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Robert Walker

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Throw Caution to the Wind

Posted: 07/27/2012 2:41 pm

With record high temperatures and near record drought afflicting large parts of the United States, our political leaders, even Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, are strangely silent on the question of whether climate change might be responsible. Similarly, though grain prices have soared to new records again for the third time in the last five years, no one appears willing to suggest that the world might be suffering from a chronic food crisis.

So what's going on here? Call it the Throw Caution to the Wind Principle: If an event cannot be linked with absolute certainty to an underlying trend, both the event and the trend can be safely ignored until it is too late to do anything about it.

The Throw Caution to the Wind Principle is the "precautionary principle" turned on its head. Scientists have been warning for us a long time that we must err on the side of caution when dealing with significant environmental threats like pollution or climate change. When the harm is great enough, they argue, scientists should not have to prove their theories (e.g. that greenhouse gas emissions are causing disruptive changes in climate) beyond a shadow of doubt; the burden of proof shifts to the other side.

Scientists, however, are not politicians. And there's the rub. Scientific warnings about climate change, planetary boundaries, food security, and resource limitations have no resonance in the political realm, where plausible deniability is a politician's best friend. Thus, when Greenland's ice sheet temporarily melts for the first time in 150 years, the loss of Arctic ice is accelerating, and severe drought is afflicting large swaths of the world, don't jump to any conclusions about human -induced climate change. There is no need to ponder the possible implications, and, ergo, no reason to propose politically unpopular remedies.

The bipartisan conspiracy of silence is deafening. A massive wave of wildfires -- whipped up by severe drought, record temperatures and hurricane velocity winds -- could lay waste to tens of thousands of homes and burn vast acreage of Midwest farmland, and you could hear a pin drop on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Similarly, record floods and droughts could cripple global grain production, tripling the price of flour, cornmeal and other basic food commodities, putting tens of millions of urban poor on a starvation diet, and triggering massive rioting in developing countries, but in this Era of Willful Denial there would be no need to be concerned about a world food crisis. So long as there is one climatologist who rejects any connection to climate change and one agronomist who insists that new hybrid crops are the answer, we need not panic. Increasing food production by 70 percent by 2050 to meet the world's projected demand for grain? Not a problem.

If all else fails, if the scientific consensus reaches absolute certainty, there's always technology to fall back upon. There is no global problem, however dire or challenging, that cannot be solved by technological optimism. Never mind that technological advances have put us on the road to ecological ruin. If technology got us into this mess, it can jolly well get us out of it.

Bill McKibben has written a lengthy and compelling article for Rolling Stone about the growing unlikelihood that greenhouse gas emissions will stop short of the level needed to avert a climate disaster. As a leading climate activist, he has to believe that there is still time to hit the brakes, but as long as the Throw Caution to the Wind Principle is in vogue, it's hard to see what would compel politicians -- or the people they profess to lead -- to act in time.

Evolutionary biologists believe that human nature has endowed us with an innate sense of optimism. In times past, our "throw caution to the wind" approach may have increased our chances of survival. In the eternal struggle of "man against nature," it emboldened us to clear forests, drain swamps, dam rivers, and settle previously uninhabitable environs. Having bent nature to our will in the past, we are confident that we can do so again in the future. Our innate sense of optimism leads us to accept, without reservation or concern, projections indicating that we will add another 2.5 billion people to the planet in the next half century and triple or even quadruple the size of the world economy along the way.

So go ahead: Throw caution to the wind. Just do not ask what this severe weather portends.

 
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