Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Climate Change Analogies: The Firefighter

Consider the following scenario.

A firefighter is invited to give a talk about fires. She is an expert in the field, with some fifteen years experience. She has been dealing with fires actively, and teaches others how to deal with them. She is widely considered to be very knowledgeable, and is very well respected by other firefighters.

At her talk, she discusses how fires get started. She details the kinds of fires that firefighters have to deal with. Wildfires, house fires, natural fires, and fires caused by arson. She discusses the ins and outs of fire prevention, and discusses the methodologies used by firefighters in combating blazes of all kinds.

When she is done with the main portion of her talk, there is a Q&A, and audience members are allowed to come up to a microphone and ask her questions. A man approaches the microphone and clears his throat. "How do you answer the fact that all fires are natural?"

She blinks, not understanding. "Excuse me… I don't think I follow your meaning," she says. "Fire is a natural thing, of course, but how fires start can be natural or it can be that someone caused it."

The man shakes his head. "No. That's just not true. All fires are natural. They just happen. There's no proof that anyone can cause a fire. People like you are trying to fool everyone, because you are trying to keep your job. But the truth is that fires start and fires go out, and nobody can explain it."

Nonplussed, she tries to puzzle out what this man is thinking. "Sir," she says, "People can and do cause fires. Surely, either you or someone you know, or maybe you've seen it in a movie,—you've seen someone light a fire in a fireplace, haven't you?"

"That's not the same thing," the man says. "You're trying to convince me that if someone lights a fire in a fireplace, that it's going to burn the house down. That's just a lie!"

Now, let's take a moment here. You are probably thinking that this is ridiculous. You know, like I know, that of course fires can be set. Some are safe, and some are not. Some are natural, and some are caused by a person or people. Some are caused inadvertently by people, like when a transformer blows out and sets a tree on fire.

Yet when it comes to climate change, some people insist that there's no possible way that humans could play any role in it. Some even insist that it's not happening at all.

"Sir," she says, "I am not claiming that any fire will go out of control. But some fires do go out of control, or start where they shouldn't have started."

Clearly frustrated, the man says, "Well, I don't believe you! I don't believe in your fire stories! When a building burns down, there's no proof that fire actually did it! It was poor building materials and lousy construction! Fire just happened to be there, but there's no connection! You just want to charge us more money for water to put out fires that don't have anything to do with why a building burns up! I was really skeptical when I came here, because I read an article by [redacted], and he says that fires are just natural variability and don't really burn anything. And then he links to some papers that show how firefighters like you are scamming the public into paying higher water bills!"

Incredulous, she says, "Did you say [redacted] wrote this article you read? Don't you know that he's a convicted arsonist?"

"He's doing lectures, now," the man says, a look of triumph in his eyes, "So you can't shut him up anymore about your hoax!"

It's painfully silly, isn't it? I know. Yet that is pretty much what climate scientists are dealing with. Climate change deniers literally flout the findings of climate science, citing cranks, fossil fuel industry spokespeople, crackpots, and anyone who will support their denial. But the fact is that it really is on the same level as our fictional character here, trying to discredit the firefighter with his specious, bizarre, and unhinged accusations. Worse, we have government officials who are abusing their positions of authority to harass and denounce scientists, when they don't even understand that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, or what that means, or why it matters. They count on their constituents being ignorant of the facts as well, because it's easier to get re-elected when your constituents think you're fighting on their side. And the flow of cash into your coffers, or into your state, or into your campaign are a lot more robust when you've got the fossil fuel industry at your back.

Anyone who has taken a little time to consider the evidence, and to grasp the basics of climate science, can see why it's not a good idea to pump the atmosphere up with CO2 and other greenhouse gasses. As the temperature rises, little by little, climatic problems get worse and worse. Weird, unseasonal weather shifts become more common. Strange weather becomes the norm. That is, in fact, what we are seeing happening right now.

If you were in the audience when the man addressed the firefighter with his bizarre accusations, would you side with him? Would you expect the firefighter to have to answer all his questions? Or would you tell him to shut up and go sit down?

It is not merely the authority of the firefighter that matters to your answer, it's also what you know about fires. This is also true of climate change. You don't have to be a climate scientist to follow the basic statements about what's happening. You can see for yourself that weird weather is becoming a real problem for the world. Trusting what climate scientists say is a reasonable response. They are experts in their field the same way that the firefighter in this story would, if she was a real person, be considered an expert in her field. We trust such experts because they have put in the hard work of becoming experts. Further, we know that they actually are experts because we can come to understand what they know, and, as we learn what they know, it continues to make sense. In contrast, those who are attempting to undermine climate science continue to use obfuscation, misdirection, outright falsehood, and even death threats (yes, literally), to silence opposition to their denial. Which should be very telling, indeed.

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