Global Warming Pessimists

Tom FriedmanIn a recent piece, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman identified himself as a global warming skeptic. But before you go away thinking that a liberal-leaning columnist at the Times actually doubts that global warming is occurring, we should clarify.

In the column, Mr Friedman discusses his recent visits to Doha and Dalian, mentioning his awe at the rapid pace of growth in these formerly-nowhere towns in Qatar and China respectively. Because of such rapid industrialization, which he sees occurring all over the world, Mr. Friedman thinks that climate change is not only happening, but that there may be nothing that humans can do to prevent it.

For clarities sake, I suggest that we look carefully at Friedman’s words. He says:

If you want to know why I remain a climate skeptic — not a skeptic about climate change, but a skeptic that we’re going to be able to mitigate it — it’s partly because of Doha and Dalian. Can you imagine how much energy all these new skyscrapers in just two cities you’ve never heard of are going to consume and how much CO2 they are going to emit?

I would offer that Mr. Friedman is not talking about skepticism, but simple pessimism. He’s not questioning climate change, he’s doubtful that it can be successfully stopped. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it’s hard to deny that skepticism on global warming–generally marked by doubt that anything is happening–is rather different than pessimism. By conflating the terms, Mr. Friedman risks misrepresenting his position, and also unveiling the greatest problem with such pessimism.

Pessimism on global warming, like all kinds of pessimism, is the opposite of optimism. Where an optimist would believe that with appropriate action humans will be able to slow or stop climate change, a pessimist thinks that even with appropriate action we will fail.

If we will fail by taking action, why take any action at all? Perhaps this is a semantic point, after all, Mr. Friedman isn’t arguing that nothing should be done. But his pessimism can easily give rise to the same policy results as a skeptic’s position on this issue.

And it seems likely that as American conservatives and oil companies find it harder and harder to deny the existence of climate change, their next sensible position would be to adopt Mr. Friedman’s brand of pessimism. After all, if they can convince people that nothing can be done, there would be no need for them to make the hard decisions for unfavorable–but likely necessary–regulations.

Additionally, pessimism arises primarily from doubts about the ability or willingness of the world to face this problem. Especially in the United States, where the federal government has been intent on ignoring or minimizing the appearance of a problem, it’s easy to doubt that anyone will work to assure that we can stem the tide.

But there exists a whole array of possible options to counteract climate change that most people won’t discuss. For one, we could create a complete moratorium on the creation of non-organic carbon dioxide–breathing’s allowed, but that’s it. Though such an effort seems over-the-top, if not mildly absurd, if this country and the world desired to seriously combat climate change, it is a possible measure that would likely be effective. If this issue is as serious as war–real war, requiring the commitment and sacrifice of a whole nation–no options can be taken off the table.

I’m not saying that pessimism isn’t merited in this case. It may well be all that’s left when you calculate based only on politically savory options–which such a moratorium is not. But if awareness and concern about this problem truly grew enough, anything would be possible. I’m not saying that warming could be completely stopped, but we could certainly slow its progress if we made an honest effort to try. Pessimism on global warming, like on most other topics, is an unsavory choice.

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3 responses to “Global Warming Pessimists”

  1. Good point. I’ve enjoyed reading (if not agreed with) Friedman in the past, and it’s rare that he’d make a categorical error such as this.

    The argument that “we cannot stop global warming” is a very different one than “we cannot slow it.” If you have bought into the idea that carbon emissions are part of the cause, than you (logically) agree that reducing them is part of the solution.

    So, even the pessimists face logistical problems that the skeptics happily avoid. Once you admit we are part of the problem, you pretty much have to admit there is a difference we can make, no matter how much you want to be a baby about it. Maybe the error was intentional :P.



  2. While reading I kept asking myself, which am I? Historically, I lean on the side of pessimism. Admittedly, this bothers me especially when conversing about global warming. I want to be the consummate optimist, fully believing and convinced that together we can not only alter but stop the decline before it’s too late. Obviously, your post really hit me hard.