Easterbrook (or at least a competent summary of his work), June 2008:
The odds that a potentially devastating space rock will hit Earth this century may be as high as one in 10. So why isn’t NASA trying harder to prevent catastrophe?
As Brad DeLong points out, this is utter bullshit, at least for any non-bullshit values of “potentially devastating” and “may be as high as.” Let’s consider the bullshittiness of this claim a little more. Easterbrook is panicked by the thought that maybe-once-a-century event like Tunguska could occur over the negligible percentage of Earth’s surface which is covered by dense cities. He writes:
The blast had hundreds of times the force of the Hiroshima bomb and devastated an area of several hundred square miles. Had the explosion occurred above London or Paris, the city would no longer exist.
A comparable destructive energy can be expected from a good-sized hurricane or typhoon, which have a tendency to strike coastal areas, a popular location for cities. Of course, this energy would be spread over a much greater area and time than would an asteroid/comet impact, making it a less concentrated destruction – but, therefore, that much more likely to hit inhabited areas. Or, if you don’t like that analogy, you can also get a much larger, and similarly rapid, yield from an 8.0+ earthquake, of which we get about one a year. Localized disasters of this sort happen hundreds or thousands or times more frequently than similarly-powerful asteroid/comet impacts, and yet somehow we don’t characterize them as the deadliest threats ever.
Sure, who knows? Maybe I’ll get hit by an asteroid on my way to work tomorrow. Maybe a new volcano will erupt under my bed tonight. Maybe everybody name their kids “Sharky” and they’ll all grow up to be pool hustlers and civilization will collapse. Maybe a wide variety of shit that, while not strictly impossible, is still not worth peeing your panties over. Fucking obviously.
Later we segue from merely enormously unlikely events like Tunguska-in-Paris to absolutely absurdly improbable events, of the sort which would “would likely end life on Earth.” Obviously, the chance of this happening is essentially nil, as life has existed on Earth without interruption for billions of years. There have been extinctions of large numbers of species in Earth’s history – we have an idea of when they happen, and how big they are – and some of them may have been precipitated by some kind of catastrophic extraterrestrial impact. How does this threat compare with the expected results of human-caused climate change?
The widely-accepted science on global warming, much like the highly speculative situations Easterbrook is fantasizing about, would have similar effects on the planet – mass extinction, starvation, disease, and massive physical destruction. According to a 2004 study in Nature, mid-range estimates for global warming could cause the extinction of 15-37% of all plant and animal species. The last extinction event which even approaches this magnitude was 33.5 million years ago, which may or may not have had something to do with some kind of extra-terrestrial impact. Sixty-five million years ago we have a mass extinction likely caused by the impact of one (or many fragments of an) asteroid, wiping out perhaps 30% of all species. Before that, we have to go back 200 million years. So, a survey of the last 200 million years tells us that at most we have extinctions from all causes on the order expected from global warming every 60-70 million years. (This may be too generous, as – according to this graph – the rate of extinctions appears to decrease over time. I dunno.) In other words: Gregg Easterbrook is an idiot.
Bringing up global warming and Easterbrook compels us again to remind everyone what a horrible liar he has been on this subject for decades. Remember, this is a person who claimed two years ago, when he magnanimously decided to accept the scientific consensus on this subject, that:
When global-warming concerns became widespread, many argued that more scientific research was needed before any policy decisions. This was hardly just the contention of oil-company executives. “There is no evidence yet” of dangerous climate change, the National Academy of Sciences declared in 1991.
The panel finds that, even given the great uncertainties in our knowledge of the relevant phenomena, greenhouse warming poses a potential threat sufficient to merit prompt responses.
Followed by an entire chapter recommending immediate policy responses, all of which Gregg Easterbrook tries to disappear to cover is own gullible idiocy. He continues:
My own contrarian 1995 book about environmental issues, A Moment on the Earth, spent 39 pages reviewing the nascent state of climate science and concluded that rising temperatures “might be an omen or might mean nothing.” Like others, I called for more research.
Defending your opinion by citing your own opinion is a novel defense, admittedly, though it might be more convincing were the book not replete with howlers. But now, throwing his contrarian sangfroid to the wind, he is screaming that the federal government should spend billions to protect us from a “threat” which materializes once every few tens of million years, if ever. (Not like the money isn’t being wasted already, but still.) Huh. It’s almost as if he’s still trying to change the subject.
… People may wonder why I call people like Hiatt and Easterbrook “idiots” rather than “liars”. It’s because I am confident they don’t do their own work. Gregg Easterbrook has never read any report on climate change, and Fred Hiatt will never crack the cover of any intelligence report. They just don’t care enough. They are provided with pre-cherry picked excerpts by
right-wing operatives selfless volunteer research assistants, tie this pre-packaged “research” together with their own prose, and present it as their own boldly truthful work. Nobody is stupid enough to make these mistakes by accident, and no liar would be brazen enough to cite a source which clearly contradicts them. They are like the kid in school who bases his book report on the Hollywoodmovie, and then, when he discovers that Hamlet doesn’t actually take place in New York City, frantically tries to cover his tracks. They are small, lazy, contemptible and very, very stupid people; and, unfortunately, they can be very destructive to our discourse. I believe that NASA should spend all its time building space lasers which can completely destroy every word these people write the moment they write it. Optionally, they should be ridiculed and abused until they are fired.