Current Issues

The saber tooth tiger isn’t really a threat anymore

Posted on July 19, 2010

I find climate change skepticism a most maddening social phenomenon.  We just came through the warmest June (worldwide) on record and we have seen extreme weather events around the globe.  Locally, the spring wind storm that wreaked such havoc on campus and in NH was just the latest destructive and unusual weather event we have suffered.  I think Mother Nature might be a little angry.

The media are not helping.  They run with stories about climate change scientists drumming up false data (charges that were this week proven false) and highlight meteorologists who seem to think that cold winters mean a lack of global warming (when climate change scientists would suggest that a greater range of temperatures is just one effect of climate disruption).   While the media can deal with a BP oil disaster and mostly get the story right, it has done little to link that story to questions of oil dependency and broader environmental concerns.  It seems they can understand the Gulf is now a mess, but frame it more in terms of lost fishing and tourism revenue/jobs than the larger calculus of oil dependency and global impact.

There is some research to suggest that we humans are just not wired for this kind of longer term connecting of the dots.  From an evolutionary perspective, we survived by surveying and responding to the immediate.  After all, if that saber tooth tiger jumps out of the jungle, our ancestors who were sitting around mulling over the long term implications of fire or the wheel were probably the ones being eaten.  Those who kept focused on the immediate environment and ran first lived another day and evolution worked its magic.  Short term risk assessment trumped long term risk assessment and for good reason.  The world was full of very short term risks.

However, the threats we face today are less immediately apparent, so our evolutionary bias to the immediate may not well serve us if we cannot see the long-term implications of our actions today.  Public policy is rife with such near-sightedness:

  • We do a lousy job on preventive care, so end up with a reactive and very expensive health care system full of highly paid specialists;
  • We underfund K-12 and pre-school education, and end up with exceedingly high drop out rates (1/3 of ninth graders will not finish high school, 1/3 will go no further, and 1/3 will do some post-secondary education, but half of those will not complete — terrible!), unskilled citizens increasingly lost in a global economy, and a greater percentage of our citizens behind bars than any other industrialized nation;
  • We don’t invest in infrastructure, then complain about bridges falling down, pot hole filled highways, lack of broadband connectivity, a shaky electrical grid, and third-world airports (have you been through JFK lately?).

In every one of these cases, including climate change, the long-term costs of our behaviors are much higher than the short-term costs of doing the right thing.  In the case of climate change, those long-term costs may be unthinkable for our children and grandchildren.

Yet I know ostensibly smart people who think “this whole climate change thing is rubbish.”  Perhaps this is the price we pay for the abysmal level of scientific literacy in our culture.  

Let’s rely instead on logic.  If climate change science is wrong and the weather patterns of the last ten years are simply cyclical, the worst thing that happens if we change our behaviors would be a much better world.  One that has us end our dependency on oil (folks, this stuff will run out eventually), disentangle ourselves from deeply troubled parts of the world, operate smarter transportation, buildings, and technologies, create whole new job sectors, and fight off a range of health issues.  If climate change theory is right and we do none of those things, we put the whole species at risk. 

Is that the bet we want to make?  Oh wait, millions of people play the lottery each week — essentially a tax on those who failed their statistics course. 

We can get it right.   There was a recent and heartening story about the amazing progress Mexico City has made on its epic pollution problems.  With an investment in excellent and inexpensive public transportation, more stringent emission standards, and a crackdown on dirty industrial sites, the city went from a 10 on the 1-10 scale of worst cities to a 5, as one expert noted.  Major cities in emerging economies like India and China are studying the Mexico city model and not a minute too soon.  We need the rest of the world to be good long-term thinkers, since the US seems to be more worried about the saber tooth tiger.

On another and final note, and I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, I have found a conservative columnist that I really like and admire.  Russ Douthat of the New York Times challenges my thinking with reason, common sense, and a refreshingly measured voice.  See his excellent column today regarding higher education and liberal elites (  I don’t always agree with him, but I always read him now and I often find my thinking influenced by his arguments.  At the same time, I can barely glance at  the work of ostensible liberal Maureen Dowd.  If her snarky, stiletto heels pseudo-feminism isn’t bad enough, her recent reports from Saudi Arabia exhibit an abject ignorance  and almost willful refusal to actually try and understand a culture in which she is a visitor and guest.  Wow, praising the conservative columnist and eschewing the liberal — this world really is turning upside down.

2 thoughts on “The saber tooth tiger isn’t really a threat anymore

  1. Rico says:

    I’m curious to know what Dowd article you found so offensive. I went looking as you didn’t provide a link with that one, and only read bland feminist rhetoric. I would agree with your claim that she exhibits “an abject ignorance”, but what should she have done instead? What claims has she made that were not true, even if clothed in naivety?

  2. Paul Leblanc says:

    I should have been more clear. Her latest is a story in Vanity Fair about her recent travels in the Kingdom. You can get a taste of it at

    She dons an abaya and pokes fun at it repeatedly. She shows little cultural sensitivity to what is a much more complex artifact and practice than is often understood in the West. It may be that patriarchial society has reduced the wearing of the abaya to a much more repressive symbol than is comfortable for many or even most of us, but it has a complex history and role and may be no worse in many ways than the fashions that Dowd favors for herself.

    What should she have done? She should have looked beyond the abaya in trying to assess the progress for women in Saudi Arabia. The King has sacked a number of hard core conservative clerics, appointed a woman to a senior Cabinet post (a first), invested heavily in education for women, and intervened in some of the heinous religious court rulings that shock (as they should) the west. They have a long, long way to go, but as a Saudi friend, a woman journalist and feminist, said to me, “This is a time of enormous progress for women in the Kingdom.”

    Dowd should have taken the time to look hard and report honestly, but as usual, she lets snarky humor and easy shots trump complexity and cultural sensitivity.

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