Noah Smith’s “2 paper” rule and the climate change silo

As someone who relishes interdisciplinary debate, I quite liked Noah’s 2 paper idea. It’s constructive when people with deep expertise can discuss their work with outsiders, no matter how annoying it can be for the experts themselves.

But the 2-paper rule also immediately worried me with regard to climate change, which is my current area of focus.

So I was glad that Tyler Cowan made an excellent point:

Still, this didn’t quite get at the heart of the problem.

‪Limitations of the “2 paper” approach in considering climate change go much further than just failing at the “is it real/convincing?” stage. ‬

In fact while I like both Noah’s 2 paper idea, and Tyler’s response, they illustrate a key problem with how most otherwise smart, well-informed people think about climate change.

It breaks down into 2 errors that are fundamental to how we are continuing – even after all these years – to misunderstand climate change:

  1. Climate scepticism is no longer the problem. No-one who thinks of them self as smart/intelligent/learned is arguing about whether climate change is real anymore. Noah Smith isn’t a climate sceptic nor are, I’d guess, about 95% of his readers. The “2 paper rule” isn’t going to stop him or anyone else from appreciating that human activity is changing the climate. So while I’m glad Tyler raised climate change, the way he raised it isn’t actually the problem.
  2. The problem is that it’s not just one topic: “Climate change”, for most of those who aren’t actually forced by their jobs to think about it a lot, is seen as one fairly narrow topic. Yet it will affect almost every aspect of human society. Health, economic growth, transport, investment, migration, equity, technology, law, real estate, governance… It is hard to think of an aspect of life that won’t be affected by climate change, or in fact isn’t already being affected in some way (so far, like the boiling frog, we can ignore this.)

So while the 2-paper rule doesn’t define any specific topic, it illustrates to me how our habit of categorising can go badly wrong. Most people think they know a bit about climate change; they don’t. Yet, many of us will have to. And it is vast and complex.

Right now, most of us silo it like any other topic, generally ranking it in size and importance somewhere below “technology” and above “trivia”. We limit it to a single topic, categorise is as “environment” or “sustainability” or “science”. Companies, policy makers, news publishers, investors, are all still making this mistake.

Climate change is probably the biggest challenge human societies face.

We all need to start appreciating now how pervasive it is, and how it will affect our world and our work.