Climate Change: Talk, Action and Myths

Crossposted with No Unsacred Place. Check it out and read some of the other writers too!

The United Nations Climate Change Conference is meeting this week and next week in Durban, South Africa.  The theme is “Working Together – Saving Tomorrow Today.”  That theme is far more optimistic than most observers of the conference.
The purpose of the conference is to begin negotiating a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997 and expires in 2012.  Here’s a link to a 2007 article by the CBC that does a better job of explaining Kyoto than I can – if you’re not familiar with it, go read the CBC article and then come back.  In short, the Kyoto Protocol was intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5% from their 1990 level and thereby avoid significant worldwide climate changes later this century.
Kyoto was on shaky political ground from the beginning.  It exempted developing countries – most notably China and India – on the grounds that they couldn’t afford pollution control measures and because they had contributed very little to the current situation.  The United States refused to ratify it on grounds that it would put our economy at a disadvantage to our global competitors.  Canada agreed but has done virtually nothing and is now talking about pulling out.  Only Europe has taken any real action and they’re refusing to go further unless everyone else does. 
Are we going to do nothing of consequence?  It certainly looks that way… but it doesn’t have to be.
How We Accept or Reject Science
According to various sources, somewhere between 40% and 60% of the people in the United States reject the theory of evolution, despite the fact that the evidence for it is overwhelming.  There are two main reasons why.
First, it doesn’t match our subjective experience.  We see dogs giving birth to dogs and tomato seeds producing tomatoes.  We see the results of selective breeding, but in our predilection for simplistic classifications, we look at a Great Dane and a Pekingese and in both cases we see “dog.”  What we’re missing is “deep time” – the fact that the Earth isn’t 6,000 years old but 4.3 billion years old. 
Secondly, evolution doesn’t match the myths – the orienting stories we live by – of most of the people in this country.  The mythology of the dominant Abrahamic religions speak of God creating the world as it is now.  Our pagan creation myths don’t speak of evolution either, though some of them do hint at deep time.  Our ancient ancestors – whether they were Celtic or Yoruba or Hebrew – simply had no way of knowing what we’ve learned in the past two centuries.  That’s one of the reasons we need a new mythology that reflects our understanding of the Universe.
We intuitively accept data and theories that are in alignment with our subjective experience and with our myths.  We intuitively reject data and theories that contradict them.  Some of us will reject them outright, but even those of us who will examine contrary arguments will look at them more skeptically than we would if they confirmed our experience and myths.
The Uncertainty of Science
Lower the temperature of a beaker of water and the water will freeze at 32°F.  Apply heat to the beaker and the water will boil at 212°F.  You can stick a thermometer in the beaker and watch it happen every time. 
These simple experiments help us understand the cause and effect relationships that are at the heart of science and the scientific method.  But they are not proof.  They are evidence that support a theory – a set of propositions about the way Nature works.  For simple experiments the difference between evidence and proof is so miniscule as to be irrelevant. 
The more complex the phenomena the harder it is to establish the cause and effect relationships and to separate correlation (X happens with Y) from causation (X happens because of Y). 
In the case of climate change we have many variables:  atmospheric composition, surface temperatures, ocean temperatures, ocean salinity, rainfall patterns, severe storm patterns, solar activity, human activity and many more.  Analyzing the data and predicting future climate patterns is extremely complex.  It is not intuitive, and it is not certain.  The data supports the theory, but it does not prove the theory.
This is simply how science works.  For decades the evidence has supported the theory that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.  Now we’re seeing experiments indicating that some particles do in fact travel faster than light.  It’s still very early – perhaps the experiments will be shown to be in error.  But if not, then the theory will be modified.  This is science:  hypotheses, experiments, analysis, theories, more experiments, and the refinement of theories.  If you want certainty study mathematics.
The Climate Change Problem
The theory behind climate change is relatively simple:  burning fossil fuels has increased the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.  More greenhouse gasses mean more of the Sun’s energy is retained  in the Earth’s surface and atmosphere.  More retained solar energy means the planet gets warmer.  A warmer planet means icecaps melt, seas rise, low-lying land is flooded, temperatures and rainfall patterns become more irregular.
Understanding weather – day to day observations – is hard enough.  Understanding climate – long term patterns – is far more difficult.  Like our ancestors who saw dogs giving birth to dogs and couldn’t imagine they were the product of millions of years of evolution, we see that it’s hot in the Summer and cold in the Winter, that some years are warmer and other years are cooler.  The idea that the climate might be changing goes against our subjective observations. 
Is the Earth’s climate changing, beyond normal variation?  The data and the theory – the set of propositions about the way Nature works – says it’s almost certain.  Is human activity causing this change, or at least, making it worse?  It’s extremely likely. 
Will this change cause the calamitous events predicted by some?  That’s less certain, but it seems likely. 
Will the burden of these events be borne primarily by the poor and by non-human species?  They always are. 
Uncertainty Is No Excuse For Inaction
We can’t say for certain if Micronesia will be flooded, much less Florida.  We can’t say for certain if rain patterns will shift and turn the U.S. farm belt into a wasteland. 
But we can say this:  pumping billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year isn’t a good thing.  Burning fossil fuels that took hundreds of millions of years to form at a rate that will deplete them in a couple hundred years (and maybe a lot sooner) isn’t a good thing. 
And we can say that the mindless pursuit of more more more doesn’t make us happier or healthier.
Uncertainty around the severity of climate change is no excuse to do nothing.
Our Evolutionary Instincts – Live For Today
Unfortunately, we have several million years of evolutionary instincts telling us to eat all we can and reproduce as much as we can because tomorrow we may die.  We’re like the rabbits in elementary school presentations on ecology:  when most of our natural predators are removed, we consume more and more until we exceed the carrying capacity of our environment – at which point starvation ensues.
We have more intelligence than rabbits –we can see where our actions are likely to take us.  But frequently, we don’t – Easter Island stands as a clear example. 
Even if we could prove that climate change is real, with severe consequences, and avoidable, most of us would still choose to continue living the way we’ve always lived.  Our instincts tell us to live for today.
To Change People’s Decisions, Change Their Myths
If you accept the science around climate change, if you understand that uncertainty is no excuse for inaction, and if you understand that actions to mitigate climate change will be beneficial in and of themselves, then you understand that people – especially us here in the “first world” – need to change the way they live.
There are two ways to change people’s actions.  One is by force of law.  Although leaders are supposed to lead, in a democracy (more or less) leaders who lead in a direction where a majority of people don’t want to go will be quickly replaced.  Further, unpopular laws tend to be ignored – see our own laws on recreational drugs. 
The other way to change people’s actions is to change their myths. 
If our myths tell us the Earth is sacred, we are much more likely to live in ways that respect and sustain her.  If our myths tell us all people are our brothers and sisters we are more likely to live in ways that do not harm them.  If our myths tell us all living things came from a common ancestor we are more likely to live in ways that do not drive other species into extinction.
If our myths tell us we should strive to have “enough” instead of “more” we are likely to live in ways that have less impact on the Earth, its climate, and its creatures.
I’m glad the nations of the world are talking about climate change and I’m glad they’re proposing real actions to deal with it.  I support those plans.  But I have little confidence they will be implemented on a significant scale.
Our leaders will not solve this problem.  Therefore it falls to us to solve the problem of climate change.
Can I tell you a story about our Mother the Earth?

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  • Bill Baar

    FWIW "Climate Change" fails Popper's falsifiablity test demarcating Science and Faith. If falls squarely into Faith as an unfalsifiable hypothesis that always evaluates as true: Yes, the climate is changing. It's not scientific method; it's religion.

  • John Beckett

    The fact that the relationship between human activity, greenhouse gas concentration, and temperature rise is incredibly complex and likely includes variables we haven't even identified doesn't mean it's not a natural phenomenon well within the realm of science.

    If your point is that we can't say with certainty what is causing climate change, then I agree. But we can say what is likely.

    Uncertainty is no excuse for doing nothing.

  • Bill Baar

    I'm saying we'd be acting based on faith, not science, and it's best not to dress up faith as science.