The High Costs of Ignorance

It is hard to believe that in this day and age there are still people who deny the fact of climate change brought on by global warming, despite virtual unanimity among scientists regarding not only the fact of global warming but also the fact that humans are at least partly responsible.  But a recent study revealed that there is an alarming number of high school teachers of biology (that’s right, teachers) who believe that humans and dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time and, of course, deny evolution. And 60% of Americans do not know that DNA  has anything to do with heredity. And, of course, the majority of Republicans in Congress are climate-deniers as well. So the claims of scientists apparently don’t register with those who don’t have the least idea just what science is, including a disturbing number of high school science teachers. Or, perhaps, people just believe what they want to believe, or are paid to believe. Perhaps that’s closer to the truth.

In any event, it now appears that insurance companies, led by the international reinsurance corporation in Munich, are researching the projected costs of climate change as it increases the risk of record-breaking extreme weather events — such as extreme heat, heavy precipitation, and higher winds in storms. It is sobering to realize that there have been at least 2,941 monthly records broken by extreme events in the past year in the United States alone. Climate scientists are saying that this is “a troubling trend,” which is a masterpiece of understatement.

In spite of the evidence, there are many who live among us who still drive their gas guzzlers, keep the heat at or above 72 degrees in the Winter and the air conditioner at the same setting in the Summer, and want to see any Federal agency that attempts to monitor industry run out-of-town. One suspects that when the cost in dollars finally comes home to roost and individuals have to pay more for fuel oil, gasoline, diesel fuel, and insurance  — not to mention the food on their tables — they might begin to get the idea. One hopes. The question is, of course, whether it will be too little too late.

The response of politicians, even “liberal” politicians like our sitting President, is to call for more nuclear plants. And while it is certainly the case that such plants do not contribute much to global warming, they none the less have serious environmental problems of their own that are a threat to the planet. To begin with we have no idea whatever where to bury the toxic waste, which, as of four years ago, amounted to 62,683 metric tons. Furthermore, there is always the possibility of a nuclear accident, as we were recently reminded when a tsunami devastated the nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan causing radiation leakage that still threatens human and animal life and has wreaked havoc in the Pacific Ocean. But the talk about “safe” nuclear power will resume as people forget what happened “over there somewhere,” ignore the fact of accumulating nuclear waste, and start to clamor for ways to maintain their current standard of living. And when it does, those who argue for clean fuel sources, such as wind and solar, will continue to go unheard, or dismissed as nut cases.

I chaired a conference some years back where a spokesman for the Texas Power and Light company argued against alternative energies on the grounds — stated as axiomatic — that nuclear power is the “clear choice for our future needs, since we don’t want to have to alter our lifestyle.”  There are a number of things wrong with this statement, of course, beginning with the fact that our current lifestyle is indefensible, given the genuine needs of others around the globe and the damage we are doing to the planet. In any event, we are not really talking about our “needs” anyway.” We simply want to maintain that lifestyle, and we try to justify that by calling it a “need.” In fact, we don’t need to continue to live as we do; we could live smarter — and be better off. We are very good at disguising our wants as needs in order to make ourselves think we are better people than we are.

Let’s assume for the sake of the argument that the climate scientists are all wrong and that human activity has nothing to do with climate change, as some still insist. And let us further assume that in spite of this we do alter our lifestyles and move in the direction of more environmentally responsible living — we use public transportation; walk, or cycle; drive cars only when necessary (and only fuel-efficient cars); turn the thermostats down in the winter and grab a sweater when cold; support alternate energies; and insist upon stringent standards of compliance from industry which at present is slow to endorse the waste-to-energy technologies that would be of immense benefit to us all. If we do all or even some of these things, and the scientific predictions turn out to have been overly pessimistic, we will have inconvenienced ourselves somewhat while still saving money in the long run —  as well as some of the planet’s finite resources. We will have erred on the side of caution. On the other hand, if the scientists are correct, as the insurance companies are now beginning to believe, and we insist on maintaining our current lifestyle, the results will be a series of catastrophes that will prove to be very costly to us all. Any bets as to which option we will choose?