Climate change, and the metaphysical basis of humor

It’s funny because ….. it’s metaphysical, it deals with what’s real and relevant, and what’s secondary and transient– an aspect as fundamental as it is funny. We claim we understand the real, but realize (down deep) that we don’t. A classic of old-time comedy is the clever slave, the sympathetic stooges, of the brave coward, or the most common version– the stupid person who does clever things at the right moment. A typical comic structure is to establish, early on, that this person is stupid (as well as being low, and crooked); he may say some stupid, low things, so we accept it as so, or perhaps someone in authority tells us, as in “Puddin’head Wilson”. But as the story progresses, we see the person do something clever, or show loyalty and bravery. The viewer begins to laugh because he knows that reality is sort-of this way, though our minds must keep people pigeonholed. The reader already knows, perhaps from other comedies, that the slave will turn out to be the hero, the stupid one will one-up the smart and the chicken will save the day– somehow.

Ward Sullivan in the New Yorker

Ward Sullivan in the New Yorker. It’s unsettling when you don’t know if this is a new reality or a passing phase.

In life, we grab on to the patters we see because the alternative, chaos, is worse. All winters are cold, but will this winter be longer or shorter than normal; perhaps the groundhog knows, or perhaps the president of the US knows? We’ve learned to ignore the groundhog, but trust the president. Once we accept, from authority, that winters are getting warmer, we resist any effort to think we may be wrong, or that the pattern of the past may have changed; uncertainty seems worse. But we laugh at comedy, and occasionally get mad. How much evidence before one accepts that the temporary is permanent, or that ones original assessment was flawed? In comedy there’s always a stuffed-shirt character who tries to show off and gets hurt, perhaps by a pie in the face. Then it happens again, and again. The injuries and slow acceptance of the new reality create the humor. A common ending is to discover that the clever slave is a half-nobleman, perhaps the son of the stuffed-shirt, and the crowd goes home happy, with someone new we can trust.

With global warming and climate change, I see the same comedy being played out, and I expect it to reach the same, happy ending. For 20-30 years, till about 1998, there were a string warming winters; as a result we come to believe things will keep getting warmer. Then the president says we have to stop it, and laws are passed but not implemented; Al Gore gets a nobel prize for his efforts to stop global warming; the computer experts predict global disaster if we don’t change by 2005. The studies predict 4-6°C warming per century warming with massive flooding; we make new laws and point to shrinking of Himalayan glaciers, shrinking polar ice, and the lack of snow on Kilimanjaro — all justifications for the need to act fast and sacrifice for the future, and the warming stops. So far it’s been 16 years and no warming, the snow’s comes back to Kilimanjaro, and the seas have not risen. A few scientists start saying there may be a problem with the models, and the president gets mad about the headless chicken skeptics.

The US is then/now hit with the coldest temperatures since the early 1900s, with as much snow as 1904, but it’s never clear if this is a fluke or the new normal reality. Has the real pattern of warming changed, or maybe it never was. Kilimanjaro’s still snow-capped, the glaciers have returned to the Himalayas, and the antarctic ice swells to record size. The US sees a year with no major hurricanes.  We can laugh, but there’s no laughter from the President of The US, or the Prince of England or any who solemnly predicted disaster. Like the stuffed shirts in a comedy, they double down, and roar at the deniers; “They’re pawns of the lobbyists.” And I suspect the resolution will be that some climate denier will be crowned as the new expert, and we’ll go on to worry about a new disaster.

For what it’s worth, the weather seems to be chaotic (Chaos is funny); we appear to have been seeing part of a cycle that has an up-period and a down period. Something like that is shown by the 100 year plot of temperature data from Charlotte Carolina shown below.

Charlotte SC average temperatures over the last century.

Charlotte SC average temperatures over the last century. Perhaps the recent warming is part of a cycle. Is it clear there has been a change in climate. If so, where does the change start?

Robert E. Buxbaum, March 9, 2014. Surrealism is funny because it taps into the ridiculousness of life. Metaphysics humor is behind a statistics joke, an architecture cartoon, and my zen joke.  Physics is funny too.