Unsettling Climate Thoughts - Part III
In parts I and II of this blog I’ve reviewed Steven Koonin’s criticism of the climate change debate, setting it against the opposing views of Adam Sobel, another prominent climate scientist. My conclusion is that
There is a large degree of uncertainty in climate science and forecasts – and even in the measurement of current “actual” data. This is not surprising given the complexity of climate systems, but it stands in shocking contrast to the absolute certainty portrayed in climate headlines: science actually does not prove that climate change is causing more hurricanes and floods; climate change models cannot even reproduce the past; a few years ago "actual" data showed global temperatures had been stable for a decade and a half, then these recent "actual" data suddenly changed.
There is a legitimate debate on whether this uncertainty means we should take dramatic action or proceed with more caution;
Fighting climate change fast carries substantial costs: lower economic growth and higher global poverty; therefore we need a careful cost-benefit analysis.
This last part focuses on the social responsibility of scientists and the risks that the current framing of the climate change debate will backfire.
Advocacy and the scientists’ social responsibility
Koonin levies a harsh criticism against the majority of scientists working on climate change. He notes that the climate reports’ executive summaries gloss over the uncertainties, feeding a simplistic and alarmist media campaign. (In the book Koonin provides plenty of supporting quotes from the reports and the summaries.)
Sobel argues that scientists should play down the uncertainty when they communicate to policymakers and the public. He worries that disclosing too much uncertainty will lead to inaction. He thinks scientists know enough to conclude that early and decisive action against climate change is necessary, and have a responsibility to convince the public and politicians to go forward – and this requires simplifying the message.
I find this attitude troubling. If there are important trade offs to be made in a situation of uncertainty, the responsibility for the decision rests with the public and policymakers; it should not be pre-empted by scientists.
Instead, the scientists’ attitude here is: if we give them full information, people cannot be trusted to make the right decision; therefore we should convey only the information that will push society onto what we believe is the right path.
This is the same patronizing attitude that has characterized the Covid-19 response: people cannot be trusted to make a responsible risk assessment given the full available information; they should be nudged, scared or coerced into the “right” behavior according to the establishment.
All talk, little action
As we have seen with Covid, this attitude is not only unethical but also counterproductive. It undermines the public’s trust in science and experts, making future recommendations less effective. And by stifling the scientific and public debate it prevents the discovery of better solutions and the diffusion of best practices. Today young scientists know that if they want to push a line of research that is not fully aligned with the accepted climate change “consensus”, they will face enormous difficulties in obtaining research grants and academic jobs. Then the science is “settled” the way elections in North Korea are settled. This makes it much harder to advance our scientific understanding of the climate, which is still woefully inadequate.
The current approach to the climate change debate is already backfiring:
Everyone says we face an existential crisis, but nobody does what they claim to believe should be done. Governments have barely managed to agree on emission targets that are recognized as insufficient to “save the planet,” and they can’t even meet these perfunctory benchmarks.
Most people keep driving, flying, and running their heating and air conditioning the way they always did.
Policymakers remain reluctant to tell people that reducing emissions requires major costs and sacrifices. The Biden administration is scaling back its green ambitions, relying mostly on subsidies and tax breaks, because it fears voter backlash to additional costs.
Unsurprisingly, polls indicate that people are not willing to sacrifice much to combat climate change: a recent AP poll shows a majority of Americans want the government to accelerate the transition to renewable energy; but barely half would be willing to pay an extra $1 a month on their energy bill, and four in ten won’t even accept a $1 a year increase in gasoline or electricity prices.
The current energy crisis has shown what happens when the tradeoffs start to bite: the Biden administration has been one of the strongest advocates of eliminating fossil fuels and reducing emissions. But as energy prices increased, this same administration begged OPEC to increase the supply of fossil fuels. It did not tell us this was a great opportunity to adjust our thermostats and leave our cars in the garage.
The latest IPCC report tried to instill the same sense of urgency we’ve had with Covid, issuing a “Code red for humanity” and warning that much of the damage might already be irreversible – perhaps because for Covid, the populations in many countries have accepted unprecedented constraints on their lifestyles. But whereas for Covid we’ve shut down the global economy without thinking twice about it, today we urge oil and gas producers to pump more fossil fuels to keep the economic boom going. People can see the difference, and it smells of hypocrisy.
The climate is changing. We can feel it. Years ago, chatting with a winemaker in France, he observed that “when I was a kid, I had to take time off school to help my father with the harvest; now the harvest happens well before school starts”. Human emissions are contributing. We should reduce them because they warm the globe, they pollute, and eventually we’ll run out of fossil fuels. We should keep improving renewable energy technologies.
We need to decide how fast we want to reduce emissions. We face a high degree of genuine uncertainty on climate scenarios: future climate developments might be more or less adverse than our forecasts, and other elements of the climate system might dominate any increase or reduction in human emissions. This leaves us with a difficult cost-benefit analysis.
If reducing emissions were costless, I would say by all means let’s reduce them faster. But reducing emissions is not costless – particularly for the large share of the world population that still lives in poverty. So we face a really hard choice –one that we should take with our eyes wide open, weighing all the evidence while we strive to improve both climate science and renewable energy technologies.
I could buy the argument that we should cut emissions hard and fast because there is a risk the climate might deteriorate even faster than we think. But let’s take that decision recognizing the costs involved, and recognizing that we might be wrong, that the sacrifices might not be necessary but they are a form of insurance we decide to take. Let’s admit this is about uncertainty and risk management, not absolute certainty and settled science.
In my view, scientists’ responsibility is (1) to explain in a clear and objective way the current state of scientific understanding, not distort it to push a specific agenda; (2) to encourage open scientific debate to advance our understanding, not shut it down through censorship and witch-hunting.
My conclusion – and I know many of you will disagree – is that the media and policymakers have adopted a strategy of scaremongering, playing up apocalyptic predictions while hiding both the uncertainty of the data and forecasts and the cost of the proposed actions. Too many scientists have become willfully complicit in this – because as Sobel candidly argues, they believe effective advocacy requires a simple, unanimous scary message. This will backfire. It will leave people unprepared and unwilling to make serious sacrifices; it will prevent governments from adopting the measures they claim are necessary, it will make it harder to identify the best response to the climate challenge and it will further undermine the public’s trust in science and institutions. If we truly want to address climate change, we need a far more honest approach.