), just before Katrina hit. I say that because the weather in New Orleans is almost always just great. It was surely pleasant in San Diego, home of “America’s greatest weather” – or at least what we thought of as America’s greatest weather before a good portion of the place just burned down because of the combination of drought, winds, and heat.

Here in Maryland, our weather has been just peachy. By that I mean that it has felt a lot like it used to feel in places like Georgia – places hundreds of miles to the south. Here we are, one week from the beginning of November, and with one or two exceptions, I don’t think the high for a day has yet to be below 65. In fact, it’s been a rare day when the high hasn’t gotten into the mid 70s or even the low 80s, and this is late October, not too far from the Mason-Dixon Line. What on earth is going on with this planet?

I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. I much prefer 75 or 80 degree weather than temperatures in the 50s and 60s. But not in late October! And not when I have to keep reading about hundreds of thousands of acres burning down in one of my favorite areas, the California coast. This is nuts.

Now that Al Gore has made it fairly clear that he will stay out of politics, we’re likely not going to have a President obsessed with climate change. And given that climate change is making most of our lives more pleasant temporarily, I’m getting the impression that the American public isn’t likely to declare war on greenhouse gases. While I don’t know as much about the Chinese Government’s position on this topic, I think it’s safe to say that they seem even less enlightened than we do, if that’s possible.

So does that mean we’re screwed? Perhaps. The title of this blog post would certainly indicate as much. But I have to keep reminding myself about a point that I made in The Creed Room through the character of Art Sherman. Part of being a liberal – and I’m proud to call myself one – is that we’re always assuming that if things are getting bad, we have to undergo some kind of selfless, Herculean effort to clean them up … or else we’re just doomed. Two hundred years ago, when the world’s population was roughly 1 billion, the economist, Thomas Malthus, prophesized that overpopulation would outstrip the food supply, and people would starve. Now, however, we understand that Herculean efforts aren’t needed to feed six billion people … or even nine billion people. As demand increases, available technology improves.

I was reminded of that welcome fact this week when I was reading the New York Times. On Wednesday, Ken Caldiera, a scientist with the Carnegie Institution, published an op-ed piece entitled “How to Cool the Globe.” His answer involved pouring gallons of sulfate particles into the stratosphere. Just one five-gallon bucket of those particles, he said, could keep the earth from warming for 50 years. Ten gallons could give us a full century.

Does that sound too good to be true? Does it sound like something that will produce unintended consequences, and thereby do more damage than it could possibly alleviate? My friends, I couldn’t answer those questions. I’m not a scientist. But what I can say is that just when things are beginning to look bleak, it is worthwhile to remember that we don’t necessarily need the Messiah to come save us; we have mechanisms in place to save ourselves. It’s called an economy and a culture that rewards innovation, and the increasing awareness among at least part of the population that this global-warming thing is for real. I suspect that with increasingly frequency, scientists will conceive of ideas to cool the planet. Most will be misguided. Some will be laughable. But one or two – and I haven’t any idea which ones – just might work.

For today, if not tomorrow, I’ll keep the faith. I will also, however, preach the need to work hard to conserve, as well as innovate. There might indeed be an invisible hand that leads us to find more and better technologies, but that “hand” doesn’t come from the Heavens. It comes from the laws of nature. And one of those laws is that, for better and worse, you reap what you sow.

2 comments:

Betty C. said...

My daughters keep asking me questions like "will we still be able to live on Earth when we have kids, or will it be too hot?"

Your post provides some good old American optimism on the subject.

Daniel Spiro said...

We need a little optimism now and then. I suspect most educated Americans don't have as much as we used to -- we're not exactly a "rising star" as societies go.