06/25/2007 11:03 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Global Warming Alarm: Too Shrill?

Emily Yoffe's op-ed in The Washington Post is getting a lot of deserved scorn in the blogosphere. But it is an interesting document nonetheless. It captures some of the basic obstacles to confronting global climate change.

Yoffe's complaint is basically, OK, global warming is probably happening. But please stop scaring me with apocalyptic scenarios! Apocalypses are often predicted, but rarely happen:

There is so much hubris in the certainty about the models of the future that I'm oddly reassured. We've seen how hubristic predictions about complicated, unpredictable events have a way of bringing the predictors low.

It's also hard to believe assertions that the science on the future of our climate is settled when climate scientists can't agree about the present -- or the past (there is contention about the dates, causes and even the existence of the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age that followed). Now, Gore and others say that Katrina was a product of global warming and that we can expect more and bigger storms. But there is actually brisk scientific debate over the role global warming plays -- if any -- in the creation of hurricanes.

Set aside the obtuseness of saying "well, something's probably happening, but I sure hope it's not, so let's err on the side of caution." There are two substantive issues here.

The first is a basic human bias toward the present. That is, if things (the weather, postwar prosperity, communism, et al) are one way, and have been that way for a while, most people will assume they'll just go on that way indefinitely. And people will naturally be skeptical if someone comes along and says "this is all going away. Your surroundings and your material circumstances are going to change dramatically!" That's just basic human nature. It's probably the number one obstacle to dealing with the problem. It makes decisive political action -- and overcoming entrenched interests that oppose it -- really hard.

Yoffe's second point -- it's hard to predict the future -- is self-evident. Of course we don't know exactly how this story is going to turn out. The climate and the biosphere are exceedingly complex systems. So we can't predict the exact trajectory of temperatures, or precisely how the environment will respond when they go up, or how effective human solutions will be. And yes, some past predictions of environmental apocalypses have been wrong.

But this is classic forest-for-the-trees. She's been clicking on Drudge too often.

It's hard to predict future events, such as how many hurricanes we'll have this year. (Though we're getting better at it.) The fact that there is are dozens of debates going on over important details -- such as the relationship between global warming and hurricanes -- doesn't change the big picture on climate change. That is, that it's a very serious problem that has ample scientific documentation. And that sometimes, alarm bells are useful -- even more so if they're a little shrill.