Frankenstein’s Monster

The rains have stopped in South Carolina, but dams continue to break or fail, leaving several counties in continuing states of emergency. Water levels are still rising in many parts of the state as rainfall drains from Appalachian foothills, replacing already high levels of water in lower areas. With seven deaths from drowning and some truly haunting images of caskets floating away in floodwaters, South Carolina residents, currently fairly middle of the pack in the US on questions about climate changes relevance and seriousness, may have a renewed focus on the issue and what can be done about it.

Coincidentally, that renewed interest is coming about just after a guest appearance by Neil deGrasse Tyson on Bill Maher’s weekly program. On the subject of terraforming other planets, Tyson made the argument for (re-)terraforming Earth itself instead:

While the broader outlines of his argument – that we may soon have the technology and knowledge to allow us to repair some forms of environmental damage or change that currently vex us – is one that gives many people hope, there is a worrying conclusion these ideas might lead some to. In a nutshell, if we can fix the Earth, what’s the harm in breaking it in the first place?

Just as rigorous as Tyson’s point but less directed towards a popular audience, a consensus has begun to grow within many parts of the scientific community. Most recently this took the form of a concern that the natural analogue for a leading tech-fix to climate change – atmospheric aerosols – has complex and largely negative effects on freshwater availability in the broader world’s climate. For the millions of people worldwide who already are experiencing global warming induced water shortages, the implication that the “solution” to the problem might just compound their current predicament is hardly a reason to hope.

I suspect Tyson understands these concerns, but I hope he can highlight it more prominently. Terraforming another planet is not a simple thing, but neither is terraforming our own. The ultimate enemy here isn’t specifically climate change. It’s carelessness. Any presented solution has to acknowledge and tackle that specifically, or else we will be lurching from global warming to another slow motion disaster of our own making. Next week, while I watch and liveblog the Democratic debate, I won’t be hoping for the candidates to discuss global warming, but for them to indicate how they can lead us away from the recklessness that led to this current situation, and into something more nuanced and patient.

The featured image for this article is from here.

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