You see it all over the news, all over Twitter; all your friends talk about it.
Humanity faces their biggest collective problem yet in the form of climate change. I personally believe mitigating climate change effects, reducing global CO2 emissions, tackling deforestation, and preserving biodiversity to be the most important and pressing problems of our time.
HOWEVER: I reject the idea perpetuated by some politicians (like Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez), media outlets, and others in the green movement (like Bill McKibben) that if we don’t cut off all emissions TODAY, the world will end in 10, 20, 30 years, or that we need to cut off fossil fuels at all costs.
I find this idea a clear logical and scientific fallacy and the outcome of lazy reasoning. It also indirectly suggests potentially dangerous ideas, that I’ll get into below.
Why the narrative of “If we increase global temperatures by over 2 degrees Celsius, the earth is screwed” misleads us.
Let’s acknowledge something important here: this message has been incredibly successful in rallying people across the globe to demonstrate to their governments that they care about climate change and want action now. It’s forcing these topics onto the national agenda and sparking debate about how best to accomplish these goals. I applaud these activists and have myself been part of climate rallies and have donated to climate preserving organizations. The defining problem of our time revolves around creating a more sustainable present and future for us if we want to continue to inhabit planet Earth.
Despite the success of this message, I find the “2 degree celsius doom and gloom” predictions intellectually lazy and dishonest. The proponents of these predictions point to the science community and how this is our best guess at what will happen, so we better believe. Also, how could so many scientists be wrong?
The problems that come with expert consensus can be addressed in a later post. Let’s focus on some of the other key issues with these declarations:
- It’s a prediction of an outcome we cannot test and have had trouble backtesting in the past. At best it’s a hypothesis; at worst, it’s unfalsifiable.
- Climate experts are hedgehogs, not foxes. Meaning: they have deep expertise in one area science (climate science). And historically, people with deep expertise are terrible at forecasting, and resist updating their beliefs when presented with new information.
- A complex adaptive system (the global climate and the repercussions of it changing) is by definition incredibly complex and hard to understand. Making any definitive assertion about these systems, especially a prediction, should be met with skepticism
- We have serious prediction issues with Global Climate Models (GCMs). I’d highly recommend reading this paper from Judith Curry, a former Earth and Atmospheric Sciences professor at Georgia Tech and currently President of the Climate Forecast Applications Network, who explains our current challenges with the IPCC predictions. From her summary:
The IPCC’s projections of 21st century climate change explicitly assume that CO2 is the control knob on global climate. Climate model projections of the 21st century climate are not convincing because of:
1) Failure to predict the warming slowdown in the early 21st century
2) Inability to simulate the patterns and timing of multidecadal ocean oscillations
3) Lack of account for future solar variations and solar indirect effects on climate
4) Neglect of the possibility of volcanic eruptions that are more active than the relatively quiet 20th century and
5) Apparent oversensitivity to increases in greenhouse gases.
To be clear: some nations already experience major consequences from climate change. Changes to the climate because of human emissions have catastrophic consequences. But neither this theory nor others can help us understand with some level of high probability: to what degree, and how?
The only reason I find this theory potentially dangerous? The proposed solutions.
The danger behind the message
Completely cutting off the global economy from fossil fuels necessarily demands some flavor of communism and the destruction of capitalism (i.e destruction of our current way of life in the Western world). Governments across the globe would have to coordinate an effort to immediately cut out all fossil fuels. Like it or not, our modern economy runs on oil and gas.
Imagine we lose everything except renewables and nuclear electric power from this graph
This ensures a loss of jobs, electricity, food production and distribution, current modes of transportation, and a loss of freedom, amongst many other things.
People aren’t even willing to give up creature comforts in the US in order to reduce their carbon footprint, like air conditioning or SUVs.
At best this call for action is misguided, at worst, purely authoritarian.
So what’s the solution?
This article probably sums up my view the best on our outcomes on climate change and what to do about it.
TLDR: risk management.
We should quickly move away from a fossil fuel based economy to protect ourselves from catastrophic consequences.
This DOES NOT mean that we cut off oil production immediately. It means we recognize the importance and dependence of our global economy on fossil fuels and do everything in our power to replace them with renewable sources of energy as quickly and responsibly as possible.
One thing that perplexes me: WHY ARE MORE PEOPLE NOT ARGUING FOR NUCLEAR? Mike Shellenberger, who writes quite a bit about the topics discussed in this article, has argued the massive benefits for nuclear, stating “Nuclear is the only energy source that has proven capable of fully replacing fossil fuels at low-cost in wealthy nations.”
We also have an opportunity as a country to innovate, provide leadership, and invest in new technologies that we can export to developing nations. Imagine if we used tax dollars to fund research into cleaner air travel, efficient electricity distribution and storage, advanced nuclear power, and lab grown meat? Or even significantly increased our spending on renewable energy research?
We absolutely have an opportunity to spend more than just $9 billion over 10 years on renewable energy technologies and research.
We could benefit from these technologies both at home AND export them across the globe, allowing other countries to build their energy networks around these new technologies, eliminating the need for them to build a traditional fossil-fuel based infrastructure.
To me, that seems like our best bet for reversing the damage we’ve done to the environment while both preserving our democratic institutions AND improving life for those in developing economies.