APSmith, of Energize America, is an extremely knowledgeable and thoughtful individual well worth listening to and pondering. This discussion reflects what he sees as a driving motivation for denying reality and global warming denial. This relates to my efforts to explore the motivating factors behind ‘irrational skepticism’ (term referring to those whose skepticism is not honest, not open to suasion by evidence) and climate denial. A Siegel
Over on Dot Earth, Andy Revkin posted a blog entry on the need to make decisions in the face of uncertainty. As usual, it inspired the “denialist” forces to come out in full attack mode. Actually, this was far from the worst instance there recently. But one of the commenters wondered “why the vitriol”? Read on for my thoughts…
Yes, what “inspires such vitriol”? Why do people who seem to know so little feel compelled to speak out so much and so strongly?
They have accused those of us who accept the scientific consensus of being in a state of “fanatical madness”, of being “alarmists” whose goal is “burdening our capitalist economy, which they detest.” (I find a certain irony in accusing presenters of the raw facts of being “alarmists” seeking to destroy capitalism as we know it!) We practice “ideology based science”, we spout “nonsense” or provide “hysterical fear mongering”, we are not scientists but “high priests” trying to make everybody else feel “guilt”. What we are doing will end up with “people paying a lot more for energy when they could have been using that money to buy food.” We are about to squander “financial and human resources”, causing “inaction on real world problems like clean water”, etc. and end up with the world’s poor condemned to “truly brutish and short lives with no way to [...] stop or reverse their suffering. ” And those are just from comments on this one blog entry!
So, yes there is a lot of vitriol from one side here, and it’s very hard to understand. Is the motivating factor really such deep concern for the suffering of the world’s poor? Have all of you supported government programs to improve, say, clean water, health, or education in developing nations? I certainly support those things and find it hard to believe that diverting 1% of world GDP to solving the climate/energy problem will prevent us from doing all that other good stuff too. In fact, I fundamentally believe, as the late Richard Smalley did, that solving the energy problem for the world solves just about every other problem too.
So, what is the real source of the vitriol? Usually such forceful language comes only when foundational beliefs are being threatened in some fundamental way. What foundational belief does anthropogenic global warming threaten? There is at least one, rather central to US political discourse for a long time: whether such a thing as a “public good” exists, or whether all good is encompassed in private action.
Now this may seem odd as a foundational belief – “public goods” are rather universally understood in economics, and the “tragedy of the commons” and related game-theory discussions of, for example, the archetypal “Prisoner’s Dilemma”, show quite clearly that there are situations where cooperative action produces a better outcome for all than seeking individual selfish advantage. Nevertheless, these common understandings seem to have been suppressed in recent American discourse, particularly through the spouting of so-called “libertarian” dogma. “Greed is good”, the market is always right, economic growth is the only thing that matters… you’ve all heard it, some of you probably believe it.
And to some extent it’s true – the wisdom of markets driven by individual selfish action is a real thing. But that does not mean that there is no such thing as a public good, or a public commons that can be damaged through that same individual selfish action. Both need to be taken into account, and both should be through wise government: the founders of the US did a splendid job of balancing the necessary regulatory apparatus of governance with the freedoms that bring human nature’s great capacities to bear in the most effective way.
But what does this all have to do with global warming? Unlike almost any other “commons” problem, CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions spread almost uniformly throughout the atmosphere, and thus affect in common every person in every nation around the world. The “commons” here is global, but the action that harms it is still individual: billions of individuals making separate decisions on travel, heating or cooling, and the purchasing that drives manufacturing and all the other uses of energy – each one of these adds to the CO2 problem. Individual selfish action, the natural “market”, sees absolutely no direct negative consequence. But the negative consequences are there, spread around to us all.
And the only way we will actually solve this problem is globally; just as it is to each individual’s advantage to keep emitting as much CO2 as they please, so it is essentially to the advantage of every nation of the world, looking at only its own benefit, and not the costs to others. Those who bring the vitriol to bear seem to understand this – I believe this is what they fear: we have a problem that will only be solved by cooperation on a global scale. This flies in the face of their belief in individual selfish action as the root of all good. And so they do whatever they can to deny that this problem exists at all, or to deny that there is any way for it to be solved.
But there is a way: global cooperation is far from impossible, in fact it has been done a number of times in the past. There are a few “commons” out there already that have been equitably shared among the nations through international agencies: the frequency spectrum, for instance, and associated geosynchronous satellite locations, by the ITU. The international treaties that eliminated ozone-destroying chemicals are a more familiar example (but another in which the science was attacked with similar vitriol!) World agreements on trade, property, and patents underpin much of the “free market” system we so love. The United Nations itself is an example of global cooperation in its formation, and in many of the programs it manages.
I don’t see a lot of hysteria on my side of this problem. I see a lot of serious-minded people saying we need to put our shoulders to the wheel, find a way to cooperate on a global scale, and switch to new forms of energy production and improved efficiency, most of which can be done with little or no economic cost. As somebody has been saying recently, “we can solve it”. But it has to be “we”, not 7 billion “I’s” doing their own thing. And I think that’s what has many of those writing here so fired up.
Public goods and the global commons do exist. Deal with it.