Robert B. Laughlin’s timely essay on climate change (Summer 2010) offers useful comment on planetary history but does little to aid our understanding of the current predicament. The editors’ titles, “What the Earth Knows” and “The Earth Doesn’t Care If You Drive a Hybrid,” are clever but unhelpful: The earth is not a sentient creature; it knows nothing nor is it capable of caring. Titles aside, the article sows confusion by sliding over the considerable difficulties of taking facts about nature and evaluating them normatively.
Laughlin implies that we can jump from scientific facts to normative conclusions. But facts do not speak for themselves. To decide whether changes to nature are good or bad, wise or foolish, we need to construct a framework of evaluation based on prudential and moral factors; we need, that is, to go far beyond science. No thoughtfully constructed framework would employ (as Laughlin implicitly does) a temporal scale of evaluation that extends millions of years. Similarly, it makes little sense to ignore a problem unless supporting evidence is so substantial and one-sided as to qualify as scientific proof.
Our impasse on climate change reflects serious misunderstandings about the limits of science. If we could keep science in its rightful place, we’d likely do better on the core issues of prudence and morality.
The recent article that Robert Laughlin wrote about climate change perpetuates a dangerous fallacy—namely, that anything that doesn’t imperil the earth as a whole cannot imperil humanity. Unfortunately, there is good reason to think that climate change is an exception. It cannot cease the yearly orbit of the earth around the sun, but it could well undermine the stable climatic conditions that have accompanied the rise of human civilization during the past 10,000 years. By pointing at the robustness of the planet as a reason not to worry about climate change, Laughlin commits an error comparable to seeing a baby driving around on a bulldozer and saying, “There’s no need to worry; that bulldozer will be just fine.”
The earth will be fine, but for the sake of humanity, we need to end our dependence on fossil fuels and move to energy sources that will last forever and not destabilize the climate upon which we depend.
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Robert Laughlin’s essay demonstrates that great intelligence in one area does not necessarily translate into other areas of human life. He briefly mentions a concern about overpopulation, but then moves back into his blissful floating in geologic time, where things were fixed long before we came along, an ideology that places him back with the Fates in ancient Greece.
Laughlin’s disengagement from responsibility for climate change is simplistic—the other major aspect in play, and inextricable from climate change, is the pollution caused by our energy sources, something he does not discuss.
I hope that in the next issue you will devote some space to scientific evidence that indicates we are indeed changing the climate of the planet. Essays written by people who suggest specific ways to take responsibility for changing our patterns of energy consumption would also be most helpful.
Professor Laughlin makes the case that over geologic time human influence is minute. But that conclusion is just his lead-in. His real point is sharply articulated in his last sentence: “The geologic record suggests that climate ought not to concern us too much when we’re gazing into the energy future, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s beyond our power to control.”
Laughlin’s logic is disingenuous. He asks us to equate centuries with eons. Time scales differing by orders of magnitude are time scales so large that quantitative differences become qualitative. His conclusion makes sense only if we are indifferent to the earth on the time scales of our children and grandchildren. Anthropogenic climate change results from human actions, and, on human-relevant time scales, can be mitigated by human actions. The action needed is to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. While feasible technically, the political complexity may prove intractable. That doesn’t mean we should not try. We should and we must.
Professor Laughlin’s Nobel Prize for the fractional quantum Hall effect is a well-earned honor. That award does not make him an expert on geology or climate change. He may in fact have become an expert in these fields, in which case he should be listened to. Sadly, his article in the Scholar suggests the contrary.
While the earth doesn’t care if we drive a hybrid, civilization certainly should. We differ from the dinosaurs in at least one important way. Our cataclysm will be self-imposed. The dinosaurs may have been stupid, but at least they didn’t cause their own destruction. In our case, when the earth warms, thousands of miles of low-
elevation land will cause trillions of dollars of destruction. So, as Laughlin suggests, we can just move to higher ground—he says we can just buy property somewhere else. In addition, the earth’s waters are being polluted. The earth’s air is being polluted. People are being diseased and actually dying already from air pollution. The giant Sequoia trees, some say the oldest on earth, which live in the Sierra Nevada Mountains above the San Joaquin Valley of California, are choking to death and dying from pollution in the valley and far-away Los Angeles. Maybe Laughlin would say that’s just a natural climate development. But it isn’t—it’s man-made pollution. And if it can choke a tree to death, imagine the effect on humans.
Robert B. Laughlin replies: For readers who don’t know, the piece in question is a chapter excerpt, originally titled “Geologic Time,” from a book I have written on energy. The book’s provisional title is “When Coal Is Gone.” Its premise is that you travel in your mind to a time, about 200 years from now, when nobody burns carbon out of the ground anymore, either because they banned the practice or because it’s gone, and ask: What happened? The chapter actually is a scene setter for subsequent examination of the energy sources that will coexist with, and eventually supplant, fossil fuels. The book’s facts are assiduously referenced. Interested parties may find details at http://large.stanford.edu/publications/coal/references. One of the respondents above (I won’t reveal who) wrote to me privately that my premise was political. On this we must just agree to disagree. As Lenin pointed out in “What Is to Be Done?” (1902), practically anything can be construed as political in some way. Reasonable people just have to draw the line. However, the implications of doing so are indeed nontrivial in this case. I am reasonably sure, for reasons spelled out in my book, that contemporary climate politics will have no effect one way or the other on the world’s energy budget in the long term. The forces in play are simply too enormous. That being the case, the present-day climate conversation is badly misfocused. What I have written is only a guess about the future. Other authors are free to publish different guesses.
Riding the D train northward on my daily homeward journey, I read Edward Hoagland’s essay (Summer 2010) on plugged-in New York, and I must say I beg to differ. As someone who lives in this city, now, full-time, my only beef with cell phones is that their users tend to sidewind their way up the sidewalk and cramp my block-a-minute style. Otherwise, I haven’t found that they remove people from the city experience—my own city experience is far enhanced by them. I can finish up an afternoon meeting with a colleague, then phone a friend who works nearby and grab a quick drink while texting with my sweetie about our dinner plans. And I can check the MTA alerts before I decide the best path to my next destination.
I disembarked the train this evening, having worked myself into a huff over Hoagland’s characterization of my fair city, and was immediately calmed by the dreamy sunset warmth, hard earned after a blistering hot June day. I saw parents out with strollers, a group of four friends whose laughter took up the whole sidewalk, and a crowd of people at my local sidewalk café. A 20-something hipster—and perpetual texter— who works behind the counter of a local shop passed me on the street and said hello. I walked into the wine store and was greeted by the friendly couple who know my penchant for wines with pretty labels and don’t judge me for it. These are real people, and they’ve got to navigate their city lives now; if the smartphone makes it easier, I don’t begrudge it. New York is a city whose essence is change, and each new re-invention makes its character stronger.
Morningside, New York
Edward Hoagland replies: The happiest decades of my life have been spent in New York City, enjoying myself much in the manner Katie Peek describes, and also enjoying the great Hudson next to West Street, where I lived. I’ve also found being a native New Yorker invaluable in Kampala or Calcutta, Anchorage or Buenos Aires, Yemen or China. My love for it dates to 1932, the era of elevated trains. So I can also recall the tone of her criticism in the Southerners who accused Faulkner of not loving Mississippi enough because he included the Snopes family in his books; and the barbs leveled at Orwell as not loving humanity because his support for the Left was not doctrinaire; and the vilification of Philip Roth as a self-hating Jew because his novels were not always a cheering section.
William Zinsser is not only an icon, he’s my role model. I can’t think of a man I respect or admire more, so I am thrilled that the Scholar features a weekly website piece by his pen.
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