Human re-shaping of our natural infrastructure has confronted us with existential issues. This column is one in a series that began with, The Issue of Our Time.
Climate change! What am I to think? What should I do? How can a non-scientist navigate the claims and counter-claims? Scientists themselves argue about whether the threat we face should be called an emergency.
Regardless of what one thinks it is not too difficult to reach an unsettling conclusion—“what I do or don’t do is not going to really move the dial on the threats of climate change.” After all there are over 7.5 billion people on the earth and we are measuring atmospheric carbon in parts per million—global atmospheric carbon dioxide was 407.4 ± 0.1 ppm in 2018.
As those data spin around in our heads, many I suspect feel a bit like Peggy Lee’s refrain in the song “Is That All There Is.” With an upbeat but bluesy inflection she sang, “If that’s all there are my friends, then let’s keep dancing, Let’s break out the booze and have a ball.” And that is the problem—how do you break down a massive challenge into constituent parts, answers, plans and motivations? Or for that matter even understand how the challenge might be met?
Denial is a not unexpected response. It is not a studied denial; it is a thoroughly human one. Climate projections, after all, result from scientific modeling, are fully understood by a miniscule number of humans and inevitably they too have their biases.
Martin Weitzman, a Harvard professor specializing in environmental economics, died recently. In reflecting on his legacy, The Economist said he tried to avoid testifying in Washington because “how could an economist ever make a precise recommendation in such a complex world.”
So we ask, can computer models produce truth when we know that accuracy depends on who is in charge of the model—the inputs and the analytics?
If those in charge of the model are perceived to have ulterior motives, there is a breakdown of trust. And truth and trust have an inescapable relationship. The one, trust, produces confidence in the other. Untrustworthy sources have difficulty delivering truth—real or perceived. If I were a climate scientist invited to testify before a Congressional Committee I would ask that the invitation come from the Committee leaders of both Parties.
And then you get to the hypocrisy of climate change advocates flying here and there urging people, who just get by, to pay much more for their gas to discourage the use of fossil fuels. Or, coming up with a political package that will cost trillions of dollars. It is no wonder that candidate Trump found it easy to campaign against the forces that want to take your car away or your hamburger or whatever.
It is why Emanuel Macron’s, France’s president, recommended tax on gasoline stoked the anger of the yellow jackets that brought Paris to its knees. Today the most oft cited reason for the mass demonstrations that have blossomed like the daffodils of spring is the forced increase in transportation costs.
The question is what can be done to bring the two in harmony? Can bold action to disrupt climate change align with the imperatives of politics? One thing is clear to me: if the advocates preach Armageddon unless we are carbon free by some relatively early date not enough will be accomplished.
Inevitably, claims of truth that foreshadow unwanted consequences carry a much higher burden of proof. And, as those who see themselves as the truth-tellers take on a messianic intensity, opposition becomes tribal. It’s my tribe’s story against your side’s version—the hell with truth.
In the weeks ahead I will weigh in on the toxic misalignment between climate and political sciences. Climate science often speaks the language of absolutes; political science deals with the art of the possible. Can they be aligned?