Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Global warming

I'm not a climate scientist--I'm a sociologist (BA Sociology, UCLA), at least by avocation. Professionally I was mainly a high tech editor/writer, spending most of my time analyzing and communicating about complex corporate software issues.

Looking at the climate change issue, I first explored the debate within the climate scientist community. Only there was no debate. This issue was settled years ago--the only questions are how soon and how big the disaster we're causing is going to really smack us down.

Then I looked at the popular discussion, and discovered that the biggest celebrity talking about this--Al Gore (the real one) had his heart in the right place, but also had an unfortunate tendency to exaggerate to make a point--not just about climate change but generally. His book "An inconvenient truth" was vetted by actual climate scientists and they found this to be the case. He's right, generally, but he compressed the probable timeframe.

But people who wanted to believe anthropogenic climate change was a hoax--or who wanted others to believe it--seized on Gore's exaggerations to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Likewise the so-called Climategate turned out similarly. Some climate scientists wrote some politically incorrect emails. Nothing they said or did had any impact whatsoever on the fact of AGW--I repeat, nothing whatsoever--but those who didn't want to accept AGW used the scientists' rudeness towards people like themselves to try (with a lot of success) to discredit the consensus of the entire scientific community.

So I asked myself--just who is denying AGW? And why?

In such situations, you always need to look for motive, means, and opportunity.

The big losers are the fossil fuel companies--and ordinary Americans. The former because it means we need to convert to forms of power that don't cook the planet. The latter because we have the most energy-intensive lifestyle on Earth, and we don't want to give it up. Oh, and all the people in other countries who want our lifestyle and sure don't want to give it up before they've even gotten it. Like a billion Chinese and another billion Indians, for starters.

Well, that's a marriage made in heaven. Exxon Corporation spends some pocket change (very big bucks by non-billionaire standards) hiring some smart people to create, launch and sustain a campaign to discredit AGW and anyone who supports AGW.

Now propaganda, however adroit and well-financed, won't succeed if it goes against people's natural inclinations. But this is in line with them. Who wants to give up our lifestyle? Almost no one. And here's proof that I don't have to give it up!

Rats love the taste of rat poison.

So the campaign to discredit AGW used/uses the following ingredients:

1. The fact that what's happening is happening slowly by human standards. Might not even hit big time until after we're dead, and then people we don't care about--like our own children--will have to deal with it. And people in the tropics, who we also don't care about.

2. The fact that average Americans are being stressed by a steadily declining standard of living, due to America's billionaires taking more and more of America's profits for themselves, but doing so so gradually people don't notice--like the old joke about how you boil a frog. America's income distribution was once like that of any other rich country. Now it's like Mexico or Russia.

Of course that by itself doesn't make people deny AGW--it just makes them fearful and angry, at a low simmer. They have less than they had, and their afraid of losing that. But when people are stressed and resentful, demagogues can turn that free-floating resentment against a scapegoat.

And "scapegoat" means "someone who isn't me or mine." The Stranger. The Outsider.
The Republican Party has morphed from the party of conservatism into a tribe of hooting, jeering, anti-intellectuals. It has been very profitable for the billionaires the Republican leadership works for--and that leadership, of course--to identify The Other as scientists and intellectuals in general, because if people start thinking they may realize who their oppressors really are.

And of course America's liberal establishment has done its bit by telling us that Mexico's overpopulation problem is our fault somehow and we're obligated to give American citizenship to any Mexican who want it. And by reflexive opposition to nuclear energy--an amazingly clean source of power--and by generally honoring and defending every culture and language on Earth except for Anglos and English. Worst of all, Amerca's Left denies that the biggest problem Earth faces today is human overpopulation (the Right also denies this, conveniently). We wouldn't have a human-caused global warming problem, regardless of the technology we use and our standard of living, if there weren't seven million people crawling about on this planet. The Earth had one billion people a century ago. Now it's seven billion--and that's six billion more than it can sustain indefinitely. And yet the Right and Left--each for their own selfish reasons--conspire to deny this fact because they can't handle the consequences of accepting it.

3. Even apart from scapegoating, average Americans tend to believe that people who are smarter than them--like climate scientists--aren't. This is called anti-intellectualism, and it's something Alexis de Tocqueville was warning Americans about over 100 years ago, though he generally admired American culture. It's just so easy to go from belief in equal opportunity to belief that we're all equal. Well we aren't. I can't jump like LeBron James. You can't sing like Jackie Evancho. I'm smart but Einstein was way smarter. The list is endless. Especially since humans are a species with lots of genetic plasticity. That means we vary a lot, like dogs, unlike cats.

4. And those least able to discern truth from fiction often have the highest opinion of their abilities. Look at the people who audition for American Idol-type shows who lack tiniest smidgen of talent, yet believe they're God's gift to singing (or whatever). Same goes in the workplace--the lousiest employees always give themselves glowing self-evaluations, while the best employees are usually very self-critical.

So you always find self-confident people with little to be self-confident about brashly contradicting what the entire scientific community agrees is the truth. They aren't daunted in the slightest, because they don't realize how marginal their mental acuity is.

5. The mechanism the Exxon propagandists use is a two-step.

First you frame the debate in personal terms, by villifying the scientists instead of really dealing with the issues. The personal campaign against Al Gore is a perfect example, and the one against President Obama has set a new standard for how low they can go.

Then, once you've convinced the useful idiots whose votes you need that their friends are their enemies and vice versa, you feed them facts--either taken out of context, or bald-faced lies presented as facts--woven into an internally consistent narrative. Humans will normally choose a string of falsehoods tied into a plausible narrative over the truth without a narrative. We're suckers for storytellers. Stories are how we remember large numbers of facts.

The narrative works best when it reinforces your tribal identification and demonizes the other side.

6. And here's the magic ingredient: money. Money to suborn government. Money to buy media outlets and obedient "think tanks" and commentators--money enough to give your side a gigantic megaphone while the other is nearly unamplified.

There's a saying that "Civilization exists by geologic consent--revocable without notice."

Venus wasn't always a hell-hole with a surface temperature hot enough to melt lead. It got that way through a runaway greenhouse effect. Earth is farther out, which is why it didn't happen to us as well--yet. And if may not. Nobody knows for sure. But another Venus is the worst possible outcome. And we don't know enough to write that outcome off as impossible.

Humans, as usual, have no idea what the stakes are in the game we're playing with our species' future--and that of the planet that's the only place in the universe we know for sure can support us.

But there's nothing like the short-sighted greed of the rich coupled with the inability to tell friend from foe of average people to create the climate change denial movement.

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