Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Where in the world was Diego Garcia?

Perhaps I should ask where in the world is Diego Garcia, because at the moment it actually exists - as an atoll in the Pacific ocean about 1,000 miles south of the southern tip of India. It is owned by the United Kingdom; the UK and US jointly operate a large military installation there. The story of how it came to its present ownership and use is interesting, but not what I want to talk about here. Diego Garcia, like many atolls, is not very far above sea level; average elevation on the atoll is about 9 feet. The atoll is one of many concerns of the people at the Pentagon who do long range planning and forecasting, and who need to take into account the likely consequences of global warming.

One of those is a rise in sea level. That the sea level is rising is incontrovertible; but how rapidly and how far? The complexity of the global climate model makes for a lot of uncertainty in this aspect of climate change. What one can say is that processes that produce a rising sea level – for example, loss of the Greenland ice cap - are advancing at rates substantially greater than had been anticipated just a few years ago. Land masses such as Diego Garcia with low elevations are particularly sensitive to a rise in sea level, because weather events and tsunamis push water far up onto the land mass. It is not easy to find shelter on an atoll from even a relatively small tsunami. Maybe in the not too distant future we will ask where Diego Garcia was. So it is no surprise that Pentagon planners are thinking about this little atoll and many other installations, as well as about the social disorders that will surely accompany a rising sea level in poor nations that lie at low elevation, notably Bangladesh. John M. Broder recently reported on this topic in the New York Times. The prospects for future disruptions that will adversely affect national security are evident to many in the Pentagon and to many legislators in congress.

I don’t know whether the comedian Glenn Beck and other denizens of the FoxNews newsroom believe that the sea level is rising, or what the future course of that variable in Earth’s climate may be. They seem not to have any faith in the predictions of the community of climate scientists, as expressed through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the scientific reports of hundreds of scientists. They declare themselves unsatisfied with those conclusions, presumably because it follows that global governmental agreements and actions are needed to forestall even greater changes than will likely occur as a result of greenhouse gas emissions that have already occurred. But the natural world doesn’t know about libertarian inclinations; it just is what it is. So denying science's expert authority out of petulance is not a responsible stance.

Meanwhile Andrew C. Revkin reports, also in the New York Times, that the IPCC is being buffeted by a variety of forces that have had the cumulative effect of weakening its moral authority in matters of climate change policy. Charges of bias and cherry-picking studies, an inability of the panel as the highest level voice of the climate change community to report promptly on the fast-changing research understandings related to climate change, the difficulties in rapidly planning and organizing studies and conferences on specific areas of concern as they arise, the pressures from individual nations that grow out of a requirement that sponsoring governments approve the summary document line by line, all make for an unwieldy aggregate. As Revkin notes, the effect has been that “there is scant evidence that nations are acting on its warnings.”

The history of climate change understanding, and of policies that might or might not grow from the vast array of scientific studies already conducted and continuing, provides powerful examples of the distinction between science’s epistemic and moral authority. There is, of course, a coupling between what society thinks it needs from science in the way of knowledge about particular aspects of the natural world and the wherewithal it provides for that knowledge to be obtained. At present, with the exception of a clutch of climate denialists motivated by everything from blinding religious beliefs to libertarian and ultraconservative sensibilities, science’s epistemic authority regarding climate change in progress and the dominating contributions to that change from human activities is widely if not enthusiastically acknowledged. Its moral authority, however; that is, its ability to gain assent to recommendations about what needs to be done to mitigate anthropogenic contributions, is not strong.

Science is not generally very effective in exercising moral authority, for many reasons. One of them is just the difficulty of selling people on making a sacrifice today for a potential gain that is off in the future. But beyond that, science’s place in modern society is not strongly grounded in a cultural acceptance of it as a beneficent, reliable source of knowledge and good advice. I’ve traced the historical and contemporary cultural reasons for this in imperfect Oracle, and point to what science must do to establish a stronger cultural authority in society. There is much work to be done.

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