Climate Change vs. Human Inertia – Part 2

penseur1.jpgIn late November my post on climate change and human inertia met with 16 responses. I’m happy that what I wrote generated so much discussion, including from some esteemed visitors to Sans Everything who have a lot to say on this issue (Ray Ladbury, Eric Steig, John McCormick). But I’m also concerned that some of my learned friends, including the inimitable David Sachs and the inestimable Greg MacIsaac, appear content to stand on the sidelines of this issue. Their response opens some new tributaries of the question I asked previously: of why some hyper-educated folk still pooh-pooh the issue, and what it means that they do.

My earlier post was presented as a problem of action. I suggested that most people who sit on the climate fence do so not because of genuine scientific perplexity, but rather because of distractions like inordinate media controversy. But some of the people who responded to me wanted to shift the discussion back to scientific first principles all the same. Fair enough, I suppose, although I suspect that some of those responses may have had to do simply with the medium: the blogosphere invites contest on all matters.

Blog discussions are fun, and don’t get me wrong: I’m happy to go a few rounds trading declamations and propositions as much as the next penseur. But I believe climate change is the sort of issue that demands we move past parlour games, so I am genuinely interested in the levers of persuasion here. Greg invited us to think of climate change as a problem of epistemology. Well, here is a riddle for knowledge: if a well-informed philosopher is still harrumphing against climate change, how does one expect to convince someone who is rooted, say, in the evidentiary standards of religious fundamentalism? Greg also appealed to the idea of first-hand empirical verification, opening another wrinkle. Climate change is already a big enough challenge of persuasion as it stands: it becomes positively googolplexian if we believe that everyone on the planet has to investigate the matter firsthand before their view has any validity.

The philosophical turn in response to my post reminds me of a story I heard about a young man who found himself at St. John’s College in the late ‘60s, where he had been initiated into the Gnostic Straussian world of ancient philosophy. As the civil rights demonstrators descended on Washington, the Straussian faculty members sniffed briefly at all the commotion, and then resumed their studies. For the young man, this was deeply unsatisfactory. There they were, immersed in great questions of virtue, of justice, of politics – and yet his teachers were saying in effect that they would consider those questions only in the context of ancient texts. One day the young man decided that he would apply those questions to the world in front of him, and so he up and joined in the march. As he explained that decision years later, he didn’t want his relation to history to be purely historical: he didn’t want to have to wait 50 years to find out whether the demonstrations were important or not.

Needless to say, Straussians have become a little more hands-on in the intervening period, albeit in ways that would lead most of us to wish they stuck to the libraries. But there are other ways to approach ancient philosophy. I expect that my friend Greg, who described himself to us as a Platonist, will be more than sympathetic to the young man’s decision at St. John’s: “Of course,” I think he would say, “Political philosophy ought to be able to speak to contemporary questions.” But then to Greg I would say: if you need to anchor your commitment to climate change in Plato, let me suggest a connection: every time we speak of the atmosphere as a global public good we are in some sense the inheritors of Plato. The challenge for a contemporary Platonist is to move past mere contemplation of the heavens to their protection: Join us in the cave!

Mr. Sachs at one point looked like a sophist in one of Plato’s dialogues: he suggested that people are free to shift the burden of proof whenever they want for any hypothesis, no matter how absurd. He seemed to suggest this move could be a default gambit one could use to reverse the burden of any claim. But this is not how science works, nor, I assume, is it how Mr. Sachs’ mind works when he thinks about, say, the threat presented by the Singularity. Clearly, there are standards of persuasion and evidence that have relevance in various contexts: they can be amended, perhaps, but not overturned at will. And speaking of standards, for all the seemingly skeptical comments I received from several of the 16 posts, no one said anything remotely convincing against the two-part test by John Holdren for those who would seek to disprove the climate science. Ockham’s razor shaves not Professor Holdren.

But skeptics there are, and ever there will be. Darrel, another responder to my first post, pointed out the powerful aesthetic or psychological appeal of the stance: a skeptic can see herself as courageous, as having escaped the lazy dogmatism that has beset all around her. It is an attractive self-image. Thus Timothy Ball, a professional climate skeptic, has written of Richard Lindzen as “Another cry in the wilderness.” But these folks must be uncomfortable knowing, as they surely do, that they are most popular precisely among those who are least interested in rigorous scientific epistemology. When Ball is invited to speak at oil and gas conferences, it is not because oil and gas executives have gone and read his writings (from more than a decade earlier) in contrast to the claims of more recent IPCC reports. It is simply because his message fits. And so to the professional philosophers of the world who stand on the epistemic sidelines, know this: you are also providing a service for beneficiaries of the status quo. The debate is not happening in a vacuum.

Darrel also made reference to the role played by vested interests – the likes of Exxon Mobil over the years – in muddying the epistemological waters. (Think of Thank you for Smoking: “Is your Mommy a doctor? … Well them she’s hardly a credible expert, is she?”) I thought about raising this point in my first post, given its importance, and then I decided I would challenge myself to see how many inertia factors I could identify even without it. But it must be said: professional climate dissemblers have left their mark – in Washington, and in Ottawa. They have intensified the specific gravity that supports inertia on this file.

Some time ago, my friend and fellow blogger Ian Mason summed up beautifully what he described as a three-part Law of Climate Denial among professional skeptics: “Climate change isn’t happening; if it is happening, it’s not our fault; if it is happening and it is our fault, it’s not a bad thing.” All three postures, thankfully, have become indefensible in most circles; they have slipped from the media mainstream to the margins of the blogosphere. These days, as in Bali, much of the debate has shifted to economics and policy – and one can see some cause for optimism in this shift, perhaps. But as scientific inertia passes into economic inertia, Ian has had to reformulate the Law of the Climate Denier to include a fourth axiom: “Climate change isn’t happening; if it is happening, it’s not our fault; if it is happening and it is our fault, it’s not a bad thing. If it is happening, it is our fault, and it is a bad thing, it’s too expensive to do anything about.”

In my third installment of Climate Change vs. Human Inertia, I’ll turn my attention to the context and causes for economic and policy inertia. If you think natural science can give rise to controversy, wait’ll you see what happpens when the dismal science has its moment in the sun.

3 thoughts on “Climate Change vs. Human Inertia – Part 2

  1. Ian’s “Law of the Climate Denier’ could include another clause: “if it is happening, it is our fault, it could be a good thing (which will allow us to start farming in the tundra).” I’ve actually heard this argument.

  2. Yes, I’ve heard that one too. Really that’s what I was thinking of when I added clause three (“it’s not a bad thing”) to the Law of Climate Change Denial.

    Come to think of it, I’m not sure “Law” is the right word (even tongue-in-cheek) for this, since it’s not really describing a set of reliable observations (as in the Law of Gravity, or even, at a stretch, Moore’s Law). More of a “Rhetoric”, perhaps? Any suggestions for a more precise way of describing this set of interlocking arguments are more than welcome.

    What a wonderfully appropriate picture, by the way. Half Rodin’s Thinker, half immobile monkey. Ah, humanity.

  3. It’s a law; a friend of mine did the same thing – move smoothly from denial to ‘we can’t do anytyhing about it’.

    This might not be a law from the viewpoint of chemistry or physics, but it seems reliable enough for a description of human behavior.

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