On science, society, philosophy and literature by George Zarkadakis
Monday, April 27, 2009
Our planet has been warming up since the Industrial Revolution mainly due to the accumulation of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, gases that result from the burning of fossil fuels that spur and sustain our economic development. This is a scientific fact that no one doubts. Paleoclimatologists place the current trend in a wider context by comparing past periods of Earth’s history where warming up had occurred due to natural processes. We also know of the Milankovitch 100,000-year cycles that determine the phasing of ice ages with interglacials. According to those cycles we ought to be entering into an ice age. Temperatures ought to be dropping and ice on the polar caps ought to be thickening. Ironically, our pumping of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere seems to compensate for all that. Science can describe with relative accuracy the past and the processes by which we got where we are today. Logic, and some rather crude computer models that run on computers, predict that if we continue with business-as-usual many nasty things will happen to our environment. Indeed many of those things are happening already. Earth is sick; there can be no question about it. And, very probably - why almost certainly -it has been made sick because of human industrial activity. Two questions follow: Question 1: Can we do something about it? Question 2: Providing we can what should we do?
The Kyoto Protocol, as well as the recent international discussion at Bali for the successor agreement, emphatically answer “Yes” to the first question and “Curb carbon emissions” to the second. There seems to be worldwide consensus on those answers and, with the exception of the US government and a handful of die-hard skeptics, the rest of the world seems willing to bite the bullet and proceed with a more responsible, equitable and collective stewardship of the planet, at a nominal cost. Sounds all right, doesn’t it? Well it does and perhaps it is. However, I will examine the nature of the two questions posed in order to argue that the climate change debate is not really about climate science, or economics. Inexactness is in the method and nature of both, and one could argue ad nauseum about the merits of different approaches, analyses and the like. Evidently, the issue is not an academic one, although scientists are being involved in an unprecedented way and are being awarded not the Nobel Prize for Physics or Economics but the Nobel Prize for Peace, a distinction usually reserved for politicians or activists. Additionally, I would argue that the debate is not even a political one. Of course, many heads of state would envy Al Gore and would like a piece of his action and fame. Climate change seems to galvanize electorates across the globe, even when no one really bothers to explain the details to them. But let us leave the cunning politicos aside, for their perfidiousness is well-documented. Even honest, well-wishing politicians fall back on inexact science in order to validate their decisions and by doing so fall into the abyss of folly. Their decisions usually evoke the insurance argument: i.e. curb emissions at a premium now in order to avoid dire consequences in the future. But the insurance argument is a weak one. Its weakness lies firstly in selecting and prioritizing future risks, and secondly in defining the premium. Climate change is not the only thing threatening future generations. If the world wants to buy insurance on its future safety then funds need to be established in order to deal with rogue asteroids, supervolcanic eruptions, supernova explosions in the vicinity of our solar system, pandemics, plume explosions, and – why not – invasion of Earth by an alien civilization. The list of possible threats can go almost forever. And how about that premium? How much does it cost? How can one be certain that forgoing A% of the world’s output is optimal and not A+B%, when the science of prediction is so inexact? If one is talking about the future of the planet shouldn’t one be generous with premiums? If the alternative is life on a scorched planet without wildlife, a barren rock in space, shouldn’t we consider eliminating greenhouse gases altogether as soon as possible? And if this sounds illogical, where is the logic in defining an optimal premium?
All in all, I will argue that the debate on climate change is principally and foremost an emotional one.
Both questions I asked above are scientifically unanswerable because they deal with certainties. The fact that many scientists have become evangelical in their predictions is unassailable evidence of emotionalism blurring their better judgment. Healthy skepticism has been replaced by much-applauded scientific fundamentalism, which is being rewarded the Nobel. There have been reports of “tears” during the Bali meeting. And the manner by which the meeting proceeded reminds one of an operetta. Why so much passion? The emotional charge that permeates all debates on climate needs to be analyzed by sociologists and psychologists. By being “alarmist” and “apocalyptic” cunning politicians join the chorus of scientists-turned-Bible-prophets in a replay of a very old story, namely the herding of the human flock under an ideological banner, this time the banner being “eco-friendly”. The threat is nature’s revenge on the sinful humankind. God has been replaced by mystical natural forces, by a cybernetic Gaia. Often, the high moral ground is being hijacked by atheists who re-discover faith dressed up as computer simulations of looming Apocalypse. The end is at hand ladies and gentlemen! Repent! Shut the factories down! Shun your riches! Be poor in body and mind! Love thy neighbor! And redemption will surely come!
There is obviously a positive side to all this that needs to be mentioned. Al Gore has been explicit about it too. I will rephrase it as the dawning of a new era in international politics where leaders adopt a common, environment-centered, agenda that, ultimately, can lead only to cooperation and peace. In a world that is about to fall apart there is no point fighting. Or isn’t there? Well, you see, when the debate is so emotionally charged, when logic and the inexactness of scientific argument have been replaced by certainties, feelings can swing either way unpredictably. You could have Al Gore’s fantastic vision of world cooperation and mutual support but, alas, you could also have war and mutual annihilation. And this is precisely the danger that the world faces as we are being herded into taking decisions about the future, eluding ourselves that we are powerful enough to engineer climate by adopting an equitable sharing of greenhouse gas quotas.