The Point of No Return Lands Us Right Back Where We Started

The History Channel began airing a special titled Two Degrees: The Point of No Return on Friday night, September 15. I survived about five minutes before my own temperature started to rise alarmingly. Here are some reactions based upon that minimal exposure.

The documentary appears to be somewhat more credible than Mermaids.

The two fatal degrees actually refer to the Celsius system, meaning that they equate to nearly four degrees in the Fahrenheit system more familiar to us laymen. No attempt to dramatize there, I’m sure.

The footage of Arctic icebergs releasing sheets of ice into the ocean has been so widely circulated among the documentary community that I quite literally saw it fifteen minutes later on another station where the Ice Age was being discussed.

Juxtaposing footage of melting icebergs, ambulances on a tear, hurricane-flooded streets, and high-rises in conflagration is a very sorry substitute for rational argument.

Similarly, footage of smokestacks belching out pillars of fumes is evidence of nothing whatever. Most of the billowing effluvient may be water vapor (i.e., steam); and the videos themselves may have been taken in 1968 or 1975, or at any point over the past fifty years when pollution controls were lax to non-existent. The documentary’s argument, of course, would not be served by acknowledging that we’ve gotten much, much better—not in China, but in the West—about filtering out toxic particles.

Is it entirely arch, by the way, to observe in passing how much this kind of fear-mongering serves the imperialist ends of Communist China, its objective being to curb our own industrial production rather than to point the finger at immensely more zealous offenders? Might full disclosure reveal some modest involvement of the PRC in this production, I wonder… wonder… wonder?

The opening assertion that, in the century and a half since weather records have been kept, eight of the hottest ten years have occurred in the last decade is a prima facie absurdity. You cannot take the planet’s temperature the way you take a sick child’s. In 1880, a great many reaches of the planet were not even fully explored. Today as then, furthermore, many areas where temperature readings may be harvested in abundance are, naturally, urbanized—and we can indeed say confidently that urbanization has both increased over the past century and that urban construction heats things up. But…

But the manmade activity in the crosshairs isn’t hyper-reflective, headache-inducing steel and concrete, all of which god-awful mess I detest as much as anyone on earth; the culprit is supposed to be CO2, which alone (for some reason) must take the rap for nudging up the mercury. But…

But plants love CO2. They eat the stuff up. I’ve never seen the desert Southwest so green as it was this past summer. Is that bad? Does that spell the end for us all?

Well, yes… because mosquitoes will descend upon New York and Boston just as they currently do upon, say, Brazil. Bet you didn’t know that there actually aren’t any human beings still alive in Brazil. The mosquitoes got ’em all.

I could go on. I could question, for instance, why the same people who want to shut down our industries (but not the PRC’s) also want our southern border flung wide open so that millions of blue-collar workers driving uninspected, high-emission smoke-bombs can take their place in our twice-a-day rush-hour traffic. But…

But my temperature is starting to rise again. Yeah, I hate car culture and the contemporary American city. Hate it more than the ambassadors of Green who fly innumerable jets to endless conferences in Seattle. But kindly stop insulting my intelligence with the Halloween panoply of skeletons and ghouls held together by paperclips and Elmer’s glue. Come back after you’ve done your homework, and try to talk like an adult.

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Statistical Obtundity: How Sharp People Reach Dull Conclusions

I heard a certain amiable media commentator make a point a couple of weeks ago that he has often made before (and which, frankly, is becoming a little tiresome and cliché in him and in others). He remarked that people entertain an irrational fear of new technologies, especially those in transportation. Statistically, you’re much more likely to die while traveling from Dallas to Atlanta in a car than on a plane. Furthermore, now that self-driving cars are looming (which was the specific topic under discussion), people are shrinking back in fear and again failing to register that they’re much more likely to die when others like themselves are behind every wheel at rush hour.

I call this phenomenon “statistical obtundity”: i.e., the tendency of bright people to convince themselves that they’re even brighter than they are by juggling undigested stats. Raw numbers can make us obtuse if we’re not careful. The chances seem to rest almost at statistical certainty that a burst of solar flares will not take out our power grid today, or tomorrow… yet the chances are 100% that such a burst will one day occur, and that we’ll lose all electrical power if we don’t secure it in ways so far ignored by policy-makers. The chances are 100% that a super-volcano will one day erupt in Yellowstone Park (which sits atop the caldera of one)… but today is a great day to go see Old Faithful!

Likewise, if a terrorist’s bomb or surface-to-air missile explodes your plane in mid-flight, the chances are pretty much 100% that you’ll die. There is no equivalent situation that arises in driving a car. Because the vehicles are widely spread out and no more than one or two people, usually, sit within each one, no “target” is presented. If a high, long bridge or an undersea tunnel were to be taken out as peak traffic filled it, the situation would become comparable to the exploded aircraft’s—but such precarious choke-points can either be avoided are negotiated at a less popular time by the “paranoid” driver.

You see, the correct comparison is not between airplanes and automobiles: it’s between Heathrow Airport and the Channel Tunnel, or perhaps between a passenger jetliner and a Japanese bullet-train. To put it another way, the plane and the car pose a contrast. One is a sure-fire death-trap IF certain defenses can be penetrated by evil agencies: as a passenger, you’re powerless to control your fate once security has been breached. The other option is perfectly insulated from the machinations of wicked schemers. Even if a tractor-trailer jackknives in front of you or a drunk driver strays toward you across the median, you still have the wheel in your hands and may come out in one piece with quick, cool reactions.

Now that the self-driving car looms in our future as something like a lead-pipe cinch (whatever that means—lead pipes are pretty deadly, too, you know), all bets are off for the car. It will become like the jetliner. A hacker who gains access to whatever GPS is controlling your vehicle’s navigation can sweep everyone into the sea at rush hour. You’ll just be along for the ride and won’t be able to do a thing about it. Apparently, we haven’t yet learned the lesson that trending new technology all appears to be dangerously centripetal: it’s carrying us toward greater centralization—in the name of “efficiency”—where one miscue, glitch, or brilliant feat of sabotage may kill thousands. A flu vaccine is advertised by Big Brother as the means to save dozens or hundreds of lives annually… and only one or two here and there will die because of a peculiar reaction to it. Simply choosing a lifestyle where one’s exposure to masses of people is limited doesn’t win consideration as a serious alternative. Yet there’s always the chance that, by fair means or foul, some toxin will find its way into the vaccine…

I like keeping as much control over my life as I can get. I leave the self-satisfied techno-geeks and faux conservatives to curl up in their blanket of warming stats.