Wednesday, March 21, 2012 / 7:53 am
An Inconvenient Proof
On the passing of the great climate scientist F. Sherwood Rowland.
by Jim Washburn
I told a friend to shut up the other day.
He’d just climbed into my car and we’d exchanged some chat about the nutty weather, how it was 80 degrees for a couple of days, and then, bam, down in the low 50s. When he derisively offered, “Yeah. So much for Al Gore,” I said, “You can just shut up with that right now.”
That’s unlike me. Generally, I figure everyone’s entitled to hold a wholly uninformed, belligerently ignorant opinion on at least one subject that directly affects the future of nearly every species on the planet.
This day was different, because that morning I’d read about the passing of a great scientist I’d been privileged to interview a couple of times, F. Sherwood Rowland.
The UC Irvine chemistry professor led the study in the 1980s that determined CFCs were eating the Earth’s crucial ozone layer, which sparked global action to counter that depletion. Rowland for his trouble was called “another Chicken Little” by my congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, and worse by the Orange County Register, though a bunch of boring old scientists gave Rowland the Nobel Prize, because they stick together, scientists do.
That’s because they’re intent on using science to control mankind, as every congressman who’s seen Our Man Flint knows. When they’re dealing with protons and muons on a daily basis, how easy it must have been for scientists to forge Obama’s birth certificate.
Scientists deal in statistics, so they naturally band together with others who aren’t bored blind with statistics, such as liberal do-gooders. Then they plot to take over the world, because they hate businessmen and covet their women. Then they build rockets to Mars so they can fuck with business there. That’s why all the businesses are outsourcing to Pluto, which isn’t part of the Federation.
Actually, I don’t know why conservatives hate scientists so. The stealthy bombers, nuclear submarines and robust rockets they love to lavish tax dollars upon wouldn’t exist if not for scientists; neither would the cell phones from which their lobbyists dictate legislation nor many other things they rely upon, such as a hearty diet of GMO corn syrup.
Yet when scientists tell them we are facing unprecedented danger and that the means of averting disaster is just barely within our grasp, conservatives don’t take them seriously, and instead see a plot to rob us of our precious bodily fluids. They play up the dissention within the scientific community over climate change, though the dissenters are a fringe 1 percent, many of them in the employ of that other 1 percent you hear about.
Congressmen fall over themselves in the race to embrace those few dissenting scientists, yet I would pose this question to them:
Suppose you were going to take a rocket through the unforgiving vastness of space to visit your offshore accounts on Pluto, and 99 percent of the scientists were standing around one launch pad, affirming, “This is the rocket that works. We’ve applied every conceivable test,” while 1 percent of the scientists stood on the other launch pad in front of something they were paid to like that looked like a big clove cigarette, yelling, “No, take this one! We yell louder!” Which rocket would you take?
It isn’t just that it is the vast majority of climate scientists and those belonging to affiliated disciplines who agree on mankind’s role in climate change and the imminent need that it be addressed, it is also that they are the scientists working in the sphere of checks and balances. They peer review. They probe each other’s research, methodology and findings. They question. They reach consensus.
When you’re talking the National Academy of Sciences, you’re talking the Vienna Philharmonic playing Bruckner. The academy is a slow, serious, deliberate, scientifically conservative body. They are about as far from wacko as you get.
And, like the other major scientific bodies around the globe, they came out a decade ago warning that man-made climate change would probably lead to rising sea levels, drought in the Great Plains, ecosystem collapse and other big-ass problems.
Why would they say that if it weren’t just because of the obvious truth of it? Scientists like to make money, and they can make more at Monsanto and BP than in a college lab.
And like everyone else, scientists like to be liked, which happens when they give people happy news like, “Look everybody, we made Tang!” They don’t hear so many “attaboys!” when the message is “We’re all killing our planet. We must act responsibly. Would you please not touch that while I’m talking to you?”
When I was a kid, my parents thought I was going to be a scientist, because I liked rockets and was fascinated with how things worked. School put me in those smarty pants classes where you’d have class on Saturdays and take trips to Jet Propulsion Laboratory when all you wanted to do was be home watching cartoons.
By the time I was in high school and took advanced algebra, though, I found I preferred fuzzy thinking. With guys like the Firesign Theater—whose brilliant founder Peter Bergman died last week–taking the universe apart with surreal humor on the radio every Sunday, who needed quantum physics?
Well, we all do, probably. We needed dedicated guys and gals doing the difficult, tedious, generally thankless job of discovering how the world around us works. We need people like Sherry Rowland, who looked for truths where others hadn’t imagined it to be, and who, like Galileo, endured years of scorn from venal idiots like Rohrabacher who never did the grunt work necessary to even have standing to critique his work.
One of the times I spoke with Rowland, he had just recently, at the request of the George W. Bush White House, dropped everything to participate in the National Academy of Sciences climate report. For their trouble, he and the other contributing scientists had their findings roundly ignored by the White House, which seemed only interested in cherry-picking words like “uncertainty” from the report so they could continue doing nothing.
They ignored that science always includes some wiggle room for uncertainty. Uncertainty’s built right into quantum physics, where just because there’s only a “probability” that nuclear fusion can occur, you really don’t want to be near the bomb when the countdown stops.
Rowland and the world’s scientists told us, in far less dramatic terms, that we’ve made a bomb of our planet, and the countdown is ticking.
He didn’t seem that put out that the White House had ignored them. I think he’d figured the probabilities there as well. No president wants to be the one to tell America to turn the daiquiri machine off.
Me, I would have been steaming. He struck me as stoic, certain that the facts win out over time, even if there’s no feeling of triumph in that, because over time our inaction has possibly doomed us, the polar bears and other species not as adaptive as the cockroach.
That’s long term. More short term, well within this century, the effect of climate change on mankind would be localized and variable. Those who live at lower sea levels, for example, might lose the villages and cities their forbears had lived in for thousands of years.
The brunt of the change would be borne by the large set of humans known as the non-affluent, while the affluent would have the opportunity to relocate to more hospitable climes, plus the means to afford and hoard life’s necessities or buy an ark if need be. Meanwhile, the people least responsible for climate change will be the ones most impacted by it. And while, we certainly have the super-affluent, you and I, friend, look affluent to most of the world, and have spewed our share of ick into the air.
Rowland didn’t put it in classist terms at all. It was just stating fact, like saying people with umbrellas stay dryer when it rains. He was probably a barrel of laughs in the right company, but he was a serious man dealing in hard-won truths.
So I did not especially want to hear, “So much for Al Gore,” from my kind but Fox-informed friend. It would be better to say, “So much for Sherry Rowland and all the other hard-working scientists,” and far better still to shut the hell up and listen to the serious men of the world.