The Denial Twist

I don’t get climate change deniers and skeptics. With the Copenhagen conference coming up quickly, there seems to be an upsurge of denial on-line. The skeptics are well-organized — any media post on climate change that allows comments is quickly tarred with their arguments.

I get that we should not just accept the conventional wisdom, I do it all the time. I agree that it is important to be open minded, to entertain other hypotheses, and to not be swayed by claims of scientific certainty and consensus. But to me this is all just a case of probabilities, and what prudent actions should be when confronted with an uncertain future.

Say that there is a 95% chance that the scientific consensus as published by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is correct, meaning really bad things that already are happening will get progressively worse in the years and decades to come. So why hold out for the 5% chance that they are wrong? If the weather forecast tells me there is a 95% chance of rain, I bring an umbrella. So on a society and economy-wide basis it is a no-brainer to take action of climate change given the high likelihood that inaction will undermine economic performance and social cohesion in the future.

A skeptic might argue for a much lower probability that the IPCC scientists are right. But say we flip the stat on its head and make a highly skeptical assumption that there is only a 5% chance the science is right. Should we then do nothing? Put it another way, if there is a one in twenty chance that your house would catch on fire due to faulty wiring, would you get the wiring replaced? Assuming no financial constraint (a big if, sometimes, given the prevalence of low incomes in our society), people would. What if there was a 5% chance that you child would get seriously injured this year, would you act to prevent it if you could? Of course. Any parent would go way out of their way to prevent horrific outcomes to our loved ones at much, much lower odds.

So even if you are a skeptic, and given that the probabilities at play are actually more like the 95% likelihood if not higher – and because of the need to get IPCC consensus, published estimates are inherently conservative, a point made clear by more recent studies that paint an even uglier picture of the future – we should still agree that acting is better than non-acting. Unless, of course, your paycheque depends on propping up vested interests who want to just keep things the way they are. Or if you believe that the bad things will not happen to you and your family but to poor people in other countries.

The only plausible retort from skeptics I can think of is that this is a massive collective action problem, the mother of all prisoner’s dilemmas. BC’s or Canada’s optimal strategy may be to do nothing if no one else (particularly the heavies like the US and China) does. Because our total contribution is a very small slice of the global total, nothing we do independently can change the direction of this freight train. Only if everyone commits to do this together can we pull it off, and be better off. And time is running out for that.

13 comments

  • This is a Great Article & your 100% right.

    Should we, the developed ask emerging nations to slow their development or spend money after we realized our mistake. There are technologies they can use in agriculture to industrial sectors to curb emissions but there are no technologies to allow for the same growth, they’ve experienced over the last 20 odd years.

    Second many of said technologies from Wind Turbines to Hybrids Rare earth elements are critical to the information age. They will be an important piece of a clean and potentially green energy future. They are used in iPods, Blackberry’s and plasma TVs. They are also important components of the magnets in electric motors sure to be important as electric cars become more plentiful. In most applications there are no substitute metals for rare earth elements, unlike petroleum.

    If its about climate change, we’ll need everyone & also not haggle over resources. If its about Energy Prices, then we need a combination of energy sources not 1.

  • “Unless, of course, your paycheque depends on propping up vested interests who want to just keep things the way they are. Or if you believe that the bad things will not happen to you and your family but to poor people in other countries.”

    There are more than a few vested interests involved in climate policy, oil companies, and solar panel firms both have a stake. I think it’s interesting to note that both the oil and coal companies, and the solar/wind/run-of-river firms BOTH have an interest in one thing, … higher oil and gas prices, however realized.

  • Everyone should take a break, go have a walk, Ill take a smoke & clear our heads as we ask ourselves how overinvesting in petroleum, was a good thing & how overinvesting in rare earth metals, Green Technology will be better. Also this will increase prices for everything we use daily from PCs(Cobalt) to Lithium Batteries(Lithium), the more we consume of these metal leaves less available for our children.

    You probably have never heard of the arcane metals before – but please believe me they are critically important to the 21st century US and Canadian economies. Do a little research on the Internet and you will quickly realize their importance. Some thirty years ago the great liberator of China’s economy, Deng Xiao Peng remarked that China would eventually become the Saudi Arabia of rare earth elements. His vision is being proven correct today. There are a few rare earth deposits in Canada. Avalon’s Thor Lake is one and Qwest Uranium is another. There is one known deposit in the US. While China is plentiful.

  • Am I in denial or more of a realist, Im personally invested for higher interest rates, cant be zero or less then 1, 2 % for ever. Im invested in precious metals & the rare earth metals which are oxides of, Europium, Terbium, Dysprosium, Gadolinium, Thulium, Lutetium, Thulium and Ytterbium. These always occur together. This, evidently, is God’s will! & a great investment especially if governments go gun-ho on green energy.

    Even if they don’t, these metals have a finite supply that people will need. Personally, I don’t see, European Union, USA, China agreeing on anything that has a meaningful impact, it wont happen especially when utopia’s dont exist. A world colaberated move to curb CO2 just sounds to utopian for me, when emerging nations are pretty much 1930’s america, having their first dishwashers, or TV, Pcs, Cars, planes, etc. Its their turn & I don’t think we have the right, even if all the data is correct. Just because we found out our mistake, we cant prevent them from making ours.

  • “So even if you are a skeptic … we should still agree that acting is better than non-acting. Unless, of course, your paycheque depends on propping up vested interests who want to just keep things the way they are.”

    Marc, you dismiss the “keep things the way they are argument” out of hand. But don’t we need to examine what the costs of changing are? There’s a Fraser Institute report (http://tinyurl.com/yenncep), for example, that uses IPCC projections to show that you can save more lives for your buck combatting malaria and hunger than you would combatting climate change.

    Obviously, we’re not restricted to an all-or-nothing world where we have to fund either malaria and hunger or climate change — we could do both. But I think the question of where the money to fight climate change would come from is an important one to answer before we all jump on the “let’s stop climate change” bandwagon.

  • Mark,

    You don’t get climate change deniers and skeptics? But you yourself, although a “realist” about climate change are a skeptic about the argument by Peter Victor, Tim Jackson, Herman Daly, Bill Rees, David Suzuki and many others that you can’t uncouple greenhouse gas emissions from economic growth.

    So who is harder to fathom? Someone who rejects the whole argument or someone who accepts the premise but insists there is a magical technological fix?

    BTW, you didn’t reply to my query about what you thought of the Peter Victor presentation.

  • “5% chance the science is right. Should we then do nothing?”

    Of course not, no one in the world thinks we should sit here and just accept that the climate changes and there is nothing we can do. With a 5% chance that humans are responsible, why don’t we deliver legislation which encourages investmnet in renewable energy. Why do we need cap&Trade? Cap&Trade is the issue. It has always been the issue, the stumbling block. No matter what the skeptics say about the science, the real issue concerns Cap&Trade as the only solution. Cap&trade reduces carbon emissions simply by driving up the cost of living. Well this hurts poor people, and has no effect on the rich. Wow, great system. So what is the real purpose of Cap&Trade? There are a hundred uses for it, but almost none have to do with preparing for the climate to change (wether humans are responsible or not). So I don’t get AGW Beleivers, why do they have this fixation with Cap&Trade?

  • Thanks for the comments, all.

    David, I think it is a mistake (and misleading) to paint a “choice” between malaria on one hand and climate change on the other. We can do both and if the good funders of the Fraser Institute would just shut up and pay their taxes, we could.

    They are also totally different scales of problems. Climate change under business-as-usual conditions is about pushing humanity close to (if not totally towards) extinction, taking a big swath of other life on the planet with us. Equating that to malaria is like comparing terminal cancer to the flu.

    Sandwichman, we had a great session with Peter Victor and others in Toronto. When pressed, Peter agreed with me that it is more about ensuring sustainable harvests of resource inputs and pollution within the “sink” functions of the earth, rather than “no growth” per se. But I did leave the session feeling that “no growth” or “prosperity without growth” was a paradigm changing framework that may be useful, albeit more as a slogan than a guide to practical policy.

    As for decoupling, that is the only way we get out of this mess, and it is not a “magical technical fix”. Picture lots of clean electricity powering most of the services we currently get from fossil fuels. While true that growth has been coupled with fossil fuel use in the past is not the same as saying that you “cannot uncouple”. Most of the problem is not technical in nature, but political in that vested interests continue to dominate the political system.

    BTW, Richard Lipsey has an excellent review in the latest Literary Review of Canada on Victor’s and Jeff Rubin’s books.

  • Marc,

    Thanks for the Lipsey tip. On the “no growth” thing, what that refers to in an admittedly awkward way is specifically GDP growth. You can have all sorts of growth that doesn’t contribute to GDP. True, relative decoupling is not a technical problem. The nature of the income flows counted in GDP makes it very hard to envision absolute decoupling without a significant slowing of growth, though. Looked at historically, GDP has been, effectively, a measure of fossil fuel consumption and throughput. Relative decoupling itself is an investment that reduces energy expenditures in the long run and thus subtracts from GDP growth. Therefore to have absolute decoupling AND growth means we would have to have more growth in other areas than we would otherwise. Now, why would we want to do that?

    If we power most of the services we have now with clean electricity that’s not growth, it’s a steady state. No GDP growth in rich countries doesn’t mean crawling into caves. It means realizing more of the non-commercial potentials that are now being sacrificed to the gods of GDP growth.

    Well, take arts funding for example. Somehow we “can’t afford” to fund the arts because we have to direct our resources toward fostering growth? Hello? It seems to me we get more way quality of life bang for the buck from arts funding than from freeway and tar sands.

  • Point taken that the malaria vs. climate change question is not an either-or proposition — we can do both. But is climate change “about pushing humanity close to (if not totally towards) extinction”? I don’t think the malaria comparison is completely facetious because it actually kills lots of people, whereas even if climate change wipes out polar areas and coastal regions, I’m not sure it means a huge loss of human life.

  • I had to laugh when I got to the following passage in Lipsey’s review:

    On employment, in spite of dire predictions, continued growth has created many more jobs than it has destroyed, holding North American unemployment to levels that can be dealt with fairly easily by public policy.

    The surface problem here is that he’s mixing up his platitudes. It’s technology, not growth, that proverbially “creates more jobs than it destroys.” But the deeper problem is why does this question send him back to rely on platitudes in the first place? Are we now at unemployment levels in North America that can be dealt with “fairly easily” by public policy? Employment, growth, technology… I mean these are core concepts in economics and Professor Lipsey serves up a platitude omelette?

  • I have to admit Marc, this denial is at the center of a lot of my thoughts lately.

    On the one hand, science has achieved its place amongst the religions. And I am seriously renaissance based factual in my argument here. Starting as far back as 13th century the beginnings of modernism took route. And at the center was a new belief, and what many thought was a final truth, reason based on science and fact, an encapsulation of knowledge based on these fundamentals started and built itself into a primer mover. Destroying all and rebuilding anew.

    But then in the last half of the 20th century instead of pointing the direction forward for its master- capital- it turned on its master. Recall that at the heart of science is investment, and I could make the convincing argument that under modernity, science has become a captive of capital. THere are stray points of scientific light coming from underneath the cloak of capital, but not what many perceive.

    So along comes science and based upon its factual based religious zeal, has a very very large majority of scientist come forth and say, hey the current system is not sustainable. This inherently poses a threat to the status quo and to the hierarchy of control.

    So along comes the nay sayers- and yes there are always crack pots in science- but I would impute based upon a quick survey of sources- that a good lot of these crack pots are funded by the status quo- hence the deniers.

    Is this end of science as a force in a religiosity sense?

    I am sure Bruno Latour is tickled pink, but the void that is created by this crisis of legitimacy in fact, is being bought and sold at a torrid, antithetical building pace.

    Potentially science created itself in an image that was too sacrosanct- i.e. one must prove beyond a shadow of a doubt- maybe the scientific method is broken- maybe as Latour might suggest- the scientific method never really existed in practice but was just some sort of holy grail.

    At the end of the day, we have no time for such elongated debates. Think about nuclear annihilation- the whole cold war was based on the fact that if one side even had a slight advantage, say even a 5% higher chance of winning a first strike, billions would be spent to prevent that 5% advantage.

    So as you state Marc, even if at the end of the day and somehow magically this whole science debate is as the deniers say it is and only a small chance exits that we end the world, should we not act.

    My studies so far into the science are anything like what the deniers are letting on. Gees there is still a chance that acid rain is a latent threat in acidifying a good portion of our fresh water. So do we even have to go as far as what the carbon shock to the atmosphere is going to do.280 is what we had before the industrial revolution 350 ppm is a safe measure, but we are looking at a lot higher rates- and there is no way in hell that carbon cycles happen this fast naturally.

    And as I conclude this to say that the deniers focus on carbon and the atmosphere, but this is only one of the many sustainable equilibrium that is being turned on its head.

    So to deny is but pure and simple the end of science as a force. And if that is what the deniers want, then maybe we should find them some caves.

    paul

  • I have always tended to see this issue as Marc outlines. Even if the odds of anthropomorphic global warming were fairly low, the potential costs would be so huge as to justify quite substantial expenditures to reduce carbon emissions.

    On the drive back from Ottawa, I tuned into Rush Limbaugh’s program (broadcast from upstate New York). He was promoting the notion that carbon emissions strengthen the environment by supporting plant life and hence agriculture.

    In this version of denial, curtailing emissions would not only entail unnecessary costs but also significantly harm the environment and food production. I am not sure whether this concern animates many other deniers.

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