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It’s time for climate scientists to shut the F*** up

Image: NASA

Let’s talk about “the politician’s fallacy.”  This is a line of thinking that assumes that the more you know about something, the easier it will be to do something about it.  For politicians, it works like this: the state is (among other things) a giant data gathering apparatus.  In addition to its various statistics departments, it also draws in data from universities, think tanks and institutes, and more recently from social media.  The president, prime minister or chancellor of a state thus has at his or her fingertips more accurate data than any of us could hope to obtain.  Indeed, the men and women that get to occupy those positions even have a posse of advisers to distill and summarise that ocean of data.  The fallacy is that, armed with all of that information, the politician is best placed to make the correct decisions in response.

The trouble is that politics just doesn’t work that way.  To get into power in the first place means winning supporters and attracting donors; each of whom expects something before the politician can get around to his or her pet projects.  Moreover, the posse of advisers that surround politicians have agendas of their own; and make sure that the information that gets refined and simplified is that which best suits these agendas.

It is against this backdrop that we need to view the barrage of climate science that has occupied large chunks of the media for the last half century.  To be clear here, I am not denying that man-made climate change is happening or that the science can be contested in any serious way.  Yes, the ice is melting, the seas are rising, the oceans are acidifying and the soils are depleting.  Yes, if “we” (by which we actually mean “they”) do not act, a large part of the human race is going to die – indeed, we may already be too late to prevent this.

What I am suggesting is that the barrage of climate science being fed to the public and the politicians has failed to have the desired outcome.  As management guru Anthony Stafford Beer once put it:

“The purpose of a system is what it does. There is after all, no point in claiming that the purpose of a system is to do what it constantly fails to do.”

To put it bluntly, states have spent a small fortune employing climate scientists to tell us just how much damage we have been doing to our habitat, and the result is that – with a thin veneer of greenwash – we have continued to do it.  And as we know, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome is a working definition of insanity.

There is something strangely reminiscent about this.  It is precisely what happened with the tobacco industry – the more the scientists demonstrated that tobacco was killing people, the more research governments demanded.  Meanwhile smokers continued to pay taxes for the privilege of inflicting cancer and heart disease upon themselves.

The problem with the “more research is needed” narrative is it gives the impression that the science is open to question.  It isn’t.  But by playing along – largely for the benefit of a scientifically illiterate section of the US population; since the rest of the world is at least trying to develop solutions – the barrage of new data emanating from climate science faculties is standing in the way of something far more important.

My biggest beef with climate scientists is not that their work is unimportant; it is that it suggests that data gathering is more important than taking action.  One of the things that persuaded me to write The Consciousness of Sheep and to maintain this website is that the barrage of climate change stories in the media had created impotence among the general population and generated a space in which charlatans and rip-off merchants could sell unfeasible “green” technologies to an ill-informed populace (including our political leaders and the economists that advise them).  The problem was that every time I read the work of the physicists and engineers who evaluate all of this greenwash, they kept pointing out that it wouldn’t work.  Putting solar panels on roads and pavements turns out to be a really bad idea.  Wind turbines are only efficient if you overlook their (relatively) short life-span.  Battery storage would be a great idea, but nobody has figured out how to do it without making energy too expensive to use.  Carbon capture is easy(ish) – but expensive – and nobody has worked out how to sequester it.  Nuclear fusion would be great if anyone could work out how to do it – but it has been twenty years in the future for the six decades that I have inhabited this planet; and I’m pretty sure it will be twenty years away long after I’m gone.  Molten salt nuclear reactors might offer a solution (because they can run on nuclear waste) but they aren’t here yet.  Tidal lagoons could power entire regions, but nobody is prepared to put up the capital to build even small demonstration plants.

At this point, faced with bleak climate news most of the population are like deeply addicted smokers who don’t need to be reminded that they are slowly killing themselves – that merely stresses them so much they feel a greater need to smoke.

In my region of the planet – Wales – we led the world in reducing smoking by combining two policies.  First, our government funded a properly evaluated smoking cessation programme designed to break smokers’ addiction.  Second, the government banned smoking in public places.  The result was that even if former smokers were tempted to smoke, it had been made far more difficult.  In short, the Welsh government used what powers it had to shift the political climate away from one that encouraged smoking to one that discouraged it, while simultaneously providing smokers with a properly evaluated road to recovery.

Climate change is the same.  We know that driving cars, burning coal and gas, eating too much meat and consuming plastic are slowly killing us.  But in the absence of a properly evaluated alternative course of action we are not going to change… no matter how much information about the damage we are doing is fed to us by the climate scientists.  What we desperately need is for the engineers to develop the climate equivalent of the smoking cessation programme – a workable means of moving from a fossil fuel economy to a low carbon alternative (i.e. one that doesn’t lock the developing world into perpetual poverty and famine, and doesn’t risk destroying developed economies).  If – and for the time being it is a big if – such a programme can be developed, we desperately need our political leaders to tip the scales in its favour (something they likely will do – at least outside the USA – so long as it doesn’t risk the lights going out).

Where does climate science fit in this?  I would argue it should be somewhere equivalent to an oncologist in relation to smoking.  There is no denying its importance, but it needs to take a back seat.  We need engineering solutions, and we need them yesterday.  And if, as is very likely, it proves physically impossible to run an oil-based economy without burning oil, then we urgently need to understand what kind of economy we can have.  Because, for too long now, the impact of yet more bad news from the climate scientists is that it has left us all – electorates and politicians – like so many deer in the headlights.

As you made it to the end…

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