The Blind Leading the Blind

When facing objective risks, subjective judgment about whose guidance to follow can mean the difference between safety and catastrophe.

My wife called from Talkeetna, Alaska, about a week ahead of schedule. She was on an expedition to climb Denali (a.k.a. Mt. McKinley), the highest mountain in North America. As it happened, they got a heavy snowfall that made moving up the steep slopes to the high camp too dangerous. Rather than risk a deadly avalanche, they retreated from the mountain—tired and disappointed, but ready to climb again another day.

We have several friends who have reached the summit of Denali in past years and another who failed twice due to bad weather. I once met another climber who had lost both of his thumbs and all his fingers after saving his partner’s life on this frigid peak.

Mountaineering involves risk. So does altering the global climate system.

Safety and success often depend on tempering one’s determination and enthusiasm with a rational, level headed assessment of conditions as they unfold. A climber knows that reaching the summit never a sure thing.

In fact, balancing desire against risk can be tricky when conditions are changing, and it is one of the reasons why people sometimes get into trouble. In his books Deep Survival and Everyday Survival, Laurence Gonzales makes two helpful observations about how people get into trouble.

The first is that an accident usually results from a series of poor decisions, not just one. In most cases, small errors in judgment add up to place someone at the brink of catastrophe.

An urban legend says that if you place a frog in cool water and slowly bring it to a boil, the frog will stay put and perish. Whether it’s true, there is a close corollary in human psychology. If events begin turning sour, people often dismiss the warming signals.

Getting away with one little error after another reinforces the perception that things are still OK. But eventually, as the missteps add up, each further mistake could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.

This is a good description of humanity’s response to climate risks. Sure, I can drive my car today and leave extra lights on all over the house. I can run the air conditioner instead of opening windows. As a society, we can kick the climate can down the road for the next President and Congress to deal with.

Heck, you can’t even tell that these things are mistakes. But these misjudgments have been piling up for decades. In aggregate they are overwhelming the climate system.

This leads to Gonzales’ second observation about wilderness accidents: We are capable of ignoring physical evidence, especially when the evidence is unfamiliar to us.

My wife relied on her climbing guides to read the snow conditions and make informed judgments on Denali. She is an experienced mountaineer, but some circumstances require specific expertise.

Reading climate signals requires special training too. Yet, as a society, we are following people who bring no scientific expertise to the task. We accept the proclamations of politicians (Inhofe), media celebrities (Limbaugh) instead.

Anyone can make such errors, of course. As Gonzales notes, we succumb every time we get lost in an office building or on a hike. It starts with a little disorientation—when our surroundings no longer match our mental maps. But we go from disoriented to lost when we decide to follow our mental maps instead of the physical evidence. You know this is happening when you think the destination is “just around the next corner,” or “the map must be wrong.”

This is exactly how America is responding to the climate crisis. The objective evidence says the world is changing dramatically, yet our mental maps tell us that the future should be just like the past.

On July 11th, Rupert Murdoch tweeted, “Climate change very slow but real. So far all cures worse than disease. Shale gas huge breakthrough for US. Half carbon of coal and oil.”

Does objective evidence show that the cures are worse than the disease? Is a media mogul the right person to ask?

The report of Murdoch’s tweet said: “Estimates for the speed of global warming vary widely, with high-end estimates predicting an average jump of more than 6 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.” (E&E News PM, July 11, 2012).

Scientists tell us that 6°F is a very, very big jump involving serious risks to our health, economy, and natural resources. In mountaineering terms, ignoring such a jump would be like camping below a very steep slope that is laden with heavy, unstable snow. Would you camp there anyway or would you get out of the way?

It’s our choice. So far we’ve pitched our proverbial tents and settled in. Thankfully, the climbing guides on Denali made a different choice this week.

Climate change asks us to set our goals and desires aside for a moment to assess objective risks. We are not experts in reading those risks, but the trained experts—climate scientists and economists—have told us where we stand. Now we must choose between our mental maps (“Those experts must be wrong!”) and the physical evidence they have given us.

People who are accustomed to taking risks already know which way to go. Will they come forward now, or will we continue to follow leaders who are getting lost?


About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.