Pitts: Beware the unimaginable

Jun. 23, 2014 @ 02:36 PM

The signs were all there.

This is what jumps out at you in perusing postmortems of the two greatest surprise attacks in American history. In the days and weeks leading up to Dec. 7, 1941, and Sept. 11, 2001, there were numerous clues that seem neon in hindsight, but which no one pursued.

Or, as then-CIA Director George Tenet famously said of 9/11: "The system was blinking red."

In response to each attack, exhaustive probes were launched to determine whose incompetence allowed the disaster to happen. While there's obvious value in sifting through tragedies past in hopes of preventing tragedies future, it has always seemed to me the ultimate failure in those calamities was not of competence but, rather, imagination. Those in charge did not guard against what happened because what happened was literally beyond their ability to conceive.

That lesson of security and military unreadiness has chilling application to our unreadiness on another front:

Writing in this space a few days back, I scored the GOP for pretending there is some debate over whether human activity is raising the temperature of the planet when "that finding is accepted by 97 percent of climate scientists" -- a figure I got from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest general science group. After 20 years writing this column, I am not often surprised by reader reaction. I know a certain segment of my audience will go ballistic if I argue some controversial point -- like that racism exists or Muslims are human.

But I admit, I was very surprised at the amount of emails -- and anger -- that sentence engendered. There is not nearly enough space here to get into the weeds of every objection, but they boiled down to this: The statistic comes from a flawed or skewed study.

I checked this with the AAAS's Marshall Shepherd, who is the director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia and in 2013 served as president of the American Meteorological Society. His response: The 97 percent figure is consistent across "numerous studies, not just one or two, so there is consilience" -- a convergence of different streams of knowledge into a consensus.

Even so, my critics have a point when they say the 97 percent figure quoted here and numerous other places is misleading in one sense. Turns out it is not 97 percent of climate scientists who believe human activity is causing global warming, but 97 percent of those who have expressed an opinion. Sixty-six percent of studies by climate scientists actually express no opinion, according to one source. It's an important distinction.

On the other hand, 97 percent is 97 percent, even if it's just 97 percent of those who have an opinion. Virtually no scientist (0.7 percent) rejects the idea of human-caused global warming outright. Moreover, the price we pay if the 97 percent are right and we do nothing is infinitely greater than the one we pay if they are wrong and we take action.

All that said, I tend to believe the resistance here -- at least among politicians and lay persons -- has less to do with a failure of science than with an all-too familiar failure of imagination. If it was impossible to conceive of terrorists using airplanes as missiles or the Japanese striking a Pacific fortress, how difficult is it to conceive the apocalyptic future climate change science is predicting -- rising oceans, routine super storms, hellish droughts?

On those two awful mornings, Americans slept in the blithe assurance of what could never happen only to awaken to the awful reality of what already had. We had seen the signs. We simply convinced ourselves they did not mean what they did.

Well, the stakes now are vastly higher. And once again, the system is blinking red.

Leonard Pitts’ e-mail address is lpitts@miamiherald.com.