• Ian Sutton

A Well-Known Generalist

Updated: Nov 23, 2021


George Will commentary on climate change
George Will, Washington Post

The previous two posts in this series have discussed the need for generalists to help explain and understand complex issues such as climate change. The post Who’s the Climate Expert? challenges the idea that climate scientists are the persons who can explain what is going on in its entirety. The Generalist outlines some of the attributes of someone who can understand and explain climate change.


Given this background, it was interesting to see the comments of a very well known columnist, George Will of the Washington Post, with regard to climate change. His thoughts are to be found in the article Opinion: ‘Peak oil’ somehow never arrives, but COP26 may have achieved peak climate hysteria.


The previous discussions have suggested that a good generalist pays attention to the following areas:

  • Factual correctness;

  • Flawed analysis;

  • Objectivity; and

  • Systems understanding.

In each of these areas Will’s opinion piece falls short.


Facts

There are factual errors in the opinion piece that suggest that Will or his editors have not carried out the needed research. For example, he suggests that the City of Miami in Florida can adapt to climate change by building a sea wall. He compares that city’s situation with that of the Netherlands, a country that has a long history of building sea walls. But he or his fact checkers fail to acknowledge that sea walls in the Netherlands are built on dense clay sediments. Miami, on the other hand, is built over porous Karst limestone that allows water to flow through it. A sea wall around Miami will not hold back rising sea levels. Nor is it possible to put sea walls around irreplaceable natural areas such as the Everglades.


It is discouraging that an organization as large as the Washington Post is not able to trap simple factual errors such as this.


Flawed Analysis

Will starts his piece by saying that warnings to do with oil running out were in error. Therefore, by analogy, warnings to do with the consequences of climate change can be disregarded. What if his analogy is misleading or incorrect, as analogies so often are?


Moreover, his article presumes that the term Peak Oil means that we run out of oil. This will not happen — we will never run out of oil. But we will run out of affordable oil. As we move down the Energy Returned on Energy Invested curve there comes a point when further investment in finding and extracting fossil fuels is justified.


A more fundamental concern to do with Will's opinion piece is that he defines growth in Gross Domestic Product as a measure of our success. He fails to acknowledge that the pursuit of growth has led to many non-economic, but profoundly important consequences to do with species extinction and general environmental impact such as plastics in the oceans.


Objectivity

The title of Will’s piece includes the term ‘peak climate hysteria’ as it applies to the recent COP26 meeting. This is a subjective statement. In my opinion, a feature of COP26 was that there was a marked lack of emotion of any kind. It seemed as if everyone, both inside and outside the formal meetings, lacked energy and enthusiasm. After all, this was the 26th conference — why should it differ in outcome from the previous 25?


Systems Understanding

Will’s article contains the sentence,

This (1.5 C) limitation will not happen. This nonoccurrence will be tolerable.

It is not quite clear what he means by this statement — presumably he is saying that we are

going to cross the 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperature threshold. He accepts that we are not going to meet the Paris Agreement target. He also seems to suggest that going over this threshold somehow doesn’t matter, that economic growth will take care of the problem. This is a strange point of view given that we saw so many extreme climate events in the year 2021.


Conclusion

It is unfortunate that a journalist with Will’s reputation and following has published a climate change analysis that is lacking in depth and research.


The reason may be that he grew up in a world of physical abundance. In his world view, given the right policies anything was possible since resources were there as needed and we could treat the environment as being something ‘out there’. In Will's world, money has value and terms such as GDP have meaning. We are coming realize that money is merely a stand-in for resources, particularly energy resources. Moreover, terms such as GDP will be increasingly meaningless in a world that is running into physical limits, of which climate is one.


Many of the comments in the Washington Post (where the article was first published) referred to George Will’s age. The following comment is representative.

Mr. Will and I, and most commenters, will be long dead by the time the worst impacts are experienced by our children and grandchildren.
Who says dinosaurs are extinct? Apparently they get to publish op-eds in the Washington Post entitled “Asteroid? What asteroid?”

Comments such as these raise a deeper question to do with climate change: is there a generational divide? Is it possible for older people, by and large, to really understand how young people see what the future may look like?

 

The chart below was prepared by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the real estate firm Zillow. It shows projected home values in Florida’s 27th Congressional District, which includes much of Miami. The authors of the report say,

Under a high sea level rise scenario, by 2045, roughly 12,200 existing homes worth a collective $6.1 billion today are at risk of being chronically flooded. By the end of the century, about 145,700 residential properties valued at $74.9 billion today are at risk.

The report’s authors also say that 91% of the home could be spared if we meet the Paris agreement targets.

Shows the number of homes lost due to sea level rise in Florida’s 2th district