The list was biblical in length and severity. All that was missing were the frogs and boils.
And I noticed something else: the audience's eyes glazed over as the endless list of disasters were described. And the climate policy advocates provided extraordinarily specific predictions--such as the snow pack being reduced by 35% by a certain year. Such extreme precision regarding events later in the century caused such substantial rolling of some eyeballs that I worried that some might fall out their sockets.
Such litanies of future global warming-related disasters are being repeated time and time again on the national scene, leading much of society to increasingly tune out the increasingly strident warnings of global warming impacts provided by the "prophets" in non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the media, and others. In fact, according to a recent Gallup poll, climate change has dropped to 14th of the list of Americans' worries.
Well if biblical-style prophetic warnings are in vogue today, is there anything we can learn from the bible on their effectiveness? Let's explore this.
Perhaps the most famous, and demonstrably least successful, prophet of environmental doom was Moses.
Time and time again he warned Pharaoh of terrible environmental disasters such as storms of fire, insects, and darkness. But he got no where. The Pharaoh's advisers noted that such events could happen without divine intervention (i.e., natural variability) and that the cost of placating Moses (freedom for the economically valuable slaves) was too high. Moses got no action until a clearly unnatural and unprecedented plague unfolded (the deaths of the Egyptian first born).
Not successful in getting action using threats of environmental disaster to promote change.
It seems to me that many in the environmental movement are following Moses'playbook and have been equally unsuccessful. And I think they know this and in acts of desperation have been searching for extraordinarily lethal, unprecedented disasters--that is why there has been such emphasis on extreme weather events.
So you might ask, was there an example of a more successful Biblical environmental advocate, who provided a warning that was taken seriously and which resulted in an effective response? Perhaps Joseph is a candidate.
Remember the story? The Pharaoh had some unsettling dreams of seven fat cows that were eaten up by some lean ones, and seven fat heads of grain that were subsumed by thin ones. Pharaoh was disturbed by these dreams and wanted an explanation.
His advisers knew of a slave named Joseph with a demonstrated record of successful predictions, including situations that could not have been natural occurrences. Pharaoh asked that Joseph be brought before him. Joseph interpreted Pharaoh's dream as forecasting seven bountiful years followed by seven years of drought. Pharaoh not only accepted Pharaoh's forecast but put Joseph in charge of the preparations. So Pharaoh did something we are not doing now: energetically preparing for the environmental disaster ahead--in envirospeak, adaptation not mitigation. With Pharaoh's backing Joseph increased grain production and put aside large amounts of food for the upcoming lean years.
Joseph describes how Egypt can prepare for and adapt to climate change
Joseph's predictions came to pass and Egypt was ready for and survived the drought. And keep in mind that Joseph did not propose taking action to stop the drought, but to promote adaptation and preparation for this severe climatological event. And the annual costs of his plan were not excessive and major sacrifices were not required.
I believe these biblical stories have a lot to teach environmental advocates today:
(1) Moses-like descriptions of endless catastrophes not only seem unrealistic but cause audiences to disengage.
(2) Providing highly detailed and specific predictions suggesting precise predictions for decades hence undermines credibility, since most folks intuitively understand there is uncertainty in predictions later in the century.
(3) Credibility is gained by a series of successful predictions well into the future,; Joseph was a proven prognosticator. Currently, atmospheric sciences does not have a very good track record in decadal prediction and we have yet to demonstrate forecasts over longer periods. Remember, climatologists in the 60s and 70s were forecasting future cooling, and no one predicted the "pause" in warming before it happened. Similarly, forecasts for snow pack in the Cascades made a decade ago for today are failing.
(4) Keeping forecasts and warnings focused and promoting specific ways to ameliorate the damage (as done by Joseph) are far more effective than broad catastrophic warnings coupled with unrealistic demands (like moving to a system of cap and trade or heavy taxation of carbon fuels).
(5) Most groups are unwilling to make major sacrifices now for the prevention of unproven predictions of future calamities. Moses is a good example of this. But modest investments for the future are feasible.
(6) Harping on extreme events that could have natural causes is not an effective tool for securing converts to one's point of view.
Strident and threatening demands that require real sacrifices right now are generally not welcome.
Perhaps a bit of biblical wisdom into human nature is needed to recenter and rationalize the climate debate. And let's follow Joseph's approach:
(1) Work on adaptation to climate change, which includes improving weather/seasonal/ climate forecasting and improving infrastructure's resilience to extreme weather. These tasks will make economic sense even if climate doesn't change.
(2) Develop improved energy technologies that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, ensuring that such technologies make economic sense (such as hybrid cars). The serious air pollution in SE Asia and recently in France provide more than enough reason to do so. Wind energy and solar can be economically viable, even without subsides.
(3) Continue research to secure a better understanding of the climate system. Get a better handle on forecast uncertainty and natural variability. Improve our models. Many highly respected scientists believe our current climate models are excessively sensitive to increases in greenhouse gases (perhaps by a factor of two).
(3) Understand that climate change is just one component of a larger problem: the sustainability of our planet. Population growth and rising standards of living are important elements that can not be ignored.
And to end with a final biblical quote:
And God blessed them: and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth"
Time to do the replenishing part.