Phil-osophically Speaking: November 16, 2012


Extreme Science

The narrative goes something like this: Hurricanes Sandy and Irene were no coincidence, but were caused by the phenomenon of global warming. These storms are the harbinger of the new normal. To deny climate change in the face of this new reality is to deny science itself.

The culprit is modern civilization with its fossil fuels, transportation, landfills and its patterns of land use all of which has resulted in ominous atmospheric changes that produce extreme weather. The only alternative, and it must begin now, is to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, otherwise, say the doomsayers, we’re doomed.

Of course, being doomed is how doomsayers make their living. My advice as we clean up in the aftermath of the hurricane and an early, unexpected snowfall is that the best medicine to calm our nerves and assuage our imaginations is to take a deep breath. Things seem much more dramatic and omnipresent these days because images of disaster are so ubiquitous that it borders on visual assault. It’s why so many including such supposed clairvoyants as Governor Cuomo, Mayor Bloomberg and Senator Schumer have concluded that two hurricanes in a period of 14 months is the result of manmade climate change. It’s a fool’s errand to treat conclusions like trampolines, an apparatus simply made for jumping upon. Such sloppy and careless thinking makes rashness, not climate changes, the new normal.

Hurricanes and natural calamities are nothing new; the earth itself was shaped and formed by a series of geological cataclysms. In 1900, a hurricane in Galveston killed 8,000 people well before anyone ever heard of climate change. The difference is that only a few black and white photographs exist of that disaster (and very few at the time ever saw them) while today we have endless reams of color images and on the spot eyewitness accounts of these catastrophes bombarding our every waking hour. Despite the media hype, it is preposterously perfidious to claim that we have entered an epoch of extreme weather of our own making. The most rudimentary research will show that major hurricanes have been on the decline. The last hurricane to make landfall that was a Category 3 or more was Wilma back in 2005. Tornadoes were a more frequent occurrence in the first half of the 20th century than in the latter half. Nor has there been any evidence of an increasing number of floods.

But why let the facts get in the way of a good story. The world may live for drama but why overdramatize when it will result in actions that will take us further away from minimizing the impact of these storms by spending money on things that will have negligible impacts. Giving in to the quixotic notions of the extreme climate lobby, its sycophantic epigones and hyperventilating politicians with the customary congeniality I afford to the enchanting, fanciful whims of those little ones who give credence to the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy, is simply too expensive and nonproductive to lightheartedly indulge.

This is not to say that I’m skeptical of manmade climate change. Like so many other variables it is but one consideration in the vortex of immeasurable complexity. What I’m against is the view that the preponderant cause of these great winds and environmental shifts is man-made climate change and science’s failure to invite perspective. I’m sadly disappointed when I note what little difference there is between the glistening, snow-capped peaks of its glorious epiphanies and its dank gullies of stupidity when it allows itself to be hijacked by fashionable superstitions and zealots with an agenda.

The most productive thing we can do in combating these storms is to avoid abstract theorizing in the absence of hard evidence and focus on what’s practical and workable: Such as early satellite warning systems, structural reinforcements, strategic land use and early and effective evacuation. All of these developments have paid enormous dividends in reducing casualties and storm damage. We should then focus on the immense failure of LIPA as dissected in the post-mortems of the storm such as not bringing in out of the area workers before the hurricane rather than after it, its stupendous failure to manage and communicate, failing to replace its aged, warped poles and a long-term plan to put our network of thousands of miles of wire underground.

Much has been learned and achieved since the great wind of 1938, a great and unanticipated hurricane that swept over a less populous and concentrated Long Island like an avenging angel. Still, to paraphrase a political axiom, one should never let a good disaster go to waste. Municipalities, power authorities, emergency services and we the victims can learn from the havoc and destruction. Not only how to respond, prepare and react to such calamities, but also used as an opportunity to learn about us during times of stress, danger and deprivation. This is a far more profitable exercise in helping ourselves than embarking upon some mindless spree of spending on applications for renewable energy that has marginal benefits at best.  Theories must not outpace facts nor must imaginings preempt reality. So while it’s important to factor the effects of energy policy into the equation of climate change, to inextricably and comprehensively connect it to disasters like Sandy is to neuter scientific rationality and belittle the critical function of promoting knowledge and extinguishing ignorance. 

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