by Gabriel Cross
“How arrogant to think that we could change something like the weather?” This question was posed to me recently by a family member (who I love and respect, despite disagreeing with). I was struck by the force and elegance of the argument, which has been a talking point for climate change deniers since Chad Myers famously said it on CNN back in ‘08. It appeals to your sense of humility in the face of the power of nature. It is easy to remember and easy to repeat. It is concise and clear. Also, it is pure rhetoric and completely fails to deal with reality.
A little later I thought to myself, “how arrogant to believe that we could do whatever we want with no consequences.” The world is vast, and our understanding of it limited. Weather systems are incredibly complicated, and with more variables than even our best computers can account for. But you don’t have to understand a system in order to mess it up. Fixing a system requires an intimate and accurate knowledge of how it works, but breaking it requires no understanding whatsoever. It is truly arrogant to think that we could engineer a solution to get us back to the way things were while simultaneously affecting the climate.
The counter-points above fall short of addressing the real problem posed by the original argument. However, they are nothing more than talking points for the opposite camp: those who believe in climate change. The real danger of the above argument is not that it is incorrect; if it contained even one factual claim it could be easily disproved or explained. The danger of the argument is that it is, as stated above, pure rhetoric. It is not concerned with facts, but merely with sounding logical and true and irrefutable. This is, according to the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt in his essay on the subject, the very definition of “bullshit,” and the danger of bullshit is that it is easy to believe and accept as true without seeking any proof.
Most of us lead very full lives, and mostly what they are full of is work and family. This leaves very little time to research anything. The majority of people, if they are moved to do some research on a topic in their leisure time, will gravitate automatically to arguments that they already agree with. This is human nature, and something which I myself am often guilty of. In this climate of reinforcement, talking points hold sway. The trouble is, then, that you cannot have a real debate and you cannot affect positive change.
It hardly matters that we can, in fact, change the weather (cloud seeding has been practiced since the 1940s), or that true arrogance is persisting in the belief that you are correct no matter what the evidence. It hardly matters that we are the first species to intentionally burn anything, let alone dig up flammable substances from the ground and burn them as fast as we can. It doesn’t matter at all, in this environment, that we have the power to send rockets into space, or to destroy the vast majority of life on the planet in a nuclear holocaust (speaking of arrogance). All that matters is that the talking points fit your preconceived notions. If they don’t, then they must be coming from Communists/Nazis that are trying to destroy America by making it Socialist/Fascist.
I for one am a little fearful that while we arrogantly assert our correctness and belittle our opponents (both sides of the debate are rife with examples of people referring to the other side as willfully ignorant, idiots, morons and fools), we will belligerently stumble across a tipping point, beyond which reigning in climate change will be extremely difficult indeed. I am humbled not only by the power of nature, but also by its fragility and our ability to damage it when we have insufficient understanding and/or concern.