Titanic as a metaphor for Climate Change

by Robert Nagle on 12/29/2010

in global warming

Here’s my transcript of a compelling metaphor Steve Chu used to describe the climate change question:

Imagine you are on a very very large vessel and perhaps decades ago people said way out ahead there is an iceberg looming; we have to be careful. But many people didn’t see it. But now — forwarding several decades — it’s very clear to virtually everyone that there is this huge iceberg. Now the Titanic is a huge ship, and it’s not governed by a single captain, and it’s actually not clear because there are many voices telling what to do, and it’s the maiden voyage, and there are very real problems in this maiden voyage.

In the third class kitchen, there is a fire; you have to put it out. The air conditioning in the first-class suites don’t work; they’re complaining bitterly. You have to attend to it. Many real everyday things which have to be fixed are part of the operations in this ship in the maiden voyage. Then some engineers come and say to the set of captains, “It’s going to take tens of years — not 10 years — but perhaps half a century to really turn and oh, by the way, (these engineers say) we’re going to hit the iceberg. It’s whether we hit it at a glancing blow or whether we hit it dead on. This is of some concern. But the voices in the galley and the voices for the air conditioning — all these other things you also have to deal with — so it’s still, full speed ahead. The investors of this Titanic also want to make schedule; they want to make future bookings. Economic progress is important. So meanwhile we are headed towards the iceberg. It’s not clear; it’s a very big ship. It’s going to take decades — as I said, half a century perhaps — to turn it. The consequences of hitting the iceberg dead on aren’t even clear. Many people on the ship say, “Look, it’s unsinkable.” Not to matter. Other people say, “if we hit it dead on — let’s go to a 5 degree Centigrade of climate change — adaptation is a little bit dicey.” So it’s the sequel, the script hasn’t been written, we have to start turning now. People have to understand that even though there are day-to-day things (economic crises), you also have to start turning the ship. If you wait another decade or so, it’s more likely you will hit it dead on. Whether the ship will sink or not, we don’t know. But if there’s a possibility of really catastrophic climate change, I think we don’t want to go there. So I’m here today to say this is a concern. I urge all of you to educate yourself on what the concerns are. But there’s also a path forward. We’re not here to say, “Be scared; That’s it. There’s nothing we can do.” If we hit the iceberg in a glancing blow, there are things we can and must do to adapt to that. But the first order of business is that people should educate ourselves on what the risks are and how to go forward and stop pulling the rudder in different directions.

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