With the release of the IPCC’s fourth report on climate change, and in anticipation of the meeting of the world’s energy ministers in Bali in two weeks, I’d like to offer some posts centered around a simple question: why is it so difficult for the world to mobilize towards collective action? This post will focus on inertia with respect to scientific acceptance; subsequent posts will consider some of the economic and policy pressures against action.
It’s common to hear from climate change advocates that the scientific debate is over, that now we need to get on with action. I agree with them intellectually, but not empirically: I know plenty of people who still harbour significant doubts when it comes to the scientific story on climate change. One friend told me recently he was “agnostic.” Perhaps I just travel in skeptical circles. Then again, these people I know are not uneducated people: they have university degrees, and they work as professionals with extensive access to information. In other areas of their lives, they readily accept scientific methods. If they lived near a dormant volcano, I’ll bet they would pay close heed to scientific equipment that monitored volcanic rumblings, just as they would likely pay attention to any models that purported to predict seismic activity. So what gives – what is it about climate change in particular that invites doubt and denial, even among educated people? Many of the factors have nothing to do with science:
1) Media balance as bias. Although scientific peer-reviewed papers are in agreement that anthropogenic climate change is real (see Oreskes, for example), journalists are trained to give attention to ‘both sides’ of a story. Most people read newspapers, not scientific journals – and thus they are led to believe from inordinate media controversy that there is an equivalent debate in scientific journals where there is none.
2) Climate change is threatening to market purists. As Sir Nicholas Stern has argued, climate change may well be the greatest market failure in history. For free market dogmatists who want to believe the market will solve everything if left to its own devices, this is a very inconvenient truth indeed – so much so that they are tempted to attack the science itself so as to undermine the rationale for regulation or taxation. It is no accident, therefore, that climate change especially invites the ire of editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal and, in Canada, the National Post (a kind of Mini-Me to the WSJ’s Dr. Evil on this file). In the market purists’ narrative of history, Hayek is a saint and the tragedy of the commons is to be solved entirely through property rights and technological innovation. But the atmosphere is indifferent to debates over Austrian economics, and the evidence is what it is independent of whether editorial writers have a fetish for markets.
3) A handful of credible scientific skeptics are still out there. Many of the initiatives to encourage climate skepticism (the 1998 global warming petition project, the Energy and Environment journal) have been discredited. A number of the most prominent climate skeptics whose names are associated time and again with petitions, speeches and media interviews are long retired from active scientific research. But the fact remains that Richard Lindzen of MIT is a credible skeptic (I am not sure who else can be so described). Ultimately people have to balance the likes of Lindzen, who wishes to stand up against what he calls an “alarmist gale,” against the evidence of harm and risk that builds every week. Incidentally: does anyone know whether Lindzen has revised his positon of late?
4) The IPCC is seen as a political organization. But how could it not be? How could any international organization driving towards common principles on a central question of the planet, with profound implications for political economy, do its business in a pure interpretive vacuum? Does science ever work the way positivists want it to work in any event? And how could hundreds of scientists from around the world attempt to draft language together on a matter as complex as climate science without encountering moments of interpretation, dissent and disagreement? What is remarkable therefore is not that there have been stories of dissent and interpretive bias, but rather the strength of the consensus that has formed all the same. Given the redistributive implications of climate change, one would expect scientists to face a lot more political pressure from their governments to run interference on the science than appears to be the case.
And let’s not forget the numerous other scientific organizations that have supported the IPCC findings, including: NASA, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, the International Ad Hoc Detection and Attribution Group, the national science academies of the G8 nations and Brazil, China and India, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
5) If climate change is real, we have our work cut out for us. This is Al Gore’s point when he sees people shifting from denial to despair. So long as people doubt the science, they don’t have to ask the hard questions about how we are living our lives. Most people and institutions start, therefore, with a profound bias towards inaction, because their lives and institutions are part of the problem. It’s easier to keep questioning, and climate change is such a vast subject that doubt retains an air of plausibility. But intellectually, the burden of proof shifted some time ago. As John Holdren says,
“To be credible, the handful of ‘skeptics’ about human causation of current global climate change would need both to explain what alternative mechanism could account for the pattern of changes observed and to explain how it could be that the known human-caused buildup in GHG is not having the effects predicted for it by the sum of current climate-science knowledge (since, by assumption, something else is having these effects). No skeptic has met either test.”