Climate science identifies the problem – it can’t tell us what to do in response?

The normally sensible John Fleck has a post pointing out the bleedin' obvious - well; it points out the issue; the solution suggested is of course hopelessly wrong1 -, although to be fair it has escaped the attention of many other people too, so perhaps it is only obvious if you think about it. In this case, the obvious is that scientists ...have characterized and clarified the physical science part of the problem, and it’s only natural to then turn to those scientists in our discussion of what to do about it. But... the “what to do about it” stuff lies in a domain different from the physical sciences. Tricky, huh? Well no, not at all. As I've been trying to tell you for quite some time.

Physical science can tell you how climate will change, if it gets it right, given certain plausible guesses about changes to CO2, etc. It does a pretty poor job about how important those changes are. I happen to have a vaguely-analogous-useful-example to hand: Report Shows Damaging Impact of Climate Change in 2015, which is a gloss on the State of the Climate report. And the lead item? "2015 Was the Warmest Year on Record Since the 1800s". Fine: obvious lead. But that in itself tells you absolutely nothing whatsoever about damages. Global warming will unquestionably have clear obvious net negative impacts at some point, but IMHO the most probable impacts will come via ecology-type-things, and that's harder to predict. Perhaps coral bleaching is the most obvious now (but, if you were a hard-nosed philistine you could say: "and exactly what were the negative impacts on me" and its hard to give a convincing answer).

Anyway, the point is, emitting carbon dioxide has some clear positive effects: we get to heat or cool our houses, drive our cars, fly off to foreign lands, and a myriad other things. Set against that are the negative externalities: SLR, coral bleaching, mass die-off of the rainforest, your favourite ski resort turning to rock, whatever. Physical science can tell you something about those negative externalities, though you'll need someone else to cost them, but it can tell you nothing about the positive effects; so physical science really isn't the thing you need to compare the two and produce a balance.

John's article is keyed off Climate change as a wicked social problem by Reiner Grundmann in Nurture. There's an old Chinese proverb which it is helpful to know in this context: Remember, glasshopper, anyone talking about climate as a wicked problem is talking borrocks (similar to "if anyone tells you that their chip tape-out plan is aggressive, they too are talking borrocks and really mean unachievable). I stopped at If social scientists had been involved significantly and from the beginning... but really I'd already gone too far by that point.

And to point out the really bleedin' obvious the discipline that does balance competing costs and damages, and deals with the allocation of scarce resources, is economics.


1. I may have got a touch carried away ranting here. JF does manage to pull out an almost-sensible quote from RG's article, for which he deserves credit, as so much of the rest of it is bad.

2. My other objection, which I failed to articulate because I was hardly aware of it until I thought more, is the deceptiveness of calling it a "social sciences problem" and that social scientists should work on it. Because: the physical sciences aspect has required a great deal of scientific work over the last, say, 25 years. It has involved "creating" a great deal of new science, because there were a lot of new questions to answer. By comparison, the "social sciences" problems are mostly old stuff with already known answers (or arguably in some cases, old lack-of-answers). In economic terms, its just another classic externalities problem, which (in economic science terms) is already solved: tax the externalities; i.e., a carbon tax.


* Eli isn't very impressed either
* ATTP has a go. I didn't read it though I'm afraid; I bored of this stuff
* You vant more of ziss driwel? KlimaZwiebel is there for you

More like this

Do you mean the supposed solutions for climate change proposed/demanded by Democrat *politicians* are not necessarily valid?
If so, I would agree.

[An odd comment. Did you read what I wrote, and the article I linked to? Hard to see how you could have, to have asked that. You seem far too wrapped up in your own obsessions. Anyway, the answer is the emphasis on "social sciences" whatever that is -W]

What do you think of the pact of Democrat attorneys general preparing to prosecute climate change skeptics?…

I don't think much of it.

By See Noevo (not verified) on 11 Aug 2016 #permalink

"What do you think of the pact of Democrat attorneys general preparing to prosecute climate change skeptics?"

I think it is a load of hogwash to claim they are preparing to prosecute climate change skeptics. They are preparing to prosecute certain *companies* for possibly defrauding the general public. Whatever you think about *that* specific part is your own business, but misrepresenting what the AGs are doing just makes you look very stupid.

[Well, I think its a very poor idea, as I've said before -W]

A small hint to consider: Fred Singer appears prominently in the tobacco files, along with many of the same organizations and people that currently support the fossil fuel industry in their attempts to muddy the water. And yet, neither Singer nor any of the others was ever prosecuted. Why? Because that is not what RICO is about. No surprise that the same people and organizations who were involved in the tobacco deceit are now misrepresenting the legal actions being taken. They have nothing else left but to deceive!

The last time the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was 400 ppm was during the mid-Pliocene, about 3.2 Ma. See the Wikipedia page on Pliocene climate. At that time the sea stand was 25 meters higher than now, about.

I don't need an economist to know that is a bad thing.

[But you do need more than just the bald information you've provided. Like a time scale for example -W]

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 12 Aug 2016 #permalink

"..Like a time scale for example -W
Why? Are you going somewhere? It's not like the human race has another planet lined up?

By Nigel Franks (not verified) on 12 Aug 2016 #permalink

"And to point out the really bleedin’ obvious the discipline that does balance competing costs and damages, and deals with the allocation of scarce resources, is economics."

Further, we're talking about how we might want to change human processes of those resource allocations and competing costs and benefits.

Economics, as you say.

By Tim Worstall (not verified) on 12 Aug 2016 #permalink

"[Well, I think its a very poor idea, as I’ve said before -W]"

Which is perfectly fine with me, as long as you don't misrepresent what they're doing (which you don't, unlike Horner and friends).

Time scales are bleedingly obviously important. The less time you have to adapt, the more important it is to respond early and strongly. For example, 25 meters rise in one million years would be perfectly manageable, especially with all the other changes in human society (and human nature - who knows what we're calling ourselves by that time) one could expect over that time period. 25 meters in 500 years, however...that would require more immediate action.

[Mostly agreed. I'm less sure that 500 years would be a problem either. I think the "near" boundary is hard to define usefully; my own view (as I think I've said a few times) is that its pretty hard to see any use in looking more than 100 years ahead. But if physical science told me to expect 25 m SLR in 200 years, I might revise that -W]

"There’s an old Chinese proverb which it is helpful to know in this context: Remember, glasshopper, anyone talking about climate as a wicked problem is talking borrocks"

I'm trying to figure out what the joke or reference is here. It looks like you're writing in what could best be described as a juvenile mockery of a Japanese accent, while attributing it to an "old Chinese proverb."

Hopefully I'm missing something, and it's not actually as idiotic as it appears.

[Bad news I'm afraid: your first guess was correct -W]

I agree it is difficult to give a clear boundary of when something goes from "manageable" to "problematic". That's a value discussion, and thus would involve the social sciences. :-))


I know it's the internet and I should find some reason to quibble, criticize or insult..


Well done WC

By Steven Mosher (not verified) on 12 Aug 2016 #permalink

Well, I have a complaint. You linked to WUWT without warning, and I first encountered "wicked" in the context of climate (actually, it's local lingo near Boston, home for me, from decades ago, but that's semantics) from Andy Revkin. Both have bad associations.

As for social science problem, I'd say no, it's a human problem, and we've dithered too long, way too long. Word swamps are no longer the thing, action is.

25 meters SLR in 200 years, I think that's about right, though it might be a little low.

As for suffering, we're having floods and heatdomes and droughts and wildfires etc. It's not normal to be nearly 100F in Boston. And the northeast of the US of A is the best climate available these days.

By Susan Anderson (not verified) on 12 Aug 2016 #permalink

Pretty much what Mosher said. Although if both of us are praising you perhaps we all need to examine our premises.

Ms. Anderson, it will surely comfort you to know that the Boston temperature record was set on July 4, 1911 when it reached 104F. I would commend and recommend summer in Portland, Oregon, which has been delightful this year. Pretty hot yesterday and today. I think the technical term is 'August.'

A carbon tax is so obviously the right thing to do that the only objections that can be raised are almost unrelated to it. Skeptics will say that government will waste the money. Greens will say that if we stop there it is criminal. The correct response to both is 'So?'

Skeptics could devote some of their prodigious energy to monitoring government waste, while greens could return to what they were so good at in the 70s and 80s. But even if neither were to do so, the carbon tax is still the first, best (and some say the only) next thing to do.

By Thomas William… (not verified) on 13 Aug 2016 #permalink

I noticed you slipped something in at the end: [tax the externalities; i.e., a carbon tax.] Even in economic terms, this is not a settled issue.

Taxing externalities is not a solution for all externalities. Some externalities, yes, perhaps. Some externalities a tax might be a partial solution. Others even less so. Still a tax on an externality is better than a slap on the face with a dead fish, even if it only partially addresses the issue.

What the money raised is spent on also matters. A tax on an externality can move the subsidy from the polluter to reduced taxes on a set of tax payers, or to a subsidy for spending by the government on infrastructure or ...

The net result of the tax might be morally unacceptable. "The Omelas Problem”.

[That sounds like FUD. You'd need to be more specific to be convincing. The money raised is not spent on anything particular; it just represents general taxation. Hypothecating it would be bad -W]

By Phil Hays (not verified) on 13 Aug 2016 #permalink

If our response to climate science is not a wicked problem, then what would qualify as a wicked problem? Reading through the wikipedia article it seems that climate policy fits. It is even listed as the first example.

By Michael Hauber (not verified) on 14 Aug 2016 #permalink seems much more coherent in defining what a wicked problem is, and I tend to agree that climate doesn't fit.

Perhaps unmitigated climate change may generate some new wicked problems though? Decisions about how to deal with sea level rise, or to deal with climate refugees may fit.

By Michael Hauber (not verified) on 14 Aug 2016 #permalink