The invisible science of our future

Of all the aspects of America’s conservative culture that make me anxious, the most troubling is the fierce reaction that many traditionalists have to the science of our collective future.

We know from a vast body of research that the earth has entered into what a growing number of scientists call the anthropocene, the age of man.

This is an epoch where we collectively influence the nature of life on our globe, replacing natural phenomena (glaciers, volcanoes, solar cycles) as the most powerful force.

In large measure because of the conservative movement, a serious civil discussion of what this means has ground to a halt.  Democrats and Republicans who once talked productively about climate change have fallen silent.

Population growth is a taboo subject, even for many environmental groups.

The irony, of course, is that we know more and more about what our planetary civilization is doing to the planet we rely upon for, well, everything.

We know that fishing pressure and pollution are literally altering the bios of our oceans, making them more acidic, eliminating whole species with an efficiency that would be impressive if it weren’t so bleak.

We know that human commerce is rapidly spreading invasive species around the globe, so that the Great Lakes begin to look more like the Black Sea and whole forests in America fall prey to insects from Asia.

We also know that by the end of this century, there will be another 2.4 billion of us sharing this rock.

To put that in perspective, that population growth will require the construction of four additional New York City’s per year, every year, until the year 2100.

That’s four NYC’s this year.  And four NYC’s the next year.  And four more the year after.  And repeat.

Economists also expect the standard of living to rise for billions of humans.  That’s a good thing, except that it also means more consumption of resources and food, and likely far more emissions of carbon and other forms of pollution.

Balanced against these facts are two human traits that make it very difficult for us to confront what the science of the anthropocene will mean for our civilization.

First is the fact that for many of us our basic cosmology — the mental construct that we use to imagine our world — is still based on a world where humans weren’t such a big deal, at least in scientific terms.

In 1804, when the grand experiment of the United States was just hitting its stride, the population of the earth was one-seventh its current size.

It stood to reason that mankind could “use” and “master” the natural world around him without considering the wider consequences.   We like to think of that kind of behavior as “freedom” and a part of our “manifest destiny.”

When a pointy-headed bureaucrat, or an egghead scientist, suggests to us that it might be a bad idea, say, to dump a factory’s toxins into a river that now has tens of millions of other people living along its banks, that sounds to us like “big government” and “regulation.”

The second thing that makes it difficult to grapple with the new science of life on earth is what some researchers call “shifting baseline syndrome.”

This is our tendency as a highly adaptive species to see the world around us as “normal.”  Generations growing up now in China and India have no visceral sense of what their countries were like before human activity overwhelmed the natural world.

Here in the US, we like to tell ourselves that we’ve tackled some of these problems.  In recent decades, we’ve restored much of our environment.  We’ve protected forests and rivers to a remarkable degree.

But the truth is that we accomplished many of those gains simply by shifting the burdens we place on the planet to other places.  And we now know that what happens in China doesn’t stay in China.

There are also signs that our impact on the planet is entering a new, more unpredictable phase.

The Gulf oil spill was a vast science experiment in what happens when the anthropic system hiccups.  We still don’t know what the long-term impacts will be on the Gulf’s vast ecosystem.

The idea that we might generate energy for the next century by pumping caustic chemicals into the groundwater table is another big lab project.

And it’s inevitable that as our population grows the search for energy, and food, and other resources will force us to take bigger and bigger risks.

It’s also worth pointing out that the 2.4 billion population increase now projected could be wrong.  The best estimates suggest that population growth will begin to plateau, and reach some kind of long-term stability.

But if birth rates are just a tiny bit higher, and life expectancy grows just a little bit more, the number of humans relying on our world could easily double.

I suspect that for a while longer, we’ll avoid talking about the ramifications of all this.

The cosmology of a world where humans — beautiful, precious humans — must also be reckoned as a burden and a problem, is just too frightening.  It forces us to think hard about basic moral questions.

And the ramifications of what it might mean to be required to think globally are just too complex. We’ll have to re-examine what a healthy family looks like and what a healthy nation-state looks like.

But as scientists will tell you, it really doesn’t matter in the end what we believe, or what we want to talk about.  The earth is a closed system, finite and ultimately fragile.

As more and more of us look to share the world, we will sort out how to be good stewards, respectful of the facts of life.  Or we will watch in dismay as it breaks under our weight.

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230 Comments on “The invisible science of our future”

  1. JDM says:

    “replacing natural phenomena (glaciers, volcanoes, solar cycles) as the most powerful force”
    I’d like to see us, collectively, stop one volcano, or for that matter stop one thunder storm. If we can’t stop one, we can’t become master of them all. Man’s attempt to pretend is all power, like God. We’re really not that big (but don’t tell the “scientists” that).

    “Democrats and Republicans who once talked productively about climate change have fallen silent.”
    Uh oh.. We’re doomed. If we’d just not elected Scott Brown, the earth would be saved.

    “to dump a factory’s toxins into a river that now has tens of millions of other people living along its banks”
    The narrative here is that Republicans want to dump toxins. Democrats alone want a clean earth. The truth is that no one wants to see toxins dumped in the wrong place, but that has local ramifications only. Cleaning up a toxin dump is doable by man. Stopping one thunder shower is God’s business.

    “We still don’t know what the long-term impacts will be on the Gulf’s vast ecosystem.”
    Apparently, nothing. It’s over. Oh, if would just have been more serious, like the “scientists” predicted.

    “Or we will watch in dismay as it breaks under our weight.”
    No, we will be dead. Those who for centuries predicted doomsday – are now dead, and we are alive and well.

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  2. mervel says:

    It is a very interesting topic though.

    Who decides is the question? Can we have individual liberty and get global collective solutions? What do you do with people who do not agree with the solutions ?

    Do we need global parents to tell us what to do, to reach the greater good? Who will be sacrificed in the plan to save the planet? This is what many conservatives and libertarians wonder and worry about. The history of government collective action to create world wide “solutions” is not good.

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  3. Mayflower says:

    “…a serious civil discussion of what this means has ground to a halt.”

    My initial inclination is to point at JDM’s comments and say “This is a perfect example of what has halted the civil discussion.”

    Then it occurred to me that I have a role to play — I am, after all, one-half of the conversation, even when the other half is something less than serious or civil. So…let us discuss and think and seek reasonable answers. JDM will join us…or he won’t.

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  4. JDM says:

    Mayflower: The one thing that will me go away is to stop funding this hogwash with taxpayer dollars. Until then, you are going to hear my opinion, as I am a stakeholder in the discussion.

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  5. Brian Mann says:

    JDM –

    Your answer illustrates my point pretty tidily.

    Rather than grapple with the questions (where do we put 300 additional New York City-sized communities over the next 80 years?) and the science (the chemistry of the ocean is changing) you want to pretend that this is all just a mean-spirited attack on the Republican Party.

    And most tellingly, you want to believe that an event like the Gulf Oil spill can simply be “over” or that since we can never “stop a volcano” the time to rejigger our cosmology hasn’t yet arrived.

    And we’ll keep hearing these perspectives for a long time to come, to be sure. They’re comforting, and easy, and familiar. But they’re also factually wrong.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  6. mervel says:

    I think we should be investing public money in thinking about these issues, basic research, science etc into the various fields which may provide promising ideas.

    However the tripping point is going to be solutions and how to dictate and force human action for the “greater good”.

    Look at the local level to see how some of this plays out for example. Are we a burden to the Adirondacks? If you take a global position for the greater good, we should be forcing people out of this sensitive world environmental region, not encouraging them to stay.

    But of course what we usually mean by these sorts of ideas is that somebody else will pay the price, will bear the burden of the “solution”.

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  7. JDM says:

    Brian Mann: “Rather than grapple with the questions…”

    Please feel free to grapple. Just don’t ask me to pick up the tab.

    All of these items have the same answer – more taxes. It’s a racket, and my only interest is to get their hands out of my pocket.

    If you have the time and money and interest to solve these grand issues, have at it.

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  8. Brian Mann says:

    JDM –

    So again, you begin with an a priori answer. By your ideology, taxes are bad, period. Facts, data, new information…not interested.

    If we had approached the Second World War with that premise, history would look very different today.

    And in global terms, what we’re talking about here is much, much larger than the Second World War.

    Again, I understand. It’s comforting to think that it’s liberal sneakiness that prompts any discussion of these things.

    But as Winston Churchill might have said about the Nazis, reality is a stubborn thing.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  9. Walker says:

    JDM, was it a good expenditure of public funds to build the Interstate Highway System?

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  10. JDM says:

    Walker: Does that mean you agree with me, that it is all about taxes?

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  11. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I don’t know what happened to people in this country. When I was a kid the Republicans were very interested in science. But it seems they were only interested in the science of Polaris missiles and generating new types of plastics to replace perfectly good natural products.

    They told me that it was good to save and not be wasteful. Then they started telling me it was easier to throw away decent stuff that could be repaired because it is cheaper to buy new than to repair old.

    I think I’m a conservative, just like my parents raised me. I was told that I shouldn’t make other people pay for my stuff. So when did I become a liberal?
    I think it was when I realized that the people who told me all the things that conservatives believed in weren’t doing as they said they were doing. When I found that people would rather pass the costs of their waste and destruction on to the next generation because it cost too much money to deal with their own waste.

    I never changed.

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  12. JDM says:

    khl: “When I was a kid the Republicans were very interested in science.”

    Brian Mann: “you want to pretend that this is all just a mean-spirited attack on the Republican Party. ”

    Well, this is interesting. Brian thinks that I am parroting a mean-spirited Republican argument, and khl is putting forth an argument that Republicans aren’t interested in science.

    You two should get together on your rhetoric, because I think I just saw a mean-spirited attack on the Republican party.

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  13. JDM says:

    To recap, this is about taxes and mean-spirited attacks on the Republican party.

    Your answers illustrates my point pretty tidily.

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  14. Brian Mann says:

    But JDM, you’re still just scoring points. You’re still having a lark suggesting that little wrinkles of rhetoric or political argument settle the matter. Would that it were so.

    As I’ve written here before, the may well be credible “conservative” answers to the questions posed in my essay. But pretending that it’s all just a schoolyard dust-up isn’t a credible answer, or even particularly interesting.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  15. JDM says:

    Brian Mann: You put forth some presuppositions that I don’t feel necessary to answer.

    The earth will somehow “break under its own weight”. (Presupposition – people can somehow break the earth)

    “replacing natural phenomena (glaciers, volcanoes, solar cycles) as the most powerful force” (Presupposition – people, collectively, can become more powerful than these things).

    These things are not provable by science. If so, please give an evidence. I can prove to you that we cannot stop one thunder storm. Can you prove that we can stop them all?

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  16. Brian Mann says:

    Okay, JDM, here are three basic scientific premises:

    1. Already, without any more population growth, or increase in industrial production (both of which are certain) we are changing the chemical make-up of earth’s atmosphere. This is from NOAA, the top climate scientists.

    “Human activity has been increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (mostly carbon dioxide from combustion of coal, oil, and gas; plus a few other trace gases). There is no scientific debate on this point.”

    2. Already, we are changing the temperature of our entire planet. This again from NOAA:

    “Global surface temperatures have increased about 0.74°C (plus or minus 0.18°C) since the late-19th century, and the linear trend for the past 50 years of 0.13°C (plus or minus 0.03°C) per decade is nearly twice that for the past 100 years. The warming has not been globally uniform.”

    3. We are also changing the chemical make-up of the oceans. And scientists believe dramatic and unpredictable changes could occur, altering the largest biological matrix on our planet. This from the Carnegie Institution for Science.

    “We see here how dynamic the climate-ocean system is and that the responses to [climate] change are not always what we would expect. We need to keep this in mind when considering future climate and other anthropogenic changes, like ocean acidification, and their impact on the ocean and ocean resources.”

    So here we have scientists telling you unambiguously that human activity is altering three of the most basic underlying conditions of life on earth — the atmosphere, the nature of the oceans, and the temperature.

    And that’s now, before we add another 2.4 billion people and another 300 New York City’s.

    So…what do you think? Worth grappling with?

    –Brian, NCPR

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  17. JDM says:

    “There is no scientific debate on this point.”

    That’s one problem. I can’t think of another “scientific” discover that closed all debate within 10 years of its discovery.

    Sound more like “insecurity” than “science”.

    And the debate isn’t over. “debate on global warming 2012″ in google produces 66,200,000 hits.

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  18. mervel says:

    Its all worth grappling with, as long as both sides don’t have a-prior solutions in mind.

    There may very well be free-market solutions to some of these problems, but for some because of their politics, this is not an acceptable alternative in fact to bring up a free market solution usually ends the conversation.

    For example many of these problems have to do with the fact that we don’t have well defined private property rights for the ocean or the atmosphere.

    Trading carbon credits was a free market solution to air pollution at one time, now of course for some bizarre reason some conservatives oppose it?

    This will not be something that the US can solve or even should solve, it may be time for us to let other countries take the lead on this issue.

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  19. JDM says:

    mervel: carbon credits always perplexed me. If man-made behavior is going to destroy the earth, how does paying a carbon credit save the earth?

    If the answer is that carbon credits are used to plant trees, then I am set for life. My dad ran a golf course, and I planted more trees when I was eight than Al Gore has ever seen.

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  20. Will Doolittle says:

    Buried in the weird resistance to reality in arguments that guys like JDM makes are, sometimes, nuggets of an interesting argument. No one said anything about stopping a volcano or thunderstorm, but he keeps repeating that as if it proved something or, more aptly, disproved something. But although reasonable and informed people understand that human activity is changing the planet’s weather, no one knows exactly how these changes will play out. The systems are too big and complex, our ignorance too large, to know what will happen a few years out, or longer. I can grant guys like JDM this: There is an element of the unknown in climate change, when it comes to the future, even though there is no doubt about the many changes that have already occurred. Does what we can’t know about what will happen justify doing nothing to try to head off the worst from happening? Not in my opinion, I think we should do what we can, within reason. But it is reasonable to point out that exactly what will happen is unknown and, therefore, some caution is called for before taking radical steps, in your personal life or on a broader societal scale.

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  21. Pete Klein says:

    What we need to understand and accept is that the Earth doesn’t see us as beautiful and precious. Probably, neither does God since God programmed more than a 1,000 ways for us to die.
    If we keep going the way we are going, suicide will become more common than the common cold. One NYC is enough.
    Maybe the first step should be to stop using tax payer dollars to fund any research that lengthens the span of life. Eliminate all extraordinary measures to save a life beyond the age of 70, even if it is someone who is rich and powerful enough to spend the money to save them.
    We are a weird species. We think everything is about us. The entire universe was created just for us with many of us thinking the entire universe was created just so we could act out a morality play to see who gets into heaven and who is condemned to hell.
    We are ridiculous.

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  22. Susanno says:

    I do not know what can be done about the inevitable changes which Brian describes. While it is true that we cannot know exactly what will happen or when, many scientists have made pretty well-informed projections which we should take seriously. I am worried about such things as ocean acidification, which has already begun to change marine ecosystems. I fear increased flooding, drought, and other such events which I am sure will occur.

    I do believe, however, that to do nothing (as seems likely to happen) will condemn the poorest of the world to all manner of hardship. Rich folk can generally find ways to ameliorate hardship, but the poor cannot.

    And unfortunately, rich folk pretty much run the world.

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  23. It's Still All Bush's Fault says:

    I was hoping Pete would bring up the issue of population. When will the population reach the tipping point? Through medical advances, we will hasten our own extinction. We have developed the means to ensure that gene combinations are passed along against the will of nature. It is unclear what effect that may have on future generations.

    The idea of going to carousel at 70 would help the future funding issues with social security.

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  24. mervel says:

    JDM, the original point was that if you wanted to reduce air pollution what you could do instead of simply laying down a raft of regulations and restrictions; you would let the market determine who could pollute the most. Basically you have pay to use our air as a garbage dump. Waste disposal is not free for solid waste, it should also not be free waste put in the air. We all own the air, literally it belongs to all of us, why should one private company get to use my air for free?

    What you would do is say this is the total amount that can be dumped into our air, to do that you have to pay to dump, now if you don’t need to dump when you figure out that dumping in the air is not free anymore, you can sell your right to dump to some other company. So companies in that way could make the most efficient decisions regarding pollution. For some companies it will be much cheaper to modify their operations to not pollute, for others that will be to expensive and they can buy the right to pollute more.

    It is a good market based solution. You could have variations of these sorts of solutions for other tragedy of the commons type problems such as over use of our oceans.

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  25. mervel says:

    My big concern on most of the worldwide solutions is broader. There is no doubt in my mind that some solutions to these problems are going to be based on totalitarianism, higher taxes or public money would be the least of my worries. How do you enforce the needed world wide decisions?

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  26. Peter Hahn says:

    The anti science stuff is sad. Its not just the future, its the past. “They” frequently don’t believe in evolution either, and many believe the world’s history as written by the Jewish religious scholars in 500 BC, but not present day historians/archeologists.

    Where did all our medicines come from or (as pointed out above) all our great weapons? What about the iPad or the internet where this blog is? I could go on and on.

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  27. JDM says:

    Will Doolittle:

    Does everyone who disagrees with you have a weird resistance to reality?

    What solutions do you propose? How would you fend off destruction?

    I’m guessing any answer you put forth will either 1)not be implemented or 2)be implemented so poorly that you or I will not be around to know if it worked or not.

    Then, you can spend the rest of your life happy to know that an ineffective solution to a fictional problem will save the world of the future.

    Big deal.

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  28. JDM says:

    Seriously. Look at the solutions put forth. What can an American do to save the world?

    Another Chevy Volt program?

    How about Solyndra?

    Is this your idea of reality. Give me a break.

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  29. Paul says:

    “you want to pretend that this is all just a mean-spirited attack on the Republican Party. ”

    Brain you start the piece with:

    “Of all the aspects of America’s conservative culture that make me anxious, the most troubling is the fierce reaction that many traditionalists have to the science of our collective future.”

    What do you expect?

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  30. Peter Hahn says:

    JDM – we can try to pump less carbon products into the atmosphere (for example). The Chevy Volt and Solyndra are good ideas, but not everything works. A guy at Goldman Sachs just lost $2 billion on a bad bet.

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  31. Peter Hahn says:

    whoops JP Morgan. I get those bankers mixed up.

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  32. JDM says:

    Peter Hahn: You can pump less carbon. I planted my quota of trees for me, my kids, and their kids. We’re good.

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  33. Paul says:

    Way too much time (and air, or whatever you call it in a blog) is spent here trying to respond to POVs that are NEVER, EVER, NEVER, going to change. That is true on both sides of many arguments. You just deal with it and move on.

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  34. JDM says:

    I like the part where we’re going to have more influence than natural phenomena.

    If we all collectively said, “Boom!” at the same time, maybe we would be as loud as Popocatepetl.

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  35. Paul says:

    Peter, I don’t think comparing losing a bunch of public money to losing a bunch of high risk private capital is going to cut it given the person you are responding to? Also, in that case over the quarter JP Morgan MADE a net profit for the quarter despite the loss. As usual with anything that happens on Wall Street these days it is just getting spun for political maneuvering. You are comparing apples to oranges.

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  36. Peter Hahn says:

    Paul – that was actually my point – that private investors make good and bad bets, and hopefully in the long run that good ones pay more than the bad ones lose. Same with investments in solar energy or electric cars.

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  37. Pete Klein says:

    You want a solution to what most of us see as a problem? I doubt humans will solve the problem but I do believe nature will solve it for us. Trouble with nature solving the problem is that it won’t ask what we think and we won’t like what it does.
    It could be as simple as us figuring out how to get rid of one disease and then find out too late that the disease we manage to eliminate was protecting us from a disease that will kill off 90% of the human population.

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  38. Indy says:

    Brian Mann, Thank you for giving up on JDM, obviously his mind is made up so don’t try to confuse him with facts.

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  39. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Conservatives used to be made of sterner stuff, too. I don’t remember them being so thin skinned.

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  40. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I said: “But it seems they were only interested in the science of …”

    JDM thought I said: “khl is putting forth an argument that Republicans aren’t interested in science.”

    There are two different verbs involved, to seem and to be.

    Seem: seems3rd person singular present of seem (Verb)
    “1 Give the impression or sensation of being something or having a particular quality: “Dawn seemed annoyed”.
    2 Used to make a statement or description of one’s thoughts, feelings, or actions less assertive or forceful.” (miriam webster on line)

    To be:
    “is 3rd person singular present of be (Verb)
    Exist: “there are no easy answers”; “there once was a man”.” (same)

    When I said “it seems they were only interested in…” I was presenting an impression of my thoughts and feelings, not a statement of fact or even belief.

    So it appears that JDM does with language the same thing he does with science: he reads with a preconceived notion and he interprets to fit his belief.

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  41. JDM says:

    If I wasn’t here pointing out the humor in all of this, you guys would high-fiving each other and thinking you’re saving the world.

    About half of the country is laughing at man-made global warming. Apparently, the percentage is a little smaller here.

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  42. hermit thrush says:

    from the annals of jdm:

    Is anyone on this blog trying to [genuinely understand how the world works]? I know I am.

    ha ha ha! such a kidder, you almost had us!

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  43. hermit thrush says:

    more seriously, here’s an excellent recent post on climate change about climate scientists who are starting to speak out more forcefully on the subject. though note that the diagram at the top of the chart is a just a schematic and is not based on rigorous data.

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  44. ADKinLA says:

    I had a conversation awhile ago with a very conservative family member. That family member did not see any issues with what we are currently doing to the environment and global warming is a propaganda machine, etc. I then asked, well aside from global warming, shouldn’t we try to regulate and find alternative sources of energy so we have better resources (cleaner air/water/less dependence on foreign oil/etc.). My family member said, would you want to pay for the increased costs, they wouldn’t.

    I bring this up because there seems to be a deeeep resistance from conservatives about doing anything proactive to make the environment better. No one wants to pay higher prices for anything but to do nothing is not a realistic short term or long term option. Why is this not an option? Having dependence on fossil fuels helps lead to political instability in those regions as well as environmental spills and contamination from emissions and contamination of ground water and even earthquakes from fracking. Long term, there is a lot of science indicating what we are putting into the environment is harmful for all the reasons listed in this blog and additionally, there is beginning to be a feedback loop caused by the warming of the earth and the unfreezing of the tundra which increases the amount of methane released which then in turn causes the heating of the planet to occur much faster.

    In other words, there are a whole host of reasons why you want to change where we get our energy from both now and in the future and I for one would pay more for energy which doesn’t cause all of these issues. New sources of energy (solar, wind, geothermal, etc.) have their issues but in the long term, the harms caused by these energies are much less than what is being collectively done by the extraction and usage of fossil fuels.

    The intransigence of conservatives like my family member to any solution to any of these problems is incredibly frustrating and this is why the debate has not moved past the Yes/No level.

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  45. Peter Hahn says:

    What is disturbing is that there are many people who believe the scientific opinions of talk radio/tv host over the opinions of the National Academy of Scientists.

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  46. JDM says:

    March 30, 2012 Gallup poll. Only 30% really worried about global warming. 55% if you include “fair amount”. That leaves 45% who just aren’t buying it.

    Just sayin’. You 30% guys do what you can. The rest of us have bigger fish to fry.

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  47. Bob Falesch says:

    Heard this just today, on PRI’s The World: “Tax us! Canada is Worth it.” (I bring this here only because it seems to me that people with JDM’s position oppose “good things” if they must help pay for it)

    “There is a sense that in Canada, we’re comfortable with government, it’s something that we need to have in our lives, and something that we are willing to pay for.” Why Some Canadians Want To Pay Higher Taxes

    I don’t buy the premise that the two country’s differing origins mean so much nowadays, but this, “the Canadian system of government requires more compromise, so anti-tax crusaders in Canada are much more moderate and muted than in the US,” is worth thinking about. Are they talking about parliamentary systems innate general character or Canada’s particular implementation?

    BTW, Will: +1

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  48. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I must say that In Box bloggers tend to be a very intelligent bunch. Certainly in the top 50 percentile.

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  49. Walker says:

    Walker says: “JDM, was it a good expenditure of public funds to build the Interstate Highway System?”

    JDM says: “Walker: Does that mean you agree with me, that it is all about taxes?”

    No, JDM, I ask about your opinion on the Interstate Highway system because you appear to think that there is no such thing as worthwhile expenditure of taxpayer funds. So how about it– was the Interstate Highway system worth spending public funds on?

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  50. mervel says:

    But may be there is also an a-prior assumption on the part of more liberal thinkers that all of the solutions will be implemented, enforced and put forth by governments. There is no reason to think that governments will be the best vehicle to solve these sorts of global problems. That may be part of the problem, both sides start with these assumptions that almost end the conversation for the other. We seem to be starting with solutions which is never a good idea.

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