To pilot a planet: the future of the climate change debate

“This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.” – Albert Einstein, 1920

I’d like to ask you – the reader – to conduct a simple thought experiment.

Imagine the children in your life and picture them as adults debating the reality of climate change. Now try to imagine their children doing the same thing. Then try to picture their children, and their children continuing that same debate. Its 2200 CE and future generations are locked into the same debate.

Does that seem at all plausible?

The intent of this thought experiment is to raise your gazes above the trench warfare that epitomizes today’s “climate debate”. Forget everything that seems so vitally important about the “debate” raging across blogs, YouTube and the opinion pages of the dying newspaper industry.

Ask yourself this question: “How long do you think this debate will continue?”

Years?

My own feeling: this debate will continue for centuries.

As long as there is an industrial civilisation we will be investigating, confirming, denying and debating anthropomorphic climate change.

Science controversies past and present

A recent paper in Physics Today contrasts the time lag between experts agreeing on “controversial” scientific theories and the considerable time lag before public consensus emerges. The author sees direct parallels between the climate change debate and past science “backlashes”:

“The historical backlashes shed some light on a paradox of the current climate debate: As evidence continues to accumulate confirming longstanding warming predictions and showing how sensitive climate has been throughout Earth’s history, why does climate skepticism seem to be growing rather than shrinking? All three provocative ideas—heliocentricity, relativity, and greenhouse warming—have been, in Kuhn’s words, “destructive of an entire fabric of thought,” and have shattered notions that make us feel safe That kind of change can turn people away from reason and toward emotion, especially when the ideas are pressed on them with great force…”

Thus we could speculate the climate debate will continue for decades, if not centuries. It will outlast most nation states now in existence – the very same nation states who will determine the course of history for future generations by their action – or inaction – on climate change.

Most of the individuals and organisations so prominent in the current debate will be forgotten, their existence barely noted in scant foot notes in some yet to be written history of climate change.

The irony is that we fight this debate as if month-to-month opinion polls are all that matter. In Australia, a carbon tax is about to come in effect on 1 July. It has proven enormously unpopular with the public while the conservative Opposition has been using it an opportunity to run an effective fear campaign: “We well be ruined, ruined by this tax!”

And while climate change scepticism may serve contrarians well enough in the short-term, the viability of our civilisation is being sacrificed for political gain.

The Great Awakening may not just be “around the corner”

Science has granted us with a view of the universe that often runs counter to cherished beliefs about ourselves and our place in the universe. Thus, for every major scientific theory one can find a counter-narrative.

Five centuries after Copernicus a 2004 survey found 20% of Americans in opposition to the idea the Earth revolves around the sun.

And yet it seems to me the scientific community, climate change activists, writers and bloggers are infected with an unrealistic optimism that “victory” is just around the corner. Most commentators propose it will take only a few more years before our civilisation undergoes the “great awakening”.

After all, it is an eminently sensible argument: surely “people” will get it, and demand action?

Many hope to see a global “mass mobilisation” with nations and individuals across the globe uniting to confront the enemy that is climate change. Commentators often cite the efforts of “The Greatest Generation” in defeating the Nazi’s and fascism during the Second World War as a parallel. I can understand this, the mythos that has been built around the Nazi defeat is great. Recall also the Germans and Japanese also mobilized for total war: effort does not ensure victory. 

More often than not those closest to the debate are projecting their own intellectual and emotional journey onto others.

Sadly, not everyone is “going to get it”.

Those of us blogging, reading and debating climate change are outliers: we are highly motivated to understand the science, politics and responses to climate change. For most individuals, it is an area of third, fourth or fifth level importance even if they accept the science.

What if I’m wrong, and there is a great awakening?

Still let’s challenge the above assertion: let us imagine the best of all possible worlds were we cap emissions and usher in a golden age of renewable energy.

Time to declare the debate over?

Should we avert disaster there will be those who will claim that as evidence climate change never was a problem: all those emissions taxes and support for clean energy was a wasted exercise to solve a non-existent problem. There will be groups wishing to wind back policy and legislative mechanisms in the same way conservatives are trying to wind back environmental legislation in Australia, the UK and the US.

“Surely not!” some of you would argue “Who would be so stupid?”

Well yes – we can be that stupid.

Consider the case of vaccination, a triumph for evidence based medicine.

It is still within living memory of many that that Polio, tuberculosis and Whooping cough killed thousands in the developed world. These diseases were almost completely eradicated in the developed world with the introduction of mass vaccination.

And yet we are now presented with the spectacle of millions of educated, middle to upper middle class parents conscientiously opposed to vaccination and reducing the populations “herd immunity” by not vaccinating their children.

These diseases – once thought banished – are now returning because there are those who doubt their effectiveness even when presented with the compelling evidence of children dying.

The point is these examples is this: we forgot mass horror and tragedy quickly, often within the span of a generation or two.

And even when we forget, we often refuse to believe facts that challenge our core values or beliefs.

It’s been over 150 years since Darwin published his theory of evolution in The Origin of the Species, and yet in public uncertainty about the validity about the science remains high from the United States (50% of the population) and around the globe. Those that “accept” evolution are very much in the minority.

America landed on the moon in 1969 and yet a staggering 10%-20% of the American population doubt this actually happened. If anyone had a vested interest in believing in American technological superiority it would be the average American citizen?

Strangely outlandish conspiracy theories have someone proven more compelling than actual reality.

How many Americans doubt their President was even born in the United States?

A recent survey of Australians show 10% believe the world will end in 2012 – a “New Age” belief that mangles and distorts Mayan cosmology despite the fact it has been debunked many times.

While one may be appalled by such willed ignorance, it is important to remember that denial is part of our nature and won’t go away even presented with the most compelling evidence.

The long debate

We cannot hope to quickly undo the damage to the atmosphere in a few short decades. It will take generations to both fix and manage the climate.

Now that we understand how CO2 impacts the atmosphere, we must forever abandon fossil fuels as an energy source.

The climate debate has only just begun.

And yet through all those long centuries that stretch before us, through the vicissitudes of wars, dark ages, renaissances and technological change we must hold onto the simple and fragile truth that the planet’s atmosphere must be managed intelligently and co-operatively by our species.

Our species made this mess; it is our species that has to manage it for all the long millennia ahead.

Climate change – the idea that we are altering the planet’s atmosphere – has profoundly changed how we view ourselves in the same manner Copernicus’s assertion of a heliocentric solar system unseated mankind from the centre of the universe.

It seems our fate as a species is tied up in trusting this wonderful construct we call “science”.

And yet to paraphrase Carl Sagan how very much it is like a fragile candle in the dark – a speck of light in a demon haunted world.

Tenacity, compassion and reverence for the truth: the accidental geo-engineers toolkit

Our role is not merely to debate the reality of climate change. I would suggest it is a far more expansive and nobler role than that.

We – the vanguard and the outliers of the debate – can be the mentors and teachers of the next generation. It falls to us to teach them resilience, tenacity and to trust the scientific method.

However, in addition to fostering scientific literacy we should teach the values of compassion and empathy.

Climate change has taught us the need to rebuild our industrial civilisation from the ground up in order to avert the suffering of billions fellow human beings.

Knowledge and compassion are inexorably linked – once cannot act without knowledge. Indeed, once you understand climate change, you are compelled to act. 

We can do more than bequest future generations a broken planet; we must also teach them to pilot the planet and our civilisation.

The generations that follow are accidental geo-engineers, a role neither asked for nor deserving. And while it may be impossible to forecast what our global civilisation will look like 1000 years from now, we can lay the seeds for its survival today.

Thus it falls to us to teach them the values that will guide them through the coming centuries of change: resilience in the face of adversity, compassion, empathy and a deep reverence for truth.

In essence, to lay the seeds of a humanist culture that recognises its place in the cosmos, appreciates the fragility of each individual life and our civilisation and fosters the hope we can guide it to better futures.

That is the legacy each of us holds in our hands, and has the power to pass on.

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9 thoughts on “To pilot a planet: the future of the climate change debate

  1. Bernard J. says:

    …be more optimistic, your children are relying on you

    Don’t get me wrong John, I’m working very hard with my local community to increase and enhance local resilience and sustainability. And I am sufficiently optimistic to think that we can move to a sustainable world if we so choose – it’s the empiricist in me that is persuaded by the evidence at hand that we won’t…

    I’ll go down fighting though even if the evidence is correct!

  2. Bernard J. says:

    Those who have seen my postings on various blogs (the latest on Skeptical Science) probably won’t be surprised to hear that I have a very dim view of the prospects for humans properly understanding and acting on the science of climate change. There are too many irrational thinkers in our species, resulting in part from cultural starting conditions and in part from a simple evolutionary mal-adaptation to phenomena of this scale, and in which we play a modifying part.

    The several decades have convinced me that humans are no closer to actually acting substantively on global warming than we were at the beginning of the 1990s, when I heard David Suzuki speak and say that we had until the year 2000 to properly act to avoid the effects of warming. In hindsight I am convinced that he was right, just as I was sure of it when I heard him speak.

    The problem stems in part from politico-economic ideology and partly from religious thinking. Both modes of ‘thought’ are separable from logic and empirical knowledge, and sadly both modes of thought are stubbornly refractory to education – at least to education as we know it in the 21st century.

    If we lived in a science fiction world where the laws of thermodynamics weren’t watching us perhaps we could progress to an enlightened level over the next few centuries, but we don’t have that luxury. Peak oil, peak phosphorus, peak available fresh water, peak arable soil, peak coal and peak fissile materials, peak fisheries and peak forests and peak biodiversity, even peak amenable living space are all going to put a stop to the luxury of becoming more educated, even if peak climate took longer to disappear than current science suggests. And when those other peaks wash over our civilisation it will be science that washes away, leaving the hard, lumpy and brain-dashing rocks of religion, superstition, self-interest, and all the other habits and magical thinkings to which humans are prone

    There’s an irony here – my guess is that one day the remains of the works of science will be seen as the works of gods, and that it was the gods’ displeasure with humanity that caused the loss of a world full of wonder. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was to be told by a time traveler that humans several millennia hence were fighting all the harder against each other to garner whatever advantage remains, and that they would do so with ready sacrificing to the gods as if that might make a difference, but with full refusal to accept that it was their ancestors’ earthly actions that wrought their circumstance rather than the wroth of gods.

    I’d love to think otherwise, especially as a father of young children. Unfortunately I suspect that human progress (and population) will follow a symmetrical plotting of the curves describing our endeavours that will all mostly peak within the next century or so. The 21st century is likely the century of of Apices, the hanging frame or beam on which a range of bells are centred…

    I hope that I’m wrong, but I cannot think of a feasible scenario that would likely play out within the confines of thermodynamics.

    • john byatt says:

      would have made a good post bernard,

      well said, but be more optimistic, your children are relying on you

  3. […] As Hamilton states, the climate change debate is a political one. Hamilton looks at how the Theory of Relativity played into the political debates of the 1930s, a point I also made in my piece “To pilot a planet”.  […]

  4. Moth says:

    You summed it up nicely mate; it comes down to scientific literacy. Not only climate, but the other mentioned conflicts and many more.

    We’re not well taught, at large, of how to treat and test data. Anecdotal evidence often takes precedence over direct observation. People also tend to retreat from what they don’t understand. Overloading them with information is something that the more scientific literate as a bad for as their bamboozling counterparts (of course, in the latter case, it’s almost entirely inaccurately portrayed as well).

    Worst than all of this is the immense job of retrofitting. Where rising affluence in many cases hasn’t translated to appropriate infrastructure, such as treated/potable and waste waste water management we’re given a real world example as to the immensity of the problem of retrofitting a society poorly planned from the beginning.

    I feel it’s unlikely we will make the required headway on climate mitigation, but we can adapt and evolve our processes. We can prepare our child for a changing world. We are resilient as life is, but there’s one hell of a speed bump heading our way.

  5. Mike:

    Great to receive your latest post in my morning’s emails – I had gone to bed severely depressed , after reading many blogs that claim they want to fight the deniers – but all who seemed to regard the deniers as a mere handful of nutters who deny for dollars, with the rest of humanity open to scientific arguments.

    I, by contrast, see the highly public deniers as mere stalking horses for a much larger group of remnants of Modernity ( the dominant hegemony worldwide circa 1875-1965) who have lost their intellectual hegemony but NOT their economic and political power.

    The strong core of this remnant makes up between 10 to 20% of the world’s population – while its soft supporters ( weak believers in global warming but strongly opposed to carbon taxes with bite) probably bring their world total to 50 to 60% of the world !

    So yes I ,too, don’t think this debate will ever be over – Libertarianism (Denial of the legitimacy of external restraints upon their individual behavior) is the Theology of Greed and Self-Centredness and is age old and eternal…..

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      Michael,

      Thanks for your response and comments, I tend to agree with your comments. Personally I began this blog under the assumption that deniers were a small cadre of ideologues and oil industry shills. Expose them and provide the public with the “facts” about climate change and debate over… right?

      But as you suggest, climate change is a legacy of the industrial revolution and early 20th century when coal, gas and oil became the basis of our energy needs. Contemporary civilization is built upon the extraction and release of fossilised energy.

      I would recommend “The Prize” by Daniel Yergin, a fascinating account of how oil profoundly changed our society and was the silent driver of conflict throughout the 20th century.

      We don’t need to wait for resource wars – one could say we’ve already had resource wars.

      Imperialism of the 19th century was driven by the need to capture resource producing centres in Africa and Asia; Japan went to war in the 1930s and 1940s to capture the control of resources such as rubber and oil; the Nazi Third Reich was essentially an empire build to extract resources from the East (academic studies on the Nazi economy show how central resource extraction was at the core of its identity).

      Indeed, let us look at the world of the last 200 years through the prism of resources and their extraction rather than a clash of ideologies (communism, democracy, capitalism, fascism).

      Climate change began in the 19th century, and has been silently building in intensity since then as CO2 levels have begun to rise. Indeed, this may be the “bigger story” than all the world wars etc.

  6. Mike says:

    Mike, excellent post.
    Unfortunately AGW denial will always be with us to some extent as you have rightly pointed out and for the very reasons you have mentioned. You have also given all the examples I could think of that demonstrate how pervasive and perverse denial is. There are still a handful of flat-earthers as well. I think the telling factor will be however, the extent of denial. I have taken recently to asking reasonable deniers what needs to happen for them to reconsider their position. I offer a few suggestions for things that are likely to happen in their lifetime like “an ice free arctic”, “a year without permanent snow in the Australian Alps”, “the loss of most of the Great Barrier Reef” etc. Of those who showed enough maturity to give it serious thought often commited to some measure along the lines that I have mentioned. Note: I don’t expect some of your regular visitors from the denier camp to play along. The pull of wilful ignorance may be too great. What this suggests to me, is that at some point, most people will accept the science and a ragtag bunch of hardcore nuts will continue with their idiocy. As long as a majority show concern, the people they elect will be obliged to act. I only hope that it isn’t too late.

  7. Fredrick Toben says:

    Bad analogy – Einstein was a plagiarist and he was wrong. All physicists use qauntum theory while relativity is mere propaganda for some cause. The lineage is notable: Marx, Einstein, Freud – all three wrote their works in German, which is an ideal language for thinking. But if the premise on which the thoughts rest, then even the best tools dig only a pot-hole.

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