IF THINGS HAD WORKED OUT BETTER
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.
CARBON DIOXIDE ON TRIAL
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.
MISDIRECTING THE JURY’S ATTENTIONS
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.
CARBON DIOXIDE IS NOT A DEFENDANT ACCUSED OF A CRIME
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.
THERE IS NOTHING TO PROVE
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 OBSESSION WITH RECENT TEMPERATURES
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.
WHY NOBODY WANTS WHAT WE ARE SELLING
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.