SCIENCE CORNER: Let’s Talk About Climate Change

science_corner_thumbScience Corner highlights science and technology issues that either influence public policy or are simply unbelievably cool.

Let’s start with a disclaimer: this is not going to be, primarily, about whether or not climate change is real (it is) or about whether or not mankind is contributing to climate change (we are) or about what the climate will look like in 50 years (who knows?). It’s also not going to be about the most recent UN report on climate change and the problems with so much of the criticism (you can find that here). Those are some pretty interesting issues, but I’d be wasting our time if I pretended to answer them in a few hundred words. Instead, we’re going to take a look at a related question: why is this such a difficult political issue to begin with?

At first blush, I have to admit that it doesn’t seem like a terribly interesting question. After all, the combination of powerful interests and a complicated subject matter begs for politicization, doesn’t it? Well, not so fast.

It’s true that energy production is a gigantic industry, and that mean’s a lot of rich and interested businesspeople as well as some not altogether indifferent consumers. That’s a recipe for political intrigue, but not necessarily for a culture-war-type divide in the country over the underlying facts. After all, the railroads were powerful but people didn’t sit around fighting over the science of steam engines.

To be sure, big issues are political issues, and powerful political actors have an incentive to muddy the waters. That gets us part of the way, but still leaves us short.

What about the amount of complexity and uncertainty that climate change brings up? Let’s take a brief look at that.

At a basic level, the science isn’t very interesting: if you increase the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, then (all other things being equal) you should expect a warming effect. So, what’s the problem? Well, let’s start with that favorite phrase of academic writing: ‘all other things being equal’. As a rule, all other things are never equal; it’s just not how the world works.

This 1973 photo shows the Whitechuck Glacier in Washington, USA.

This 1973 photo shows the Whitechuck Glacier in Washington, USA.

The truth is that the scientific question of whether or not an increase in greenhouse gasses lead to warming relative to baseline temperatures is different than the forecasting question of how much warming will obtain over the next 50 or 100 years.

The models are complicated and chaotic. There are good and legitimate questions – and they inject a ton of uncertainty into the conversation. For a lot of observers, that’s enough to get us the rest of the way towards an explanation of what sets the debate about climate change apart.

But if you want to see just how incomplete this answer is, then ask yourself the following questions: are China and Japan willing to go to war over the Senkaku Islands? Is Iran willing to risk a protracted war over its nuclear program? Or how about: where will the next major earthquake in the United States hit?

In other words, uncertainty is nothing new – usually we respond to it by hedging. If you don’t know whether or not war will break out in the Middle East, most people react to that by wanting to be in a position to respond to one if it does happen. Sure, some folks would rather put the country on a war footing just in case, while others would rather slash the military under the presumption that war won’t come. But most middle-of-the road folks can deal with making policy within the realm of incomplete information; perfect knowledge of the future has never really been a human indulgence.

What sets the conversation about climate change apart isn’t the uncertainty; rather it’s the rock solid conviction with which so many Americans approach it. Let’s take a look at why and where it all comes off the rails.

First, let’s stipulate that – whether or not you agree with it – the overwhelming scientific consensus is that global warming is happening, that it’s manmade, and that it might very well have serious global consequences for humanity. But let’s further stipulate that while the debate within the scientific community that leads to that consensus is complicated and nuanced (and maybe flawed), it doesn’t represent the process by which the overwhelming majority of Americans reach their conclusions.

Let me state outright that my working theory of public opinion is that most people don’t understand most of the positions they hold in very much detail.

Some Americans, taking their cue from people they respect and identify with, accept the scientific consensus on a question as correct primarily because it is, in fact, the scientific consensus. These people might or might not listen to the technical arguments, but when they do listen to them they find them persuasive. But they’re not primarily starting from Descartes’ radical skepticism and then building their argument one piece at time. Rather, they started with the premise that they trust the scientific community, and then they learned that people like them agreed with the science as well. As their political confederates got more and more animated about the issue, they discovered their own passion for it.

This photo shows the Whitechuck Glacier in 2006. In between photos, the ice retreated 1.2 miles.

This photo shows the Whitechuck Glacier in 2006. In between photos, the ice retreated 1.2 miles.

In other words, they accept climate change as an expert field and have no reason to distrust the judgement of the experts – kind of how most Americans just accept the germ theory of disease or the notion that HIV causes AIDS, without being able to personally prove it.

Americans who demur hear arguments against the seriousness of manmade climate change and they find those arguments persuasive. Why is that?

In the main, it’s not because they carefully reviewed the arguments from the scientific community and found that they disagreed with them. (As far as the equivalencies between both sides go, they probably do bear this out: most people reach judgements about the world by integrating their own instincts with what their reference group believes to be true.)

We don’t need to presume that global-warming skeptics don’t also start with the premise that they should accept the scientific consensus as authoritative – it’s just that in this instance many of them hit against deeper assumptions. In this instance, conservative activists identified a danger.

They saw that a threat like global warming implies a systemic response. Such a threat, they feared, would require the sort of central planning and market intervention that conservatives instinctively loath. If what scientists were saying about global warming were true, it would result in a political outcome that was unacceptable. That’s more cognitive dissonance than most people can handle, so rather than disavowing their politics, this group dismissed the science.

It’s not that different than what the left does around nuclear energy or the greenies do around GMOs. Of course, it isn’t how Plato would encourage us to reach conclusions, but there you have it. And to paraphrase Jonathan Swift, you cannot reason a man out of a conclusion he did not reason himself into.

Is that a patronizing thing to say about people who view themselves as having an honest disagreement with the scientific consensus? Probably. Does it paint with too broad a brush? Definitely. But on the whole, I stand by my analysis that the political phenomenon of climate change skepticism is not, at it’s core, a disagreement over science. It’s a disagreement about political philosophy.

It’s also an incredible failure of imagination: the conservative attack on climate science seems to be premised on the notion that only liberals might be able to provide an effective solution to global warming. That strikes me as incredibly self-deprecating for what is an otherwise cocksure intellectual movement.

Rather than drawing the line on the facts, a dimension of the world that isn’t particularly amenable to political persuasion, proponents of the free market should be putting forward an argument for how market incentives are a better approach to dealing with climate change than what the Democratic Party is proposing. They should be telling us to pay attention to the distortions we risk introducing when we try to better align incentives with the outcomes we prefer. And yes, they should even be making sure that science advocates don’t overstate their point.

Unfortunately, all we’ve gotten from the movement conservatives has been a knee-jerk denial of the scientific process. That’s a shame – is it too late to vote for John Huntsman?

(Actually, it is too late to vote for THAT John Huntsman.)

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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