Revkin gets it very badly wrong. (Update: and walks it back a tad, thanks to yours truly… but not far enough to not continue to be hopelessly wrong in exactly the same way as before! See the asterisk.)
Here’s Will’s column from Newsweek extolling the virtues of an essay in the current issue of The American Scholar by Robert Laughlin, a physics Nobelist who contends that the climate system is far beyond man’s capacity to influence, inadvertently or otherwise.
It is an incorrect summary of Laughlin’s position that the climate system is beyond man’s capacity to alter inadvertently. He claims that all the fossil fuels WILL be combusted and that a climate crisis WILL ensue. He treats it as given that we do not have the capacity to restrain ourselves from doing so.
“On the scales of time relevant to itself, the earth doesn’t care about any of these governments or their legislation. It doesn’t care whether you turn off your air conditioner, refrigerator, and television set. It doesn’t notice when you turn down your thermostat and drive a hybrid car. These actions simply spread the pain over a few centuries, the bat of an eyelash as far as the earth is concerned, and leave the end result exactly the same: all the fossil fuel that used to be in the ground is now in the air, and none is left to burn. The earth plans to dissolve the bulk of this carbon dioxide into its oceans in about a millennium, leaving the concentration in the atmosphere slightly higher than today’s. Over tens of millennia after that, or perhaps hundreds, it will then slowly transfer the excess carbon dioxide into its rocks, eventually returning levels in the sea and air to what they were before humans arrived on the scene. The process will take an eternity from the human perspective, but it will be only a brief instant of geologic time.”
Except for the presumption that effective policy is impossible, this is in fact, perfectly consistent with the consensus IPCC view of the world. In fact, it is an excellent summary of that view.(*) It says that man will create a very large perturbation, and that in the very long run, far beyond normal human time scales, things may return to normal if there’s no further disruption.
Laughlin simply asserts (without bothering to defend it) that we lack the willpower to stop this crisis, so we shouldn’t bother. This may make him a political ally of those who say we shouldn’t bother, but he is scientifically making a very different case.
You state that the confusion abounding in the public’s mind is independent of the performance of the press. This, in an article whose structure is based on a fallacious reading of one of the positions it addresses, is more than a little bit ironic. I would like you to try getting it right for a while before coming to such a judgment.
(*) I should have said “parts of that view”
I appreciate being mentioned in your correction, and I hate to be churlish, but in my opinion your correction is still incorrect!
You originally said “Here’s Will’s column from Newsweek extolling the virtues of an essay in the current issue of The American Scholar by Robert Laughlin, a physics Nobelist who contends that the climate system is far beyond man’s capacity to influence, inadvertently or otherwise.”
In the correction, you removed the last three words. But the last three words are tautological, and can be replaced by “if you please or if you don’t please”, or “if pigs have wings or if they don’t”, or by nothing at all, without changing the logical (as opposed to rhetorical) meaning of the sentence at all. You chose replacing them with nothing, which is one of the cases which does not change the logical meaning of the claim. Since it was wrong before, and its meaning has not changed, it is still wrong.
I realize that actually fixing your claim will do some damage to the structure of the rest of your article, but a mistake is a mistake. I am glad you admitted your mistake. Now why not go ahead and fix it?
Update 9/18: I just submitted:
To be fair to Andy, the final paragraph of Laughlin’s essay does support the reading in Andy’s article. To be fair to me, the rest of it doesn’t. My eyes had thoroughly glazed over by the time I got to the end; the whole idea of looking at policy issues on geological time scales was something I found utterly pointless, so the fact that he actually reversed himself at the end escaped me. Andy may have read the concluding paragraph and glossed over the bulk of it. Both of us assumed that a physics nobelist could at least manage to be broadly coherent about his key points, but it appears in the final analysis that he has not.