It is informative to think about the science of changing climate as two fields. The first is long-term meteorology, making predictions about how the atmosphere and climatic conditions change over long periods of time. This is about a century and a half old and built on physics, chemistry, and observations from a variety of real time and historical sources such as satellites and ice cores. The current dominant paradigm of long-term meteorology includes anthropogenic climate change driven by atmospheric carbon and other gases. It’s a very successful theory whose dominance has been cemented by a track record of new data emerging and anamolies resolving in ways which confirm it. The discovery that satellite measured temperatures were not accounting for relativistic effects caused by the speed of the satellites, and this was causing almost exactly the anomalous difference between ground and satellite temperatures, was one of the more dramatic of these. This was nearly ten years ago. The existence of a handful of outlying dissenting experts outside the paradigm is just confirmation that it’s a real scientific community; the same phenomenon accompanied Newtonian mechanics and the molecular theory in chemistry too. This is reality, as best we can tell.
The second field is political climatology, dealing with the ways a mass of people and their social institutions deal with the climate of the planet they live on. This is a new field at which we are still pretty awful (including attempts by climate scientists). I use the term political climatology deliberately, by analogy with the political economy, ie, economics, and the constraints that politics as a human behaviour places on it. We are pretty bad at the political economy, though we’ve had a few wins over the last century. At political climatology we are just pants.
I don’t just mean we are awful in that we have lousy outcomes, I mean the whole structure of the discussion and the seriousness of institutional design is lacking. The entire debate is in the wrong place. There are interesting arguments within climate science, and there are major and controversial policy decisions to be made. We have a science built on all the sophistication of the Englightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and a monster set of interlinked problems caused by the wondrous success of the same. Meanwhile our toolset for discussing and organizing around it as a society is like five drunk old men with head injury debating the existence of an iPhone.
There is one intellectually tenable policy position which can be shared between someone serious about seeing the world as it is and the fairy land tales of climate fabulists or deniers. That is the policy of deliberate neglect. Accepting the fact of human driven climate change, we choose not to make governments act to remediate it.
Though the changing climate is indeed something to dread and gird ourselves against, the argument goes, any political solution would cause damage too great to our institutions.
Usually this is framed as economic cost, and people like Jim Manzi argue, contra Stern et al, that the GDP costs of mitigation are simply smaller than the benefits.
There are technical problems with Manzi’s argument: scenario choice is highly selective, and GDP is a lousy basis for century scale prediction. That latter post also suggests in an ecological catastrophe, money may not be everything. (When The Economist suggests you are suffering compulsive quantification disorder and need to sit back and smell the drowning flowers, something is up.) Nevertheless Manzi’s willingness to grapple publicly with scientific reality in arguing policy, something that say, George Monbiot, does routinely from a different political tradition, gets towards the type of debate required.
Climate change is a global problem, and worse than that, a global collective action problem. It’s also larger than a few percent of GDP. In the history of the world, there has been environmental catastrophe, but there has never been democratic world government. Dan Hannan, among others, argues that this is a straightforward function of the distance of the government from individual concerns. It helps to know that Hannan is a ferociously euroskeptic MEP, and has more recently found it convenient to disparage the science without fully disavowing it. Even souveriniste libertarian conviction politicians have bases to mollify, I guess.
The sorry record of corruption and bad policy in global institutions does rather support Hannan’s position, though. Indeed, even the experience of the smaller, transnational, EU supports it – technocratic, with little democratic check, and corrupt to the degree its accounts have not been signed off by an auditor in a dozen years. For those who support a different factional football team, consider the IMF, or the WTO. And as beautiful as the vision of the United Nations is, the power there is with the Security Council, a standing committee of Great Powers and their proxies.
This is not a screed about UN black helicopters and mind control rays. We simply need to be clear-eyed about the state of our global political institutions before we hand them the Earth’s thermostat. This is especially since decades of dithering makes geoengineering more likely, or necessary.
Some (say, certain large, industrial, non-democracies) may take the utilitarian line that political niceties are a luxury in the face of catastrophe – a case of give me liberty and give me megadeath. And certainly geophysics doesn’t care about politics. However, the argument for ecofascism is not only rather odious in itself, but highly centralised government has an appalling environmental record. Capitalism and democracy have their environmental failures, but communism is the most toxic pollutant man has yet devised. Contrast the Cuyahoga River and the Aral Sea.
The environment, in this argument, is too important to be passed off to a global bureaucracy to create a Common Fisheries Policy for carbon. Human nature and its politics will not change any time soon. Better for liberty and ecosystems alike that nations remain in productive mutual anarchy.
That is not my position – this note is a way of thinking through the problem. There are other approaches. The world almost tried one with Kyoto-Copenhagen. Tech can change faster than human nature, and different social contexts allow it different expression. Deliberate anarchy is credible enough to be the benchmark. We can easily do worse. Can we do better?
花雨从天来 /已有空乐好 - 李白：寻山僧不遇作
A light rain fell as if it were flowers falling from the sky, making a music of its own – Li Bai, Looking For A Monk And Not Finding Him, Allen trans.