Paul Andersen: Fair Game
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
I have a friend, an Aspen second-home owner, with whom I enjoy enlivened conversations. We come from opposite poles in most of our worldviews, so it’s both confounding and enlightening when we question each other’s beliefs.
Hiking up Tiehack with him last week, we weren’t two paces up the hill before he launched into criticism of my use of climate change as the basis for what he describes as my journalistic “jihad” against conspicuous consumption in Aspen.
He referred to a Wall Street Journal article describing 16 world scientists who refuse to accept the word “incontrovertible” when applied to climate change. They refute “alarmism” over climate change, which they charge has become a rationale for government funding of climate research and for growing bureaucracies that obstruct economic development.
Before we had reached the top of Eagle Hill, I told my friend that I choose to believe other scientists who think climate change is a serious issue. I confessed, however, that as a layman, I take all climate-change science mostly on faith. I’ve seen empirical evidence, such as the shrinking ice field in the north cirque of Pyramid Peak, but even that, I admitted, cannot take into consideration the vagaries of historical climate trends.
“I assume by the data I’ve read and by my own experience,” I concluded, “that climate change is real and that it’s man-made, but to be honest, I don’t know absolutely.”
I pushed the pace up Sterner Gulch, hoping to inhibit his speech, but it didn’t work. Between pants, he admonished, “Then don’t use … uncertain climate science … in your columns … as a rationale … against conspicuous consumption.” He was puffing like a locomotive, so I told him I would think about it – and I have.
My awareness of climate change stems mostly from scientific data: ice-cap core samples, temperature spikes, melting glaciers, etc. But it came first from witnessing traffic jams where I grew up in Chicago long before climate change was a hot-button topic.
Sitting one day among idling cars and trucks on the gridlocked Kennedy Expressway, I wondered about the atmospheric impact of the collective exhaust of the world’s vehicles, factories, power plants, office buildings, homes, etc., all spewing gases into the air. Intuitive reasoning told me there had to be long-term cumulative effects.
Emerging theories on climate change have since validated my views, causing me to extrapolate that energy consumption in the mostly vacant monster homes of Aspen – a major goad to my sense of proportion – is adding recklessly to future climate problems for the sake of luxury, vanity and excess.
Attacking conspicuous consumption in Aspen has not been very effective, so linking it to climate – on which our ski economy depends – made the point more salient. Was this appropriate without incontrovertible proof? My friend said, “No!”
At the top of Ptarmigan we paused to look at Pyramid Peak and soak in the rays of a warming winter sun. My friend said that the responsible thing for me to do is pull back from the climate linkage while still taking on conspicuous consumption as wasteful. There’s moral grounding there, we agreed, if one believes that waste is bad. That settled, we hiked on.
When we were a hundred yards from the Cliffhouse, I summed it up by saying that I would only link climate to consumption by acknowledging the conflicting climate science. I told my friend that I would still rely on intuitive logic but would hedge liberally against error and doubt. I won’t cop to being a climate-change agnostic because the weight of evidence still supports my beliefs.
As I thought about this later, I realized that most beliefs don’t rest on logical proof or material evidence; they arise from experience, from the gut. Belief comes before deduction as an antecedent to evidence, which is sought to corroborate belief.
My beliefs might not be scientifically “incontrovertible” today, but I believe one day they will be. Meanwhile, the responsible thing to do is acknowledge climate uncertainty by respecting future generations and leaving the smallest possible carbon and resource footprints.
My belief is that my friend and I (more likely our grandchildren) will be hiking Tiehack in future Februarys wearing shorts and sandals. Even then there will be scientists who claim that the Earth’s climate has not been incontrovertibly altered.