James Fallows Declares Victory in Metaphorical Frog War

As you probably know, if you put a frog in a pot of water and slowly raise the temperature, the frog won’t notice the water is getting hotter. Soon enough, the pot’s boiling and the frog’s cooked! It’s a great metaphor for all kinds of situations. But biologically, it’s false, and James Fallows has been on the warpath ever since he started blogging to try to get people to knock it off. And in today’s column, Paul Krugman writes:

I’m referring, of course, to the proverbial frog that, placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated, never realizes the danger it’s in and is boiled alive. Real frogs will, in fact, jump out of the pot — but never mind. The hypothetical boiled frog is a useful metaphor for a very real problem: the difficulty of responding to disasters that creep up on you a bit at a time.

Fallows proclaims himself satisfied “I had not previously thought of Paul Krugman as a peacemaker or placater, as opposed to a provocateur, but he may now have shown a new field of achievement.”

Krugman’s column, which is good, is about economic policy and stimulus. But of the current policy debates, the one that most resembles the proverbial frog is of course climate change. By the time average global temperatures are 7–8 degrees higher than they are today and people start getting really bothered by the consequences, atmospheric CO2 levels will be so high that even if we suddenly cut emissions levels to zero we’d be in store for additional warming. And of course it won’t be possible to suddenly cut emissions levels to zero, we’ll be looking at the same difficulty of implementing cuts but from a much higher future level. And yet on any given day, it’s more convenient for the political system to respond by doing nothing.