On April 6, 2009, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck the Italian city of L’Aquila, killing 309 people and destroying much of its historic central district. Three years later, on September 22, 2012, six Italian seismologists were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison. Why? Because they failed to predict the earthquake after a series of minor tremors had rattled the L’Aquila area during the preceding four months. No matter that the seismologists had used California’s Probabilistic Seismic-Hazard Analysis, considered the most accurate risk assessment for forecasting earthquakes.
Five thousand geologists and other scientists worldwide appealed to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, publicly decrying the trial, to no avail. Experts testified, also to no avail, that geology cannot predict the timing, magnitude or location of earthquakes with the kind of exactitude demanded by the Italian prosecution. Otherwise, geologists would have warned Japan in 2011, Haiti in 2010, L’Aquila in 2009, and Guatemala just this past Wednesday, Nov. 7, of an impending earthquake.
The Italian precedent begs the obverse question: If we can put scientists in the dock for failing to predict a natural catastrophe, should we not also put politicians in the dock for failing to heed scientific predictions of a natural catastrophe? Particularly ones backed by overwhelming evidence?
If the answer is “yes,” most politicians would be in the hoosegow catching up on back issues of Science, Nature, Scientific American and the Journal of the American Medical Association. The record of politics listening to science ranges from apathetic to amoral. It took 14 years for the U.S. and 49 years for the United Kingdom to listen to medical science’s warnings of lung cancer’s smoking gun, and ban cigarette advertising. More time elapsed before legislators outlawed smoking in the workplace. It took 15 years for world governments to heed science’s warnings that CFCs were destroying Earth’s protective ozone layer. Only the shock discovery of a gigantic ozone hole above Antarctica greater than the size of the U.S. spurred international adoption of the Montreal Protocol in 1989 for nations to halve their CFC production and consumption.
What about the culpability of corporations — the tobacco and chemical industries? Don’t they belong in the slammer? For years they danced the deaf-and-disinformation duet in public, using powerful lobbying and advertising to deny the facts — including the damning evidence their own laboratories discovered and hid under the dance floor. Their strategy was to keep shoving a “wedge of doubt” between what science is saying and the public is hearing.
The wedge psychology is straightforward: First give people a ready excuse to deny the science they don’t like; second, emphasize how it threatens our world view or comfort zone, be it religious, economic, or life-style. Using the wedge of doubt, the Discovery Institute in Seattle scraps modern science in favor of “intelligent design” to explain how the planet works. And the wedge is the weapon of choice for the forces arrayed against acknowledging and countering global warming.
The words “climate change” disappeared during the presidential debates, buried under political homilies, hectoring and hocus-pocus. An alien listening in would conclude that cutting PBS and Big Bird is a more important debate issue than global warming, which both the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Security Agency rank as one of the top five security threats to the nation. Why? Because, if unchecked, its predicted consequences are environmental conflicts over water, food, land, and energy, millions of refugees, breakdown of law and order, and the spread of virulent diseases. “Climate change,” says The New National Defense Magazine, “is a ‘ring-road’ issue that surrounds the military’s future strategic planning.” In the deep hours of election night, the challenge of “an America that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet” reappeared.
Some climate models predict more violent storms, like Hurricane Sandy. Gerald Meehl, a climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, likens the phenomenon to a baseball slugger on steroids. We can predict he will hit more home runs overall, just not in which game or on what pitch. Ditto climate change. Greenhouse gases are the steroids of global warming, which raises the temperature of surface ocean waters, puts more energy into the atmosphere, and increases the odds of more frequent and intense storms. But we can’t predict where, when and how often such storms will heat up and hit.
Active geologic faults are the steroids of earthquakes, like the ones underlying L’Aquilla and Los Angeles, where, fueled by continental drift, the earth will rumble much more often than in fault-free zones. But we can’t predict precisely where, when or with what force along the fault line. Seismologists are working on it. At least the ones not in prison.