Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2014

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Katherine Bergeron, Connecticut College's 11th president. Photo by Harold Shapiro

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Unabridged letters from the Winter 2014 issue


Dear CC Magazine Editor,

I would like to offer a comment on Professor Hartzell-Nichols's recent article “The Long Arm of Indifference” published in the Connecticut College Magazine Fall 2013 issue.  As a member of Hartzell-Nichols's graduating class and being married to a woman who was also part of the Goodwin Niering Center's Certificate Program, having graduated a year earlier (Maria Sinnamon, '02), I was excited to read this particular article.  To my disappointment, however, the article took a flawed (even if prevalent) assumption upon which to build a disturbing argument (even if her conclusion was more or less satisfactory).

Without writing a full length article in reply, let me simply state that it is not “logic” which dictates that we cannot do harm to future generations because they owe their existence to all of our choices good and bad, but rather Hartzell-Nichols's assumption that existence is a good in itself.  I insist that not only is it not a good, but that it is in itself harm, especially given the state of the world into which we and subsequent generations are born.

When Hartzell-Nichols asks and answers the question “can you say that you are glad you exist?,” I emphatically say, “NO!” (Even if I said “yes,” it would not make existence worthwhile). I say this not out of a state of depression (I am generally quite happy) nor does this mean that I desire to suffer death (indeed, I am arguing that I should never have to die because I should never have existed).  I make this statement because this world, given all of its horror, violence, and suffering -- environmental or otherwise -- is not fit for any creature, let alone children (I make this statement as the father to a four-year-old boy to whom I owe an unpayable debt).

Thus, I offer my own axiomatic statement:  all creatures, children especially, deserve –ought – to live under optimal conditions (i.e. paradise).  If ought carries any meaning in this world, I find it difficult to understand how any parent could argue otherwise.  Gratitude and responsibility flows downward from Parent to Child, not upward from Child to Parent.  We owe our children, and by extension subsequent generations, a debt we can never pay.  We will never make this world a paradise; indeed, it is more than likely that we will make it an uninhabitable hell, and therefore any persons for whom we are responsible for the existence of are by definition harmed by our actions.  I am harmed by the ecological violence of those who came before me, just as I harm those who will come after me.  The question is not whether I will harm future generations by my actions, the question is how much will I harm them.  We are indeed “obligated to do everything in our power to eliminate all harmful conditions in the world” and yet this still is not enough because our power, limited by our paralysis, is insufficient.  The fact is that we do exist, as do our children, and the very fact of our existence comes with the obligation to make existence the most optimal possible.

Hartzell-Nichols is right about one thing, “We need to come to collectively care about the fate of future generations and …own up to our collective responsibility to ensure future people don't live under especially harmful conditions.”  We do this, however, not from some state of superior beneficence, but from the most humble state of paying a debt weowe to those subsequent generations for whose existence we are absolutely responsible. 

Sincerely,
Matthew Wightman '03
B.A. Religious Studies / M.A. in Theology from Yale Divinity School '06



Dear CC Magazine Editor,

I would like to comment on Lauren Nichols' article “The Long Arm of Indifference” which appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of CC Magazine.

I found it interesting that Dr. Nichols, as a philosopher, took such an unquestioning attitude towards what is essentially a scientific question. That is, the effect of CO2 on global temperature. She bases her argument entirely by accepting, without skepticism, that we must reduce “greenhouse gases”, meaning CO2, or we will have a “climate catastrophe”.

The late preeminent physicist Richard Feynman in the course of little over a minute succinctly defined how science operates: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OL6-x0modwY). Please watch the video; it is well worth a minute of your time. He describes how we guess a phenomenon of nature works, then we compute consequences of our guess, then compare our computations to nature itself. If our computations do not match nature, then our guess is wrong.

The “guess” we have been dealing with for the past 25 years is that CO2 is the primary driver of global temperatures. There are many reasons to doubt this guess was correct in the first place, but we should follow the proper form. Based on this guess, many people, starting with James Hanson, have then computed the consequences based on that guess. These are the climate models one hears so much about. It is important to understand that these models are not data of actual global temperatures, but the predictions based on the hypothesis that CO2 drives the climate. We need to take the third step: compare the computations (climate models) to nature itself.

As our first test of the guess with respect to how it agrees with nature, let's look at the historic record. This data comes from ice cores taken from Greenland, from which climatologists reconstruct the temperature, and from the trapped air bubbles they can measure the CO2 levels. Now, granted this is Greenland temperature, but people have some confidence in the data as the ice core data correlates well with other methods of reconstructing past climates. Here is the data (Easterbrook, Western Washington Univ, seen as Fig 4 in http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/10/29/commonsense-climate-science-and-forecasting-after-ar5/):




Note particularly the Minoan, Roman, and Medieval warm periods where the global temperature was from 1 -1.5 oC warmer than today's climate, and yet the CO2 level was less than today. This does call into question whether the guess is correct but does not show it is, in Feynman's words, “wrong!” The reason is that the guess recognizes that water vapor is actually the primary greenhouse gas, and that the guess is based on the idea that increasing CO2 creates a positive feedback loop which causes more water vapor which then raises the earth's temperature. In technical terms this is called the “climate sensitivity” and the more carbon dioxide, the more the global temperature should rise.

So, let's actually check the guess. The climate is not a laboratory where we can set up an experiment, we have to take the data directly from the earth, and the time scale is in years, not days and months. However, we now have accumulated several decades worth of data. Let's look at it (http://www.drroyspencer.com/):



The 'spaghetti' of curves are various runs of the climate models with slightly differing parameters. The black line is the average of all the climate models. The red and blue lines are the actual temperature anomalies of the earth from satellite data (UAH: Univ. of Alabama, Huntsville, RSS: Remote Sensing Systems satellite). Satellite data is much less prone to error due to poor locations (airport tarmacs for example) than land based thermometers, and also covers the entire planet rather than just the land surfaces.

Note how the models coincide well with the data up until about 1997, then they diverge. For the past 16-17 years the discrepancy between the models and reality becomes larger. At present, the models are failing at the 95% level; or in statistical terms they are beyond the 2 sigma limit. During this time period the carbon dioxide level has continued to rise in a linear fashion and is now at 400 ppm. As the models depend strictly on the CO2 level, that is reflected in the black line average. Using Feynman's basic criteria, we can easily conclude that the hypothesis the models are based on is wrong. CO2 does not drive the global temperature.

Now some may suggest we need to wait longer. However, even climatologists have stated in publications that 17 years is a proper time interval to test the models (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2011JD016263/abstract).

Dr. Nichols is concerned about the ethical implications for future generations regarding global warming. I am also. However, the decisions must be based on sound science before we spend billions of our children's money, and deny developing nations cheap energy to raise their standard of living based on a wrong guess as to how nature actually operates.

Michael Monce
Professor of Physics and Chair?Department of Physics, Astronomy, Geophysics


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