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.