by Alexander Lee
High Country News
February 3, 2017
Five years ago, I hiked to the toe of the East Fork Glacier in Alaska’s Denali National Park. I was on my way to climb a small peak in the Alaska Range and had tracked down a photo taken in the 1920s by one of the park’s first geologists. Lining up the mountain skyline with the photo, I scrambled around until I found the exact spot where Stephen Capps stood to take the picture some 90 years earlier. The glacier had retreated nearly a mile since then.
I am an environmental philosopher, and have also worked as a glacial researcher, backcountry guide and naturalist. Seeing the dramatic disappearance of the East Fork Glacier was one of many intimate experiences I have had with a warming world.
So how do I reconcile the overwhelming evidence that the world’s atmosphere is being disrupted with the perception of the 30 percent of Americans who do not believe in climate change?
Here’s a thought experiment: If I say that there are 10 M&Ms in a bowl, and then I count the 10 M&Ms right before your eyes, you would have to “believe” me, right?
Many scientists aim to persuade climate skeptics by counting M&Ms — graphs of CO2 concentration, temperature records, and other scientifically observable measurements.
So let’s count: The United States Geological Survey has been measuring Alaska’s Gulkana and Wolverine glaciers for 50 years — the longest continuous glacier research program in North America. Both show the kind of retreat emblematic of significant regional climate change. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that Alaska is losing roughly 75 billion tons of ice annually. That’s a lot of M&Ms.
If the current preponderance of evidence fails to convince skeptics of climate change, then the issue we face is not about facts or evidence, but rather about values — about our call to heal the world.
Nearly 300 years ago, the philosopher David Hume warned in his influential work, A Treatise on Human Nature, against making claims about how the world should be strictly from statements about how the world is. If, for example, I say, “Extensive deforestation has decimated the truffula tree population,” I am not actually saying anything about whether or not the world ought to have truffula trees, or why we should change our behavior in order to protect those truffula trees. The connection between facts and values — what Hume calls a “new relation or affirmation” — needs to get us from the description of deforestation to any prescription for preservation. I could, for instance, defend the intrinsic value of the tree or argue that perpetuating extinction is wrong. Philosophers call this the “is-ought” problem. Read more …