"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Childhood's End


If things had worked as scientists expected, here is what would have happened. The IPCC reports would have come out. Influential people would have been convinced by it. Major news media would have reported the story in a straightforward way. People would have been convinced of their responsibilities to future generations. Kyoto would not only have been passed but implemented. The inadequacy of Kyoto would have been realized. More stringent controls would gradually have been put in place. Advanced countries would have pressured the less developed with carbon tariffs. The economic explosion in China and east Asia might have been set back a bit but probably would still be underway. And the accumulated carbon, by now, would have been lower, giving us more time to work our way out of the fossil fuel trap.

This far preferable alternative history failed to materialize because Carbon Dioxide was not "convicted" in the court of public opinion.


There are those who approach anthropogenic global warming as a courtroom, and CO2 as an individual endowed with rights. CO2, on this model, is innocent until proven guilty. What is more, the proof has to be to a jury. (Not of its peers, I suppose. Who would those be? Argon, Nitrogen, Water Vapor and Laughing Gas?)

This means that IPCC is insufficient, as IPCC reports are sufficient to make a compelling case to fair-minded people with trust that IPCC scientists themselves are fair-minded experts. The average twelve people on the street are not convinced by IPCC, especially given the campaign to undermine trust in IPCC. This campaign exists for the simple reason that a great deal of power is in the hands of market libertarians. (The reasons for that, in turn, are outside my present scope, but it's obvious that this is the case.) If we need to leave some fossil fuels in the ground, some collective action at the global level is required.


Such collective action is anathema to market libertarians, so when presented with evidence that such action is necessary, they immediately look for reasons to distrust it.

That approach is delusional. Whether CO2 accumulation is or is not dangerous is a fact of physics, not of economic philosophy. If their position were really consistent, they would have some mechanism for dealing with problems of this sort, independent of whether the problem is actually realistically described. Many of them, instead, become so attached to the conspiracy theory that they believe things that make no sense.

Any understanding of the early history of the climate science community makes it clear that no such conspiracy is plausible. Whatever you may think of the motivational structures today, there simply was no motivational structure prior to 1990 to drum up such a vast and monolithic community. The history that is implied by their conspiracy theory makes absolutely no realistic sense.

What has happened is that CO2 has got better lawyers than the prosecution. They bring true stories to the table, but lawyer-style, picking the anecdotes they like and ignoring those they dislike, to spin a tale that has recently been swallowed whole by great swaths of the press.


This disastrous outcome is a consequence of the wrong mental model pervading the public.

They understand courtroom dramas. They do not understand scientific contention. Essentially we should not care whether CO2 can be "proven guilty". We care whether there is some likelihood that CO2 will disrupt the future enough that the present should take account of it.

In other words, it is not a prosecution, it is risk management. This takes it out of courtroom drama and into the tedium of insurance. Most people do understand risks well enough to be willing to get insurance, but nobody enjoys talking to an insurance salesman. Insurance does not sell newspapers. Fires sell newspapers. Accusations of arson sell newspapers. Every time the scientific community brings up insurance policies, eyes glaze over.

So fundamentally, the reason we are slowly but (almost) surely destroying the viability of the earth is because slow and steady processes do not sell newspapers.


Has IPCC made a case that there is sufficient risk to take action?

Strictly speaking, that is not IPCC's job. But any reading of IPCC that does not come to such a conclusion pretty much discounts the value of the world's future to zero.

Is IPCC trustworthy?

Clearly IPCC is not infallible, and I would say that the job of WG II is pretty much infeasible as currently constituted. But the idea that IPCC constitutes a grand conspiracy is very much at odds with the history of the organization, which has always been explicitly structured as to understate risks.

Close examination of the actual balance of evidence, not especially dominated by the recent temperature record, makes it clear enough. If we accept any responsibility for the future, we need to stabilize the concentrations of radiatively active atmospheric constituents, notably among them CO2, to avoid enormous risks.

This is not proven in the sense that Pythagoras' theorem is proven, but one can make the case that nothing outside of pure mathematics can be proven in that way. It's not really even a scientific result: the science just says that the perturbation is almost surely very large compared to what nature alone can do. It's a value judgment whether we need to avoid doing that. But most people who understand the evidence and feel some commitment to the world beyond the limits of the time frame set by the discount rate come to that conclusion.


The idea that the main thing to discuss is what CRU or GISS says about historical mean temperature, though, is simply delusional. This delusion is at the core of the interests of the readership of Climate Audit, Blackboard and Air Vent, if perhaps not their main authors. And this delusion feeds the whole campaign of paranoia and defamation aimed at climate science. The focus on this question draws attention to a small group of people, and whatever you may think of them, hardly the most exciting or attractive branch of science. Finding fault with that group is possible, but they have very little impact on the questions at hand if you understand the questions at hand. If, however, you in turn pretend that this small group is the leadership of the climate community, then blowing up their minor mistakes and marginal judgments to vast capacities can color a huge misjudgment of the efforts of a large and impressive intellectual community.


The question is widely being reduced to a sales pitch now. This is unfortunate. I think the failure of the real picture to penetrate people's consciousness is because of sales pitches, not despite them. The opposition is drawing attention to a small group of scientists and a minor point in the big picture. The Gore camp is trying to sell global warming like it is soap. The Democrats are pitching it as a job creation program (which makes sense in the same way it makes sense to replace the internet by scribes with quill pens as a job creation program).

No. It's unfortunate. It's costly. And now that the banking bubble has burst, it's ill-timed. But preserving a stable environment is an ethical responsibility like none that has preceded it. We need people to understand not only that CO2 is a global problem, but that it's just the first in a series, as we make the transition from an open frontier world to spaceship earth.

In that sense, the burden of proof is on us. We have to sell the idea of a widespread set of changes in behavior, a new set of ethical constraints, and a dramatic increase in the complexity of governance. Those of us who appreciate the value of the marketplace as a distribution mechanism surely appreciate the risks and costs involved, but avoiding this responsibility will yield something much worse.

This is not a happy fact. Windmills may or may not be pretty, but our situation is not pretty at all. We need to come to grips with it. And our frantic lives with their narrowing margins of sanity and declining capacities for contemplation make it very difficult to do so. What we are selling is not an act of congress or a treaty. We are selling the idea of limits. We are selling the idea of the end of the global adolescent growth spurt.

We are selling adulthood, a concept that seems almost forgotten these days. In the end, we are losing this stage of the battle because adolescence is more fun than adulthood, because the adolescent worldview sees no advantages to maturity.

It certainly would help if the press would examine its own role in the present fiasco. Otherwise, the best we can do is try to hang on for the present, and try to convince people to pay closer attention in the future.


Unknown said...

An unworthy species perishes, a worthy species lives. A universe without a green planet featuring pretty tigers, busy bees and humans hugging is just as good as a universe with the kind of world we have now.

The only unfairness in any of this is that the poor in third-world countries will die first.

But there is no horror in most of humanity perishing or the ecosystems being destroyed. the only reason I actually care about the climate is that I see a correlation between intelligence and supporting taxation of the CO2 externality and other greening activities, and I hate stupid people and want them to feel powerless and irrelevant.

But nihilism has always been easy for me. I think it's all good and if we see nine-digit casualties at the end of this century because of anthropogenic climate change, I will not feel so horrified. I agree with Nietzsche - it's all a flux and it's all good. The only reason we learn and study is so that we can make something decent out of what we have if we want to.

Unknown said...

Funny, writing parallel piece at the moment, with Avatar as a reference. (It's instructive even as a comicbook fable, because the irony of Avatar is we don't have space travel.) Sidenote: you might enjoy Douglas Rushkoff's new book, "Life, Inc."

John F. Pittman said...

Michael, you present several interesting ideas. Rather than trot out differences we may have on evidence, I would like to expand or comment on some of your statements. One that I think will help illuminate the others is the thought of adolescent. The data we humans have gathered on ourselves indicate in terms of population, the energy intensive wealthy nations are best at self regulation of population. China due to its government was able to effect control but at great cost. One of the most dramatic films, simply because its purpose was not to be dramatic, was the film the Chinese made for explaining why they were doing it. They understood quite well the costs. One of the reasons that Kyoto did NOT work is that China needs to go to the type of reporductive strategy that the West has. This economic boom for China should be seen as a payoff to their people for their success. I do not see the numbers indicate that slowing China has any benefits unless your next statement of gettting out of the fossil fuel trap can be accomplished. With either China or India implementing economic success, Kyoto was doomed. The 95 (8?) to 0 vote in a relatively friendly US Senate and good economy should have been a wake up calll to reasoned approaches. The real tradegy was that there was a study paid by the UK that pointed out pitfalls for selling climate change. The tragedy is that almost everything that was pointed out as being self destructive has been employed in an effort to convince the public and as opined in the study, it has backfired. The reason it is illuminating, is can any insurance be good enough without us getting out of the fossil fuel trap? What would that insurance pay for? Mandatory strelization? Water World? My point is that CO2 in the trial analogy is not good. The essential question is energy. This was accepted in the 1960's with the Odum brothers culmunating work Energy Basis for Man and Nature. If energy is not addressed with its economic consequences, rather than CO2, policies will fail. In terms of risk management, a solution without energy whether collective or not will be difficult if not impossible to implement or stay enforced.

Unknown said...

What UK climate study are you referring to--the one that pointed out the pitfalls of selling climate change?

Arthur said...

on your 'creating jobs' point - I've often thought something along those lines. Once renewables are actually cost competitive, their direct employ will be smaller, not larger, than for fossil fuels. Of course by enabling less expensive energy that magnifies the opportunities for doing other things, creating employment elsewhere. Which requires a whole economic model to better understand (I wish I knew of at least a simple one that clarified this sort of paradox).

Andy S said...

First, I don't think the adolescence/adulthood metaphor is helpful, even if there is some truth to it: categorizing people whose attitudes you want to change as spoiled brats won't be very effective; especially when their current anger derives from their feelings of being patronized.

Second, the problem, I think, lies deep in our psychology: why are we afraid of sharks but not bees; more afraid of flying than driving; cancer but diabetes not so much; small volumes of containable nuclear waste but not vast quantities of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? We also have very strong time preferences for certain investments: I recall reading somewhere in one of Amory Lovins's publications that people look for a payout in three or four years for energy saving investments. Convincing people to make sacrifices now to avert an invisible menace a generation away is no easy task, when many don't save for their own retirement and can't help spending more than they earn. And it's no wonder that people grasp at any small anomaly as an excuse for inaction.

That said, coming up with an effective strategy to change minds is rather more difficult than analysing where we have gone wrong. But we have no choice but to start from where we are.

Timothy Chase said...

He Called Himself Cricklewood, Part I of II

With regard to the attitude market libertarians have regarding the necessity of responding to the threat of global climate change, you stated,

"Such collective action is anathema to market libertarians, so when presented with evidence that such action is necessary, they immediately look for reasons to distrust it.

"That approach is delusional. Whether CO2 accumulation is or is not dangerous is a fact of physics, not of economic philosophy. If their position were really consistent, they would have some mechanism for dealing with problems of this sort, independent of whether the problem is actually realistically described. Many of them, instead, become so attached to the conspiracy theory that they believe things that make no sense."

Reminds me of a discussion that took place around the end of March of last year. The story is a little long, but I will give the short, short version. It has a good punchline.

The fellow who instigated the discussion went by the name Cricklewood and was a libertarian, and naturally enough he gravitated towards a conspiratorial theory of the consensus regarding global warming. At one point regarding his views (and those of his associates) I remarked, "What is it with all these tin-foil hats anyway? Are we being flash-mobbed by a convention of schizophrenics?"

A little later -- after summarizing the analyses of several people, I concluded (171) at one point, "So basically one of the key problems with Cricklewood's 'theory' is that the decision-making that determines which studies get funded and which do not is itself highly decentralized," and that he had responded (216), "Within the narrow confines of politics though."

Timothy Chase said...

He Called Himself Cricklewood, Part II of II

I pointed out that I had also stated (171), "However, I would argue that another (albeit related) key problem is the decentralized nature of the process of scientific discovery. Those who determine what funding gets done won't know beforehand what will be discovered — and they wouldn’t be able to keep track of all of the interconnections which will be discovered by the vast number of independent and highly intelligent minds that are involved in this process. To do so would greatly exceed the intelligence of any central authority, whether it be an individual or committee."

Continuing my response to Cricklewood, I wrote (222),

"You see, the trouble is you can't separate science in that fashion.

The basis in physics for explaining the greenhouse effect is essentially the same as that for describing photovoltaic devices, or that which Einstein used to suggest the possibility of lasers. The same principles form the basis for our ability to perform calculations in chemistry and biochemistry at the quantum level. It is how we are able to understand and predict the behavior of tunnel diodes.

It is the same as what goes into infrared detection used in the military by fighter jets..."

I then concluded (222),

"Now since you have helped me illustrate this principle, clearly you are deeply involved in the conspiracy, and as such there are only two questions that still remain to be answered.

"First, as one of the conspirators, are you using your real name or a pseudonym?

"Second, if it is the latter, what name should I write the check out to?"

The Evil Reductionist said...

I have sometimes heard people bemoaning that we do not have a Sagan or a Dawkins in the field of climate change. However, I think that this misses something very important, and that is that Sagan and Dawkins would have tremendous difficulty selling climate change to the public.

Both cosmology and evolution have the status of true myths. They are inspiring; they speak to the very heart of what it means to be human. Whether we are star stuff or the end product of billions of years of natural selection, we are at the very heart of these myths.

It is vastly more difficult to build climate change into something with mythological status.

Further, even if we could do so, humans would play the part of the villains, not something that is designed to set fire to the imagination and inspire us.

Further, the stories of cosmology and evolution are not intended to inspire us to take specific types of action, other than to generally expand our minds and extend our curiosity to everything around us.

So a few good communicators are not the answer here, although of course they could not hurt. Rather, we need to create a climate change myth in which we are the champions of the tale.

The Evil Reductionist said...


One of the traps of conspiracy theory thinking is that it drives people to the belief that there are some vast intelligences that can predict the outcome of their actions - and the actions of others - to a superhuman level of accuracy.

As you point out, this would require those funding science to know what is going to be discovered.

Besides making scientific research superfluous, it poses some interesting philosophical questions about the very nature of the universe. Chaos? Not so much. Quantum randomness? Impossible. Determinism? Looks like ...

guthrie said...

Evil Reductionist - I thought that those of us who are aware of the problems of AGW have already written stories with ourselves as hero's, the problem being how do we include the current don't knows and denialists in it?

I think one way forwards is localising things, because people are quite conservative about change, but when you can explain how things will change due to AGW, for the worse, but we can stop these changes by these actions, there is a better chance of getting things across to them. On the other hand the delayers have put out so much propaganda that the average person doesn't know who to believe, thinks its being hyped up by smug greenies or has given up in disgust.

Anonymous said...

For some reason the essay reminded me of some of the words and music of another good ol' Texan:

O beautiful, for spacious skies
But now those skies are threatening
They're beating plowshares into swords
For these tired old men that we elected king
Armchair warriors often fail
And we've been poisoned by these fairy tales
The lawyers clean up all details
Since daddy had to lie

Offer up your best defense
But this is the end
This is the end of the innocence

Who knows how long this will last
Now we've come so far, so fast
But, somewhere back there in the dust
That same small town in each of us
I need to remember this

Offer up your best defense
But this is the end
This is the end of the innocence


The Evil Reductionist said...


The problem is, that is a story for the future. And who is the villain that we are overcoming? Us.

To build a strong, positive myth around the science of global warming with humans as champions now is very difficult.

To do so with cosmology and evolution is relatively easy.

Maybe the focus of the story should be on the scientists struggling against almost impossible odds to solve the physics of the climate system?

I do not know how it can be done. At this point, I am willing to say: we have lost, at least in the short term.

John F. Pittman said...

Keith, It was a study by a consultant group to advertisers who wanted to know what was wrong with their sales pitch. IIRC, the UK government had them do a study as to why Kyoto was a hard sell, why climate change did not seem to making good inroads. In it there were two things not to do. One was trivialize, as in we can save the planet by putting in more air in our tires, and replacing incandescent bulbs. The thought process to avoid is "if that is all it takes, why are you trying to tax us so much." A second one was the ever increasing scare or cataclysmic approach. The thought process to avoid is "if we are going to die anyway, we might as well enjoy ourselves now." If I were better at web searching I could find it. There were other do's and don'ts.

King of the Road said...

@ John

Or if the end of the world isn't coming.

Off topic, don't know if Michael will post it, but your last point reminded me of this commercial. And it's about scientists!

Mal Adapted said...

"Sagan and Dawkins would have tremendous difficulty selling climate change to the public."

Aldo Leopold's insight is worth restating here:

"One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land [and climate] is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise."

Round River, 1949

guthrie said...

It is worth noting that the UK press get a kicking from another parliamentary committee regarding their lack of standards and willingness to lie, prevaricate and the total uselessness of the IPCC.