DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

Perspectives on Climate Change -- and The Ritualization of Denial

By David Brin, Ph.D.

Recently, on the pages of a very high-ranked tech commerce newsletter, I was personally challenged, by a former top member of Enron, to answer a series of standard neoconservative mantras concerning global climate change. Talking points that -- in my opinion and in the opinion of almost every scientifically-educated person I know -- smack of ritualized denial.

Let's start with an excerpt from that former Enronista -- an example from the deniers' playbook of talking points:

"Global temperatures have not risen in concert with atmospheric co2 levels, which have shot up dramatically, while global average temperatures have not really changed very much at all since the late 1970s."

Except... um... that seven of the hottest years of the last 100 have been in the last decade? But no, I said that I will not bandy facts except in service of logic. And so commenceth my reply.

[image from Contrary Brin]
  1. Indeed, global temperatures have not risen as dramatically as CO2 levels have, in recent decades.

    CO2 levels, in turn, have not risen as much as CO2 emissions have. So why have temperatures only risen a little, so far?

    Most atmospheric scientists cite the prodigious buffering capacity of the oceans. But this is a double-edged sword. It also means that that buffering capacity may -- at ANY moment -- abruptly reach a limit, as anyone who has saturated a solution in chem class knows fully well. When that happens, not only will the partial absorption of CO2 excess stop, but any perturbation may "blurp" stored CO2 -- or even the methanic clathrates which lie in vast quantities beneath arctic seas.

  2. Another worrisome aspect of relying on buffering effects is that this same "climate inertia" may make it extremely hard to enact corrective measures, should our children (cursing our names) decide that they do not like the situation that we bequeathed upon them.

  3. An obscure factoid -- and one that's rather fascinating, when one contemplates matters like life in the universe... and how we may be rather unusual. It appears that our sun's "continuously habitable zone" (CHZ) actually extends beyond Mars! That poor planet was simply too small. If larger, it would have had seas, kept in "gaia-stability" by a high equilibrium level of greenhouse carbon dioxide. In other words, the farther out -- and colder -- you get within the CHZ, the more that greenhouse gases become your planet's friend. (Trust me, planetary scientists know all about this. You don't even need life on a water-world, in order to achieve gaia-balance, just ocean-mediated chemistry.)

    Key point. The CHZ around a G type star is very wide, featuring a sliding scale of how much greenhouse gas a planet will settle upon, in order to keep liquid seas.

    Now, what makes Earth apparently weird, galactically, is that we seem to skim the very inner edge of our sun's CHZ. We dwell at the very hottest lip of Sol's CHZ. Earth's radiation balance depends on an almost utterly transparent atmosphere, swept almost completely clear of greenhouse gases. (Indeed, that inner edge will pass us in just half a billion years, when nothing will prevent the final warming, no matter how clear/transparent the atmosphere becomes.)

    You can fight atmospheric science and climatology, but not astrophysics.

  4. So, science itself must become the target.

    How else to explain why neocon court mantricians like Michael Crichton have rushed to denounce the very concept of "scientific consensus"... sneering that scientific "facts are not things that can be voted upon. Nor do facts care about majority opinion."

    Hm. Well. Any scientist would concede this point... then add: "So?"

    Look. What is at stake here is public policy -- the allocation of resources and application of laws for the betterment of a civilization and its people. And when you reduce this process to its essential element, public policy is based upon anticipation of what steps we should take now in order to have a better life later.

    Ever since our prefrontal lobes acquired their time-forward focus, people have tried to plan for the future, based upon best-models of a murky tomorrow. Now that we have moved beyond arm waving prophecy, the pragmatic question has become, how shall we let science affect policy?

    The classic American answer, ever since the days of the great (but now ironically named) Vannevar Bush, was to establish eclectic and august bodies of scientific expertise. To continually exposes areas that need infusions of research support. And for policy makers to lean on the best advisory teams possible. NEVER have these teams claimed perfect foresight! Still, despite some mistakes, they have done the best they could. Indeed, the record of good advice racked up by groups like the Office of Technology Assessment is admirable.

    How has the Neocon movement broken with this tradition?

    In 1994, the Gingrich revolution instantly disbanded every bit of autonomous advisory staff answerable to Congress. Later, when this movement took control of the White House, it acted against every scientific agency that could not be dissolved, from FDA to Agriculture to NASA itself, by cutting budgets, redesigning mission statements and stocking the top administrator slots with partisan hacks, most of them deeply despised by their scientific peers.

    Which brings us to the twin hypocrisy of the Crichtonian rationalization.

    1. The creed "there's no such thing as scientific consensus" appears to claim that scientific advice should not influence policy, if even a small minority can be found, to disagree with that advice. What it boils down to is an excuse for scientifically ignorant politicians who have (at best) a 52% political mandate, to dismiss as irrelevant the worried expert opinions of (at-least) 80% majorities of scientists, in fields like atmospheric science.

      It is just another version of the longstanding British tradition that "boffins" should stay in their labs and leave policy to Cambridge English majors.

    2. The "we need more research" mantra, repeated endlessly on the right, becomes hypocritical to a truly treasonous degree when the people who chant this phrase then turn around and cut research! E.g., when they divert and slash NASA's Earthward studies programs while publicly demanding that policy decisions wait for new data.

    (Another example: strenuous efforts to divert attention from the other effect that is being wrought by increased atmospheric CO2, a recent, steady acidification of our oceans by dissolved carbonate, which is already wreaking harmful effects on the food chains we all rely upon. Completely aside from "warming" -- this should be ringing alarm bells. What apology will suffice, if the neocons prove as wrong about this, as they did about, say, Martin Luther King?)

  5. [image from Guardian.co.uk]
  6. Another Shibboleth: "Harm to the economy."

    I cannot get over how little faith in markets is displayed by purported defenders of markets! Dig it. Society has artificially subsidized or scarcified numerous commodities, over the ages. Grain subsidies go back to Pharaohnic times. If past history is any judge, the chief effect of artificially advancing the rapidly-approaching era of higher carbon-fuel costs -- in gradual increments -- will be simply to open new frontiers for innovative businesses.

    (Indeed, to start economizing now, while we still have some domestic petroleum reserves, would seem the prudent and "conservative" thing to do. But more on that, later.)

    Sure, some troglodyte SECTORS of the economy may have to adapt if we take action now, using market incentives to act on climate change. But you don't see Apple or GE or Hitachi crying fear of a general economic downturn.

  7. A related neoconservative talking point is the outrageous "State of Fear" notion that all this fuss about climate change is a put-up job, foisted on a gullible public by venial conspirators who are doing it completely out of selfish greed. Supposedly, the eco/recycling industries -- worth a few billions -- allied with some PBS/media types, are nefariously imposing a culture-wide condition of unreasoning panic, all in order to line their pockets with massive amounts of ill-gotten lucre.

    Meanwhile (naturally) the multi-TRILLION dollar carbon fuels industry is but a meek victim, completely innocent of anything of the kind. This party line, promoted despite a three-orders-of-magnitude disparity in wealth and power and historically documented raw greed, is actually foisted with a straight face!

    Indeed, this whole matter calls for a fairly lengthy side remark, about how psychology and our own cultural values are manipulated in order to achieve this marvel of double think. The American mythos is still deeply driven by Suspicion of Authority (SOA), the basic morality tale found in nearly all of our films and stories. A morality tale that says "watch out for sneaky, dominant elites." Inherited from revolutionary days -- and inherent to the Enlightenment -- is the notion that accumulations of undue power merit relentless scrutiny. So deeply ingrained is this lesson -- in the American psyche -- that it is our reflex to always picture "our side" as the underdogs, and find ways to envision our opponents as some kind of illuminati. (Hey lefties, you do it too!)

    What this generation of right-wing, neo-feudalist kleptocrats cannot afford is for "question-elites" scrutiny to fall upon them! Indeed, this may be the number one reason why "culture war" was fostered, creating a reflex among about one-third of Americans to despise anything associated with the word "liberal" -- even when some issue at question ought to be non-partisan, technical and a matter referred to dispassionate, professional, scientific advice. The way climate change ought to be apart from normal politics.

    Moreover, you have got to hand it to them. The manipulative effects of culture war have been incredible. Simply associate an issue with the despised "L-word," and you can get Fox News viewers -- essentially "Red America" -- to envision a nefarious, conspiratorial "elite" that should be reflexively resisted according to our suspicion-of-authority instinct...

    ... while ignoring other elites who are a thousand times as rich, powerful, and conspiratorial, simply because they are on "the right side."

  8. "Why should we listen to scientists, some of whom were talking about a New Ice Age, as recently as the 1970s?"

    As Michael Le Page put it in a recent article: "At least, a handful of scientific papers discussed the possibility of a new ice age at some point in the future, leading to some pretty sensational media coverage. One of the sources of this idea may have been a 1971 paper by Stephen Schneider, then a climate researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, US. Schneider's paper suggested that the cooling effect of dirty air could outweigh the warming effect of carbon dioxide, potentially leading to an ice age if aerosol pollution quadrupled.

    "However, Schneider soon realized (and published retractions) avowing that he had overestimated the cooling effect of aerosol pollution and underestimated the effect of CO2, meaning warming was more likely than cooling in the long run."

    Now, observe carefully what the real story shows about how far off the neocon interpretation -- discrediting science -- really is. Remember, we are talking about an era (The 60s and 70s) when climatology was in its infancy and the tools and data were microscopic, compared to today. The number of "Ice Age" papers involved was small, there was no multi-year consensus among atmospheric scientists, "panic" was almost nil. Proposed policy actions consisted of things that were already on the agenda anyway (reducing aerosol emissions, for health reasons), and -- above all -- the scientists involved engaged in a self-correction process that showed utter maturity and science at its very best.

    "The calls for action to prevent further human-induced global warming, by contrast, are based on an enormous body of research by thousands of scientists over more than a century that has been subjected to intense -- and sometimes ferocious -- scrutiny."

  9. [image from The Green Market]
  10. "All right, the climate is changing and humans have done it. We conservatives (finally) admit it. So? I guess it's already too late to stop the warming. So let's party on, dude."

    Seriously, that is one of the party lines (rephrased, I'll admit, for satiric effect.) For example, faced with the fact that the US Navy is hurrying to make plans for an ice-free Arctic, some on the right are offering this "What? Me worry?" stance... as if it were actually logic, coming out of the mouths of adults.

    Let me deal with this in two sentences -- all that such tripe deserves:

    1. Just because you concede that you've done damage to a system, that does not make it impossible for you to do MORE damage -- e.g. by passing the ocean's saturation point and triggering the release of vastly MORE greenhouse gases, spurring the "mother of storms."

    2. We do not know enough about these things to tell what a "point of no return" would be; that's what science (which the right has utterly betrayed) is supposed to be for.

  11. Penultimate point. There is the matter of "burden of proof."

    Of course it is standard -- in all emotion-laden polemical tiffs -- to try dumping this burden on the other side. All partisans do this and I am no exception.

    Still, ponder this -- it has already been proved repeatedly that humanity is capable of affecting ecosystems, atmospheric systems (I grew up in LA) and even (in the case of the ozone hole) planetary systems. Thus, it is simply mind-boggling that a concerned majority of world scientists should have to prove their worries valid, beyond all doubt...

    ...before humanity decides to take simple precautions THAT MAKE SENSE ANYWAY.

  12. [image from earthgauge]
  13. And that is the final kibosh. The devastator. The ultimate eviscerator of this horrific mass-cult.

    Because they never make clear exactly what it is that they are afraid of!

    What? Efficiency.

    Let me reiterate.

    That is what it boils down to. Fear and loathing of... efficiency!

    It is what Al Gore, the world's scientific "consensus" community, the community of nations and all the sensibly worried folks out here are talking about.

    Simply putting efficiency at or near the top of our civilization's urgent agenda.

    Investing in research, tweaking some incentives, adjusting some market parameters (that were already meddle-skewed anyway, in wrong directions)...

    ... all with the goal that we should ...

    ...get... more... from... less!

    And that last part is the real mind-boggler, when you stop to think about it. That all of these polemical maneuvers and illogical arguments and contradictions and hypocrisies should be aimed at diverting us from becoming more productive while depending on fewer resources.

    Oh, what has happened to conservatism?

    Ever heard of "waste-not, want-not?"

    Or "a stitch, in time, saves nine?"

    Look back at the old puritans like Cotton Mather. Now remove their trait of nasty intolerance. Then ask -- who most resembles the puritans nowadays?

    Not today's profligate, adventurist, insatiable and (above all) indulgence-promoting conservatives.

    No. Today's "puritans" are the worried, chiding and sometimes downright grouchy liberals! Wagging their fingers. Preaching that we ought to save our pennies and frugally learn to live within our means.

    Oh, and not befouling our nest! How about a burden of proof for those who say "no worries" about that? Wasn't "cleanliness is next to Godliness" another conservative reflex? Once?

    I've said it before and I will again, till enough "ostrich conservatives" wake up to how thoroughly their movement has been hijacked by traitors to everything it once stood for.

    Hear that whirring sound. That's the State of Arizona, drawing half its power from the spinning in Barry Goldwater's grave.

Not to toot a horn, but my novel EARTH (written in 1988) portrayed many of the climate change effects we now see occurring. And then some.