Adventures in Ethics and Science

Perhaps you heard Steve Inskeep’s interview with NASA administrator Michael Griffin on Morning Edition this morning. Perhaps you also are trying to tease out the logical consequences of this statement he made about climate change:

I have no doubt that … a trend of global warming exists. I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with. To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth’s climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn’t change. First of all, I don’t think it’s within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown. And second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings — where and when — are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that’s a rather arrogant position for people to take.


On the one hand, sure, it seems that climate change will most likely be worse for people who currently inhabit the nice climates. Adding a few degrees on average might be really nice for people in North Dakota or Siberia. And why assume change is always bad?

On the other hand, I’m not sure this is an argument you can sell in an island nation that’s on a trajectory to being underwater. And irreversible changes seem like a different kind of thing from little temporary fluctuations. If they turn out to be very bad for a significant number of people, you’re kind of stuck.

More broadly, Griffin seems almost to be saying that just because scientists can build understanding of phenomena, you ought not to try to stick them with any of the responsibility for intervening on them.

Griffin argues that NASA is simply authorized to study global climate change, not to battle it. One does have to ask, though, how happy taxpayers should be about the idea of studying scientific questions with real-world relevance (which is what the public seems to prefer funding rather than “basic research”) and then refraining from doing anything to use that knowledge to address the situation.

Of course, as the NASA administrator, Griffin is working within a particular set of political constraints. Trying to draw a line between understanding and acting on that understanding may be a strategy to avoid making waves with an administration that hasn’t been terribly interested in imposing regulation that might slow climate change. Griffin’s refusal to call our likely trajectory a “problem” may be another such strategy.

I wonder if Griffin would be comfortable applying the same line of reasoning — that it would be arrogant to try to intervene to stop an outcome that some (but not all) people might find disagreeable — in response to calls to try to protect the Earth from collisions with big asteroids.

And, is it not an arrogant position to take that we need to build a Moon base? Can’t future generations of American taxpayers cry foul on such a big expenditure of public money that promises to bring no scientific benefit to speak of?

Update: As Steinn explains, choosing not to act on what we know is potentially at least as arrogant a choice. Also, Steinn digs into the climate-y details.

Comments

  1. #1 P.D.
    May 31, 2007

    Imagine the schoolyard bully explaining that it would be arrogant of him to assume that the current configuration of your face is actually the optimal configuration of your face. Perhaps you will look good with a broken nose, a swollen eye, and a jagged scar.

  2. #2 S. Rivlin
    May 31, 2007

    First, Griffin should learn to speak. When he said “And second of all…” he has exhibited an ignorance of what “second” means. “Second” cannot be “second of all,” only “second to the first.”

    As to the logic of non-intervention, I guess letting AIDS continue unabated is not different from doing nothing about climate change.

  3. #3 Bill H
    May 31, 2007

    Presumably NASA is authorized by a law to study and report about global warming, it is up to others to act.

    Would it be ethical for NASA to do what it isn’t authorized to do by law but what Congress and the President are authorized to do by the Constitution?

  4. #4 Kim
    May 31, 2007

    AUGH!!!! I wish I HAD heard it!

    I caught Greg Easterbrook’s interview yesterday and forgot all about the planned NASA “rebuttal” to his comments. Easterbrook had some good explanation (and really nasty comments, also) about why NASA was really pushing the President’s “Moon Motel 6″ building plan (Easterbrook’s term, not mine), including why NASA thought it was good to help out their favored contractors by supporting a useless project that would cost taxpayers huge piles of money.

    Hope I can get the rebroadcast of the piece via my local NPR station.

  5. #5 Karthik
    June 1, 2007

    Kim, you can hear it on the NPR website — click “listen now” on the first link in the blog post.

  6. #6 ben
    June 1, 2007

    This is just amazingly disingenuous.

    Notice, Griffin is pretending people concerned about Global Warming are “planning” to change things for the better and not stop uncontrolled and unknown effects of uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions and other effects.

    First, he seems to assume people are working to actively keep the climate as it is and not stop further distortion of a natural and arguably uncontrollably cycle. Second, his comments that NASA only looks at the problem but shouldn’t get involved.


    Nowhere in NASA’s authorization, which of course governs what we do, is there anything at all telling us that we should take actions to affect climate change in either one way or another. We study global climate change, that is in our authorization, we think we do it rather well. I’m proud of that, but NASA is not an agency chartered to, quote, battle climate change.

    I wonder if his neighbor’s daughter were being killed on her front lawn, if he would get involved. It isn’t part of his authorization either.

    I am *so* still sputtering!