Monday, October 15, 2012

Ethics and Science: Global Warming + Flame Retardent Chemicals

The Hansen et al. article presents a neat slice of data on climate change science, nicely illustrating its connection to extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts, and flooding. This article helped clarify the reasons why I’ve always been more inclined to use the term “climate change” than “global warming” when discussing this phenomenon. To many people the idea of a slightly warmer planet might not sound that scary; when that phenomenon is linked to a radically changing climate, however, there seems to be a renewed sense of urgency.

Unfortunately, I remain pessimistic that even framing climate change around extreme weather events will do much to shift public opinion about global warming until the earth’s temperature has spiraled out of control. This past summer I worked on climate change policy at a think tank in Washington DC, which, I must admit, left me feeling pretty jaded. By coincidence, my internship happened to coincide with the worst drought and heat wave to strike the US in fifty years. As a result, Congress held a few hearings on climate change science, which I got to attend. During the Senate hearings, a slew of witnesses called by Democrats presented research very similar to what was covered in Hansen et al. In response, the notorious James Inhofe of Oklahoma took the stage to display a picture of his extended family clustered around an igloo they had built in front of the capital building two years ago during the massive “Snowmageddon” storm that struck DC. At the top of the igloo they had planted a crude sign that read “Al Gore’s Home.” Now, I thought this was an almost hilarious display of ignorance, but Inhofe had made his point; sometimes it’s really hot, and sometimes it’s really cold and stormy. To my dismay, several people in the room nodded their head in agreement.

Later that summer, I attended an info session hosted by Congressional Republicans on potential agricultural policy responses to the drought (which was most devastating to Republican stronghold states in the middle of the county). Again, nobody wanted to talk about climate change, the obvious elephant in the room, which they dismissed as a non-factor. If this summer’s weather was not enough to make people take notice, what will it take, and will it come before we've burned up all of our fossil fuels anyway?

Another major obstacle to climate change science is the issue of big business. Given that businesses operate on a schedule of quarterly profits, and rarely think beyond a time frame of thirty years in advance, how can they be compelled to take global warming seriously in their decision-making process? But even worse, as Beck accurately points out, “Modernization risks from the winner’s point of view are big business. They are the insatiable demands long sought by the economists” In other words, the risks of global warming and chemical pollution are good for business as a whole because they create new demands. How can we stop this cycle of perverse incentives?

Finally, I greatly enjoyed Beck’s discussion of the interaction of ethics and science that happens during risk evaluations. What degree of risk is “acceptable,” is of course an entirely subjective evaluation, but it’s fascinating/disturbing to me to watch scientists and economists try to use cost-benefit analyses and other approaches to reach a determination. 

On a similar note, if anybody wants to be really depressed about the state of chemical regulation in the United States, I would highly recommend the series of investigative articles published by the Chicago Tribune about flame-retardants in the United States. Great journalism. Did you know that you need a doctor’s prescription in the US to buy a mattress without flame retardant chemicals? Yup. Apparently "science" says that the risk of your mattress going up in flames outweighs the increased risk of cancer you get by spending roughly a third of your life sleeping on a mattress laden with carcinogenic chemicals. Sleep well on that tonight. Here’s the link:

1 comment:

Robert Jarden Treadwell Merritt said...