I’d like to thank the proprietors of CliScep for inviting me to offer a guest post here. This blog is a lot of fun and I enjoy visiting.
For those who don’t know me, I’m Tom Fuller and I run two climate blogs–The Lukewarmer’s Way and 3000 Quads. I recently had a book titled The Lukewarmer’s Way published by Stairway Press and I’ve been following the climate conversation for about a decade. I got involved because I was working as an energy analyst and thought I had something to contribute to the debate about climate change, specifically about how we would have to reconfigure our fuel portfolio to deal with it.
In February of 2016, what is left to say about climate change? There’s climate ‘news’ almost every day, which gets reported of course. But in terms of analysis, opinion, policy prescriptions and the like, it sometimes seems as almost everything has been said and I often find myself writing a post that’s quite similar to something I wrote a few years ago. I hope my regular readers don’t notice…
Maybe that’s just me–but other climate commentators must feel the same way, as they have retired from the climate blogosphere. People like Keith Kloor, Bart Verheggen, Roger Pielke Senior and Roger Pielke Jr. have either quit or drastically cut back their public commentary. On the other hand, a variety of new voices have appeared, including the authors of this blog, Jose Duarte and many more. So perhaps it’s more battle fatigue that is thinning the ranks and fresh recruits do seem to have a lot to say.
I may have written something similar to what follows, either as a post or a comment on someone else’s blog. But because I’m in front of a new audience and because I think it bears repeating, I’ll set this forth again.
The title of this post is taken from a memoir published just recently by Andrew Revkin, an excellent journalist who has written for decades about climate change for publications ranging from Discovery to The New York Times. It’s well worth taking the time to read and you can find it here.
Revkin describes his journey of discovery about climate change. For decades he was a champion of the views held by some of the most ardent activists, such as James Hansen or Kevin Trenberth. Of interest to those of us on the opposite side of the fence is the fact that they were furious when he wrote some articles suggesting they were going overboard with some of their pronouncements. They considered him a traitor, after previously considering him a lapdog. In fact he was neither.
“One thing that this approach requires is a willingness to accept, even embrace, failure and compromise.
A helpful metaphor came to me in a conversation about a decade ago with Joel E. Cohen, a demographer and development expert affiliated with Columbia and Rockefeller University. He said that after the sprint of the last couple of centuries, humans would do well to seek a transition to a more comfortable long-distance pace more suited to adulthood than adolescence.
Walking, he reminded me, is basically “a controlled forward fall.” It is a means of locomotion by which one moves steadily ahead, adjusting to bumps or hurdles, even trips and collisions, shifting course as needed but always making progress toward the desired destination.
Essentially, societies need to find a way to fall forward without falling down.”
That’s the theme I’d like to discuss. I’ve made the point to activists a number of times, telling them on their weblogs and via emails that they eventually would have to make peace with those they were vilifying at the time, if any sane policy were ever to be enacted.
It is increasingly obvious that the state of the science is nowhere near advanced enough to justify the alarmist position. The data still comes with error bars too large, the models were not meant to predict climate over the medium term.
But the same science is also too uncertain to justify the skeptic position. The globe has warmed, we are a plausible actor in that warming, one of our actions is industrial level emissions of CO2. Theory indicates that part of the warming is due to us. Skeptics are right to question how much, what are plausible impacts, what we can do realistically to deal with it, but they need to recognize that the answers will be fuzzy–and that the fuzziness of the answers doesn’t mean we can just ignore the issue. (Not that skeptics have been ignoring climate change 🙂
It’s time to make the same point to those on the skeptic side of the fence. Regardless of your opinion about the extent and impact of human-caused climate change, you eventually will be required to reach a compromise with those you are attacking (I have attacked them too, frequently and stridently). This is true whether you are wrong or right–in fact it’s more important if you are correct than if you are not.
At some point in the fairly near future we will have to come together and make decisions about fairly basic but hugely important issues for the world. We will have to reconfigure our energy portfolio over the next 50 years, whether climate change is a figment of the imagination or a pressing and urgent need. We have been given the shale reprieve, but it won’t last forever–it may not even last very long. Oil won’t disappear, but it will get more expensive. The developing world will require huge amounts of energy and (as they are starting to realize) it really should not come primarily from coal. Will it be nuclear power? Will it be something else? (I advocate a staged strategy of natural gas leading to a dominant role for nuclear, supplemented by hydroelectricity, solar and a little wind.) If we don’t come to some sort of agreement, the default is coal–and coal kills. Not so much in the developed world, but coal kills in those countries still developing. It’s advantages are primarily cost and the really unfortunate fact that bad as it is, it is better than dried dung burnt in a primitive oven.
So too with negative externalities. All energy sources bring with them costs as well as benefits, from nuclear waste to fly-ash to mini-quakes, from oil spills to baked birds to eerie wind turbine landscapes with ghostly whines that could wake the dead. As the world gets richer, the calls to put a price and collect the fees for these negative externalities will only grow. Taxing at source is one solution–for CO2, I favor a carbon tax rather than cap and trade. Many have other proposals. Dams need to indemnify downstream communities just as nuclear power plants need to indemnify those living nearby–both will probably need government support to do a good job of it. Wind power needs to be completely rethought and future wind turbines need to be located using respect for those living nearby, much the way hydro and nuclear need to do.
Both the climate activists and the skeptics are the people who have shown they care about these issues. The activists get published in more prestigious journals, but Ted Cruz used skeptic Steve Goddard’s charts in his presentation on the floor of the Senate, Steve McIntyre gets quoted and referred to by mainstream writers and even my humble lukewarmer self was quoted on the floor of the British Parliament. Taken together, the activist and skeptic community may comprise a majority of those on the planet with an interest in these issues.
In ‘The Art of War,’ Sun Tzu wrote “When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” Both sides need to understand that even in the most heated debate about climate change we need to leave a path whereby our enemy becomes, if not our friend, our co-worker towards a good end. Sun Tzu also wrote “There is no instance of a country benefiting from prolonged warfare.” How long has the climate debate been raging?
I’m not asking for some pie in the sky Kumbaya moment where we embrace each other and have a beer together. Too much ink has been spilled for that. I am calling for more restraint from both sides. As I said, I have written this before to the activists–it’s right that I say the same to skeptics.
The science is still too uncertain for either side to claim victory. Each side risks falling due to a lack of self examination. That doesn’t mean the debate should stop or that either side should cede victory to the other. But looking at the debate as it stands today, it is clear that we are failing–and falling. If we must fall forward, we should take control of our own arguments and the language we use so that falling forward translates to walking, not falling down.