by Shane L. Larson
I was a child in the 1980s, during the climax of the Cold War. I had always known about the Cold War, and knew in an off-hand way about the vast stockpiles of nuclear weapons. I had heard of the concept of “mutual assured destruction,” but I didn’t learn the fear associated with a nuclear holocaust until late one night in 1985 when I watched a horrifying episode of The New Twilight Zone, called “A Little Peace and Quiet.”
In that episode, a harried suburban housewife is digging in her garden and uncovers a magical amulet that, when worn, allows her to stop time by uttering the words “shut up.” She predictably uses this excellent ability to bring some modicum of peace to her life, stopping the morning breakfast routine so she can enjoy her coffee and newspaper, and stopping throngs of crazy shoppers so she can navigate the grocery store. The episode culminates late at night, with air-raid sirens going off and the Emergency Broadcast System blaring its baleful warnings about the onset of a nuclear holocaust. Without thinking, our heroine demands that time stop, and the crisis freezes. Stumbling out of the house in her dressing gown, she is confronted with the sight of a Soviet nuclear missile hanging in the sky over her town, moments away from destroying her and everything she knows.
That image of a nuclear missile, poised moments before detonation over a small American town freaked the crap out of me. Thinking about it, I still feel the pangs of terror that raced through me as a boy. That single image made the whole notion of nuclear destruction real to me.
Ultimately, the Cold War came to an end, largely through the advent of perestroika and glasnost in the USSR. From an estimated peak of 70,000 nuclear warheads, that number has today fallen to around 25,000. While the number is roughly a third what it used to be, it is still vast enough to rain unimaginable devastation down on the world. The world’s fear level regarding nuclear weapons (at least those held by superpowers) has waned, but the level of perception held by the public regarding a nuclear holocaust is strong. On the one hand, part of the public consciousness is built on visions built by television and film dramatizations such as “Fail-Safe” and “The Day After,” and novels like Pat Frank’s eponymous “Alas, Babylon” and William Prochnau’s “Trinity’s Child.”
More importantly, the effects of atomic warfare had been burned into the public memory after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Pictures and detailed medical reports concerning the injury and deteriorating health of survivors in the days after the bombings illustrate in no uncertain terms the punishing cruelty of death by atomic warfare. More poignantly, the oral history of the event lives with us today through the eyewitness testimonies of Japanese citizens who had looked to the sky at the droning sound of the B-29 bombers that carried the first (and to date, only) atomic weapons to their detonation sites. These oral histories have been documented in many books over the years, and in many instances can be read online (one famous collection of eyewitness accounts of the Hiroshima bombing is The Voice of Hibakusha, http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/Hibakusha/ ).
An attempt to illuminate the details of a full nuclear exchange were captured by Jonathan Schell in his 1982 book, The Fate of the Earth. Written at the height of the Cold War, The Fate of the Earth captured with harsh candor the future of the world in light of a nuclear holocaust. Portrayed in language that is decidedly non-technical and accessible, Schell outlines the physical consequences to our planet and biosphere; he explores the complex disconnect between scientific revolutions and the unpreparedness of society to deal with those revolutions; and perhaps most strikingly, he confronts face-on the almost certain reality that all our fiction and film dramatizations steadfastly ignore, the extinction of the human species. The book is brilliantly written, and is often regarded as one of the seminal works about the threats to our civilization posed by the Cold War.
Today there is a New Cold War threatening our world, once again ostensibly based on ideology – this war is a war against science. It is not a war framed by foreign powers vying for global domination. No, this war is far more sinister, propagated by fuzzy thinking, authority based on personal opinion, callous disregard for facts and observations, and a fundamental ignorance about the process of science. There are two focal points for conflict. In one instance, the predictions of science conflict with deeply held, core ideological beliefs – certain socio-economic philosophies do not permit the acknowledgement of scientific data or predictions that conflict with their core tenets, particularly in our age of polarized and inflexible politics. In the other instance, the predictions of science posit problems that have dire and far reaching consequences for our civilization – consequences so dire, that their resolution will require international cooperation and alliances, expenditures of vast amounts of capital, and investments of intellectual effort the likes of which the world has never seen. In both cases, the battle lines drawn against science are lines based on fear – fear of facing up to what science has to say about our future.
While there are many battle fronts in this war – evolution, stem cell research, vaccination, and many others – the most prominent battleground is centered squarely on the changing climate of the planet. At the crux of this battle are some issues that can be tested, measured, and understood. The planet is, without a doubt, warming. The understanding that the Earth is warming is not a matter of conjecture; the long term climatic data show that the planet is warmer today than it was a century ago. That the Earth has gone through periods of warming in the past is not a matter of conjecture; climatic data from the geologic record show that the Earth has repeatedly experienced periods of warming and cooling. That the warming seen on Earth today is at a rate that is far in excess of any previous known warming spell is also not a matter of conjecture; it is a matter of scientific fact supported by thousands of independent lines of evidence. That the current warming trend corresponds temporally with the growth of industrialization is also not a matter of conjecture; it is fact.
The battle over climate is being fought over the implications of the temporal overlap of industrialization with the current observed warming trend. The consensus of the scientific community is that our civilization must start making dramatic and immediate changes in our energy habits, particularly as they relate to the generation of carbon that is being dumped into the atmosphere. As one might imagine, this has important and far reaching consequences for our energy-hungry culture. Those consequences themselves have huge economic and political ramifications that have sparked a firestorm of debates.
Why are scientists so adamant that our civilization become more serious about controlling our carbon emissions? Many believe that the correlation between the growth of industrialization and the current warming trend indicates an irrevocable link between humans and the changing climate. But even for those who are less certain of the direct link, there are arguments that demand our civilization respond and curtail our carbon emissions. One argument is the understanding that the climate is a non-linear system. Non-linear systems are a well understood phenomenon in science – they represent interconnected situations where small changes to the physical conditions of a system can feedback on themselves and grow to drastic proportions. You can demonstrate simple non-linear systems yourself at home. Imagine having a stack of a child’s blocks. Stacking two on top of each other is simple and stable. If you continue adding blocks, short towers are stable but progressively taller towers are more wobbly. There will come a moment where the addition of a single block will cause a catastrophic shift in the tower’s configuration. The climate is also a non-linear system; what is unknown is how unstable is it? At what point will the climate reach an unstable point where simple changes will push it into a catastrophic and unrecoverable change.
The idea of an irrevocable catastrophic change strongly advocates for a course of action that can be described in terms of Pascal’s Wager, originally formulated by Blaise Pascal and published posthumously in 1669 in his last book, “Pensées.” The Wager was a way to address the question of whether God exists or not, and is most easily thought of as a 2×2 box. The columns represent the possible ways the world is designed – in Pascal’s case, these were “God Exists” and “God does not exist”. The rows represent actions on our part, in Pascal’s case “Lead a pious life” or “Lead a hedonistic life.” The entries are the consequences to us given the way the world is and the choices we make. In Pascal’s case, if you lead a pious life and God does not exist then you only missed out on some sex, drugs and rock and roll, whereas if God does exist you’ll not suffer the fate of sinners. If you lead a hedonistic life and God does not exist, then you had a lot of (perhaps immoral) fun, whereas if God does exist then your eternal soul will not have much fun. Pascal used the wager to argue that in the face of any uncertainty in the existence of God, the only logical choice was to lead a pious life because the only bad outcome was for those who lead hedonistic lives.
In a very similar way, the question of human action and the climate can be framed as a 2×2 Pascal Wager. The columns are “humans do not affect the climate” and “humans do affect the climate”, and the rows are “reduce our carbon emission” or “continue carbon emission.” If we reduce carbon emission and we do not affect the climate then nothing untoward will happen to our planet, whereas if we do affect the climate then reducing carbon emission can prevent a headlong rush toward a non-linear catastrophe. If we do not affect the climate and keep up our carbon emissions, then again nothing would happen to the planet (though the morality of our stewardship might be questionable), but if we do affect the climate then continuing to emit carbon will destroy the only planet we know that can support lifeforms as fragile as we. Just as with Pascal’s original Wager, there is only one choice that has drastic consequences, so why would we avoid it?
While the scientific observations are clear, and the possible futures are certainly describable, the decisions about what to do are not so easy. Mostly because those decisions are not matters of science – they are matters of philosophy, economics and politics. The unfortunate truth is that the battles stemming from the philosophy, economics and politics have blossomed and, as with many conflicts, sought easy and soft targets. In this case, science itself. Why is science a soft target? Because in the world today the understanding of science and the nuances of science are poorly understood and widely disregarded by an otherwise intelligent and capable population of citizens.
As was the case during the nuclear Cold War, many attempts to make the issues accessible to the general populous, to educate the average citizen, have been made. Many excellent books have been written explaining not just the science, but the politics of the situation: James Hansen’s “Storms of my Grandchildren”, James Gustave Speth’s “Red Sky at Morning”, and Tyler Volk’s “CO2 Rising”. Many attempts have been made to create films about this topic, but they fall miserably short of being useful because they are subsumed in the modern entertainment machine where special effects and epic mayhem dominate the weekend box office.
But even if you could produce a film that garnered wide attention and praise, the world today is different than it was in 1982, and the effect of a single film or book on the public consciousness is perforce limited. We are all dramatically linked through a global network of websites and social media. Our news, rather that coming from a common source (the original triplet of national news networks), is garnered from a dizzying array of satellite and cable TV channels and online news sources. This fracturing of the media means that we don’t all share a common source of information. People can, and do, draw all their information from single sources that have been deemed philosophically appropriate, even if the information from those sources is contrary to all scientific evidence and based on an alternative knowledge system. How can we ever hope to have a single unifying voice, like Schell’s book at the height of the First Cold War, in such a fragmented information culture?
And so we stand at a crossroads in the New Cold War, much as we did in the early 1980’s, when Schell penned his conclusion to The Fate of the Earth. Curiously, his entire concluding monologue is devoid of almost any mention of nuclear weapons. Reading it, one could easily believe it was written just today about the New Cold War and the battle over climate. In his conclusion, Schell wrote of two paths, not unlike Robert Frost’s celebrated allegorical paths in the woods. Then, as now, the paths represent different outcomes for the fate of humanity based on the outcome of the Cold War. One path leads to extinction, while the other leads to survival of our planet. His words are as relevant today as they were then: “One day – and it is hard to believe that it will not be soon – we will make our choice. Either we will sink into the final coma and end it all or, as I trust and believe, we will awaken to the truth of our peril, a truth as great as life itself, and, like a person who has swallowed a lethal poison but shakes off his stupor at the last moment and vomits the poison up, we will break through the layers of our denials, put aside our fainthearted excuses, and rise up to cleanse the earth…”