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We Didn’t Really Need to See The E-Mails

Stephen Maurer, Adj. Em. Prof. of Public Policy | January 13, 2010

It is easy to go see climate talks at Berkeley and as a social scientist I have to say that they usually make me uncomfortable.  If you go to an  astronomy or physics  talk,  nobody bats an eyelash when people  question the evidence for, say, Dark Energy.   (Criticizing the idea that speed of light sets an absolute limit on velocity definitely will encounter  resistance, but I’ve seen that done also.)  This pattern of evidence and push-back  has been going on since universities rejected scholasticism back in the 1100s.  It’s a pleasure to watch.

To an outsider, at least, the  climate  talks feel  different.  True,  speakers can  and often do criticize the evidence.  But they invariably begin and end with  the disclaimer that  “Of course global  warming is happening.”  Partly, I suppose,  this is about not wanting to be misunderstood in a  subject where obscure research sometimes ends up  in the newspapers.  But it’s pretty obvious that there there  are social  pressures at work inside the university too.  And that’s a pity.  Investigators shouldn’t  care what the answer is.  (None of us can really meet  this standard, of course,  but it’s inspiring to  see  people try.)

So  yes, I was disappointed by the e-mails.  And no, they aren’t damning to the point where we should  toss out the evidence and start over. Given that social pressures had so visibly crept into  the process,  they just aren’t that surprising. Still, it’s good for  the public to feel disappointment and even to  say  so.   That’s what keeps all of us honest.

Can we run the global warming debate better next time?  There are several problems that here.  The first  and  biggest is that society wants binary judgments — Does  global  warming exist  or  not.  Humans  are  notoriously uncomfortable with probabilities.  Science, on the other hand,  is about evidence.  And  the evidence is never 100%.

The other problem is  that global warming is a tough subject.  Physics works best for problems where the number of inputs is small  and small inputs have small  effects. Climate physics is remarkably difficult by that measure.  We probably understand  the interior  of the Sun  — or  even dark energy — better than we do climate.

Society’s insistence on certainty — maybe  zero,  maybe 100%, but nothing in  the middle — is a psychological fact.  But it is also the  wrong way to  do  policy.  If the chances of global warming were only, say, 78%, that  would  not  absolve us  of the  obligation to consider the probabilities  and act accordingly.  And indeed, there is an enormous  literature on  decision-making under uncertainty.

Global warming won’t ever be “proven” in this 100% sense.  All the  same,  it has  arrived and needs to be dealt with.  As the  old aphorism  would have it, “You can ‘t  win, you can’t break even  — and you can ‘t  get out of the  game.”

Comments to “We Didn’t Really Need to See The E-Mails

  1. Regardless of what scientists say, or what their agendas may be, the facts are that temperature has been rising in Antartica, and there are ozone layer problems, too. Alternative energy is ever so important for both national security and cleaner environmet. We just have to fight for it. Drive cleaner cars such as hybrids, use green building and sustainable technology such as energy efficient metal roofs, and pick up after ourselves, as well as recycle. Everybody has to chip in.

  2. Stephen, I agree with the notion of decision making under uncertainty. We may not have the clear cut answer about climate change and global warming, but it does not absolve us from taking responsibility and acting to preserve the environment and reduce societal and individual carbon footprint. Yes, climate change and global warming are serious threats to the whole world, but so are the declining societal values and cultural norms. I have to agree with Anthony about the Lessons of History. The truth is that politics can easily corrupt individuals. Morality is ever an important value, that is easily overlooked. Cultural values need to be upheld by the leaders and individuals alike. Decline in cultural values can be a greater problem then the climate change because it corrupts us as individuals and society as a whole, which may get in a way of us being able to take appropriate actions under uncertainty.

    Thanks for posting this,


  3. Stephen, social scientists are probably the people that the IPCC needs as translators to explain climate changes in terms that real world people can relate to.

    As Will and Ariel Durant concluded in their book “The Lessons of History”:
    “When a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenge of change.”

    So you can start by explaining what the “challenge” is in terms most people can readily understand, and then state what changes are required, why and when for the protection of our quality of life in such a way as to convince people that some sacrifices are justifiable.

    Unfortunately, history has documented far too many times that our greatest cultural failure mode is the fact that we allow our political and intellectual leaders to ignore morality far too easily, allowing greed and power to dominate our cultural values.

    Think you social scientists can do something about that so we can start fixing the problems that cause climate changes we are already experiencing?

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