Photo via NASA is in the public domain

CO2 on Trial


If things had worked as scientists expected, here is what would have happened after the first few IPCC reports came out.

Influential people would have been convinced. Major news media would have reported the story in a straightforward way. The public everywhere would have accepted their responsibilities to future generations. The Kyoto Protocol would not only have been passed by the vast majority of countries (who did sign it), but also by the USA. And then rather than being a vague aspiration, the Kyoto Protocol would have been implemented.

Eventually the inadequacy of Kyoto would have been realized and even more stringent controls would gradually have been put in place. Advanced countries would have pressured the less developed with carbon tariffs.

The economic explosion in China and east Asia might have been set back a bit but probably would still be underway. The accumulated carbon, by now, would have been substantially lower, and the existing emissions much lower, giving us more time to continue to work our way out of the fossil fuel trap.

The far preferable alternative history failed to materialize because Carbon Dioxide was not "convicted" in the court of public opinion.

Of course, fossil fuel interests are financially interested in derailing any such an outcome. Inevitably, some of them have tried to prevent it. Sadly, they have so far succeeded.

To achieve this, they encourage us to approach the issue of anthropogenic global warming as a courtroom battle. In this view, CO2 stands as an accused individual endowed with rights, innocent until proven guilty. What is more, the proof has to be to a jury. Not a jury of its peers, presumably, (argon, nitrogen, vapor and laughing gas?) but a jury of ordinary citizens.

IPCC reports are entirely sufficient to make a compelling case for emissions restraint to fair-minded people who trust that IPCC represents fair-minded experts. The average twelve people on the street may easily be dissuaded from that belief, especially given a vigorous campaign to undermine trust in IPCC.

Thus, the first step in the motivated derailing of climate policy is to polarize it, to frame it as a battle which will result in victory for some and defeat for others. The success in casting the issue as a courtroom drama is a key reason that IPCC reports have proven insufficient to motivate policy.

In short, CO2 as defendant can afford better lawyers than can the prosecution. Lawyer-style, the defense seeks anecdotes they like and ignores those they dislike, to spin a tale.

Their alternative story is to spin a wholly implausible conspiracy story, implausible, at least, to anyone who knows any scientists. This is supported by a combination of overblown nitpicking and sheer fabulation.

This makes for far more interesting reading than tedious articles about long term infrastructure planning does. Consequently it competes successfully for attention.

Thus an inappropriate mental model pervades the press, the pundits, and the politicians, and consequently the public.

The political players understand courtroom dramas and political debates better than they understand honest scientific discourse. They prefer the drama of a contest, of the joy of victory and the agony of defeat, to the careful winnowing of claims and counterarguments and the quiet face-saving that follows the withdrawal of the weaker claims. But the climate disruption problem would benefit far more from the winnowing than from the contest of gladiators.

Thus, an important factor in our ongoing flirtation with an astonishingly severe global disaster is that non-serious arguments, purportedly about science, have been used as a proxy for a serious argument about how to manage the collective commons.

We should not care whether CO2 can be “proven guilty”. We ought to care, rather,whether there is some substantial likelihood that accumulating CO2 will disrupt the future, some chance large enough that the present should take account of it. We have long since passed that threshhold, but our discourse does not reflect it.

The carbon problem should not be handled as a prosecution. It is a risk management issue. This should take it out of the domain of courtroom drama and into the tedium of actuarial calculations.

And here’s the absurd root of our failure. While most people do understand risks well enough to be willing to get insurance, nobody enjoys talking to an insurance salesman.

Fire insurance does not sell newspapers and magazines, or attract viewers to televisions. Fires sell newspapers. Accusations of arson sell newspapers. Every time the scientific community brings up insurance policies, eyes glaze over. Accusations of fraud and self-dealing among scientists revive interest. This phenomenon drives the press to collaborate with the fossil fuel industries and the more irresponsible libertarians, and gives cover to gross irresponsibility among politicians.

We appear to be slowly but almost surely destroying the viability of the earth solely because conversations about slow and steady increases in actuarial risk don’t have a lot of visceral appeal.

Winning over a jury is a lot like making a sales pitch. We are sadly reduced to making sales pitches now.

The denial team chooses to raise fear, uncertainty and doubt about the trustworthiness of the scientific endeavor. (They can draw on the extensive experience of creationists and tobacco defenders for techniques.) They draw attention away from the real risk management issue.

But most of the prominent “good guys” are hardly better. They also overwhelm the issues we ought to be discussing with proxy issues with visceral appeal. They, no less than the “bad guys”, are acting as if they have something to sell.

Specifically, many leading defenders of climate respond not by stressing the risk of cataclysm and the already evident and accelerating reality of gross environmental decline, but by acting as if global warming were a gloriously welcome economic opportunity, Gaia's gift of a jobs program. This is the opposite of helping.

The fact is that we are entering an age of new and unprecedented limits. We can still have a happy future, human achievement and human dignity can continue its broad historical progress, and we can still have a lot of fun. But we have to recognize new limitations.

The emergence of limits is unfortunate. It's costly. It's ill-timed. But preserving a stable environment is an ethical responsibility like none that has preceded it. We need people to understand not only that CO2 is a global problem, but that it's just the first in a series, as we make the transition from an open frontier world to spaceship earth.

As a brand of soap, this is a hard sell.

We have to sell the idea of a widespread set of changes in behavior, a new set of ethical constraints, and a substantial increase in the complexity and scale of governance. There are serious risks and costs involved, but avoiding this responsibility will yield something much worse.

This is not a happy fact. Wind turbines may or may not be pretty given the eye of the beholder, but our situation is not pretty at all. We need to come to grips with it. And our frantic lives with their narrowing margins of sanity and declining capacities for contemplation make it very difficult to do so.

What we need to be selling is not, in the first instance, an act of congress or a treaty. It’s not even the culpability of CO2. Our humble product is the idea of limits. We are selling the idea of the end of the global adolescent growth spurt, the idea of restraint.

We are in the predicament of promoting collective maturity to a society that sometimes appears to be losing track even of individual maturity.

In a low-attention-span battle we lose because the visceral hooks of the advertiser appeal to the adolescent within us. Adolescence is more fun than adulthood. The adolescent worldview sees no advantages to maturity. It's easier to sell fun than to sell responsibility.

On the other hand, usually in the long run the suitably responsible strategy is more fun.

We can’t stop our mad lemminglike trajectory with proxy arguments. It’s time to slow down, take a deep breath, and start paying attention. It’s time to try to understand what reality is trying to tell us. The fate of the only living planet we know about, the only world that matters to us, deserves more attention than does our choice of laundry soap.


UPDATE 11/15: This article by Tim van Gelder makes a closely related point:

In the Bayesian worldview, beliefs are not simply true or false, but more or less probable. That is, we can be more or less confident that they are true, given how they relate to our other beliefs and how confident we are in them. If you and I disagree about the cause of climate change, it is not a matter of me being wholly right and you being wholly wrong, but about the differing levels of confidence we have in a range of hypotheses.

Recycled with edits from a 2010 posting on Only In It for the Gold

The author, Michael Tobis, received a PhD in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences from the University of Wisconsin -Madison in 1996 for his work on computer models of ocean dynamics. He is currently working on a book about severe weather in the context of El Niño and a changing climate. He lives in Austin, Texas, three minutes’ walk from Barton Springs.

Michael Tobis PhD, actual climate scientist, writes on climate and sustainability issues for the informed nonspecialist, and codes in Python and Javascript.

Michael Tobis PhD, actual climate scientist, writes on climate and sustainability issues for the informed nonspecialist, and codes in Python and Javascript.