Some Thoughts on Fear and Truth: Ebola To Climate Change

Do you think there is more or less fear in your life than there has been in previous years? I ask the question because it feels to me (not scientific of course) there is more fear in people’s lives than there has been in the past. If you manage money or work in a field having anything to do with Wall Street, then you likely have heard of the fear index. This simple index looks at what’s driving market sentiment right now, yesterday it registered at the extreme fear end of the scale. That’s just one way to measure fear. This may or may not translate into how you feel today.

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Yelling Fire
I have a good friend who often recounts stories to me about some of the folks he works with. He tells me about those always screaming, as if their hair was on fire, about every issue. They use this tactic, in an attempt to raise the importance of even the simplest problems, to a catastrophic level. Perhaps you work with people like this. The older I become, the more I realize most things aren’t as dire as we are often lead to believe, but conversely some things are actually more problematic than some would have us understand.

What Is Truth?
Seeking out the truth can be difficult because the truth itself is subject to interpretation and nuance. If you are religious, there are truths that exist without any room for discussion. For each of us there are those truths which, if challenged enough, might reveal holes in our thinking. There are also elements of life for which we behave as if they are true, but in reality are not. I feed my dogs a raw diet because I believe, based on what I have read, this is the best thing for dogs. However, you could easily find evidence this isn’t true and show how I should be feeding them a diet from a company who has spent millions of dollars researching what ingredients they believe are best.

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Experts Don’t Know Everything
The latest Ebola outbreak has challenged what even experts thought to be true. All of us are watching the rules and protocols for how to deal with this disease change on a daily basis. What was truth a few weeks ago might not be any longer. The mortality rate and the way the disease is transmitted both can and will change over time. These shifts in our understanding mean what is valid today, likely won’t be in the future. Fear about Ebola could easily wane or spike depending on what happens in the coming months or years.

This past weekend I had a lively discussion about climate change with 4 seniors at Colby College in Maine. As member of the alumni council, I am fortunate to be able to interact with students several times each year. Additionally, I teach meteorology and therefore have further chance to foster and participate in discussions about climate.

One student asked me if I thought Boston was going to be like Venice in the future and when this could happen. The question is certainly a loaded one and could be answered in a number of ways. It is possible that in some future world, Boston might be like Venice. After all, since Venice was founded in 421AD the Adriatic sea level has risen over 15 feet from where it stands today.

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Climate Change
Should we be collectively fearful of the future due to a changing climate? It’s a great question and one we should continue to discuss. The reality is most of you reading this will likely have minimal impact to your lives from climate change in your lifetime. How can I write such a bold statement? I base this on what even the most dire predictions hold for us in the coming 50 years. By then, nearly everyone who got this far in the blog entry will have led most, if not all of their lives. This doesn’t mean the issue isn’t real or serious, it’s just not something that will directly impact millions and therefore forcing change in behavior becomes difficult. It’s not easy to do something that might bring benefit one, two or even more generations after our time here.

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Computer Models Are Not Fact
Think of a huge outbreak of severe weather, a big blizzard or even a hurricane. While some experience power outages, damage to their homes and even the unfortunate loss of life, most deal with the event and continue with their daily lives. The media can make us fearful of what is coming, because there is a chance something very bad might happen. These catastrophic predictions are unfounded for the vast majority in a storm’s potential path. These are not reasons not to evacuate, take out insurance or prepare, but it is reality.

Even in our daily weather forecasts, the prospect of what if scenarios is too often used to garner a reaction, usually to gain eyeballs or followers. There will be cold and snow this winter and no matter how much or how little there is, spring will arrive sometime in March. Traffic will be impacted, schools closed and too much milk purchased.

A Host Of Possibilities
If you look at computer model predictions of future sea level rises they have enormous ranges. The chart below shows how much the sea level might rise over the next 9 decades. Notice the further out in time you go, the wider the spread of what might happen becomes.

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It’s certainly possible the worst case scenario could occur, but it’s also possible there will be a more manageable a rise in sea level in the coming decades. It’s also highly likely, according to the IPCC, that sea levels are going to continue to rise regardless of anything we do. According to the latest IPCC United Nations report, “it is virtually certain that global mean sea level rise will continue for many centuries beyond 2100, with the amount of rise dependent on future emissions.”

Taking The Longer View
One student asked me if I thought, even if the predictions were overstated, it was ok because the end justifies the means. In other words, is fear warranted if it gets humans to lower carbon emissions? My answer was perhaps, but I wonder will it matter over a span of decades. Emissions in China continue to far exceed any cuts the United States has made over the past several years. So, the net amount of carbon input into the system continues to rise.

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Additionally, new technologies for energy are going to be developed and deployed over the coming decades at some unknown rate. Does it matter if the change to non-carbon forms of energy occurs 10, 20, or 30 years faster?

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China will eventually change. Should fear be used to speed up the conversation even if it’s based on computer models which have an enormous range of outcomes? What if sea levels rise even more dramatically? The past has seen wild swings in our climate not caused by anything humans did.

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Ongoing Work
Few if any organizations ever say their mission is done. You won’t hear an environmentalist saying they have cleaned up the air or water enough, planted enough trees, or saved enough species. Most organizations are never satisfied with their growth and market their ideas in order to garner the most support possible. While not explicit, many play on fear to obtain followers. Fear of becoming fat, fear of not looking good, fear of your house flooding, fear of your grandchildren living in world destroyed by humans all play into getting our behavior to change one way or another. The goal is to get that little voice in your head to just have enough doubt to get on the bandwagon of whatever it is being marketed. One could even argue the point of this is to do the same.
So, what’s the point of the my over 1000 words? I opened this entry asking questions around fear and probing truth. I think it’s important we continue to investigate and be willing to change our way of viewing the big issues, rather than act on fear and uncertainly. This applies to Ebola, climate change or something as simple as what we feed our pets.

Civility Matters
What I do know is this, what’s seen as fact today will change and sometimes quite dramatically over time. There are risks and sometimes rewards to taking actions through a prism of what if scenarios. It doesn’t matter if we are speaking about issues of public policy, running your household or raising children, the impacts are real. Discussing all issues with respect and civility will bring about informed solutions, rather than reactive ones, no matter what the topic.


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