07 May 2010

How Many Choices Do We Have?

[UPDATE #2: In the comments Peter Gleick responds.]

Andy Revkin has a thoughtful take on the letter, and points to the editorial that accompanies the letter as having some useful advice. I agree.]

In Science today 255 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences sign on to a letter objecting to the "McCarthy-like" accusations and behavior of climate change deniers and use the occasion to advocate for action on climate change:
Society has two choices: we can ignore the science and hide our heads in the sand and hope we are lucky, or we can act in the public interest to reduce the threat of global climate change quickly and substantively.
So we have only two choices -- do what the scientists say or ignore the science. But wait. Lead author of the letter Peter Gleick says in The Huffington Post that we actually have three choices:
In the end, we have only three choices: we can act to mitigate the risks of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we can expand efforts to adapt to a changing climate, or we can suffer the consequences of doing nothing. The only real question is, what is the balance among these three options.
And here in a nutshell you can see what is wrong in the climate change debate. These "choices" -- whether the two or the three or a balance among them -- are not really policy choices. They are more aptly described as philosophical orientations or ideological standpoints. There are no actual decisions being made among these choices -- they are instead cartoonish caricatures of a highly politicized debate over science. It is the metaphorical equivalent of demanding that your political opponents "say uncle."

In the real world there are countless decisions already being made about mitigation, about adaptation and about the consequences of policy shortfalls. These choices are being made irrespective of the debate over climate science and the attacks by one side on another. Gleick ignores the implications of his statement that:
Are the climate deniers going to go away? No. Nothing will convince them, since science hasn't.
If they are not going away, then they are to be lived with as part of the political ecosystem.

I'll explain in The Climate Fix that public opinion is already plenty strong for effective action to occur. Worldwide support for mitigation runs from 70% support and higher. The war for public opinion has been won by those advocating action, yet they are still obsessed with the minority of those who oppose action and reject aspects of climate science. As Gleick suggests, 100% uniformity of opinion is not in the cards so why obsess about "deniers"? The important questions of climate policy involve designing specific policies that reflect the realities of public opinion, and can make progress on decarbonizing the economy and improving societal resilience to climate, rather than trying to win an unwinnable debate.

The poverty of the very public debate over climate science as refelcted in the sign-on letter is that it rarely, if ever, descends from the stratosphere to engage the actual decisions being made on the ground. Having a debate about sticking our heads in the sand or whether to mitigate or adapt or ignore would be good fun in a pub or a college classroom, but does absolutely nothing to advance actual policy making. For instance, the failures at Copenhagen have nothing to do with what anyone believes about climate science or "Climategate."

That is why the sign-on letter will be discussed a bit today and then forgotten tomorrow. Unless the climate science community helps to open up a safe space for discussion of of a much wider range of policy options than has conventionally been discussed, it will paradoxically be helping to sustain the gridlock and politicization that have come to characterize the debate.