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Climb It, Part 1

By Jase Bumgardner

How should we think about the problem of climate change? What should I do myself? For the most vexing problem in the history of the world, it really is as simple as that. This whole thing is as much decision theory as anything.

It’s tempting to want to think about climate change the way we think about anything else—to try and figure it out. But the work has already been done. This type of epistemology is a faith-based consensus, we must believe others. Imagine for a moment that instead of climate change, we’re talking about an extinction-level pandemic or an alien invasion, or something on that order. If we wanted to form a judgment for such a complex problem, how would we go about it? We’d want the best experts in the world to study the problem exhaustively, and we’d want their ideas filtered through the most advanced supercomputing to form empirical conclusions. It’s a global issue, so we’d want global participation, collaborating, competing, offering nuanced judgments and checking each other’s work. We’d want to see whether past predictions had panned out and how accurately, all to narrow the cone of uncertainty.

That’s exactly what has happened. The world formed the IPCC to convene the best thinking from 195 countries for the past thirty years. Their conclusions have been consistent and spot on. A good example is NASA’s predictions—they have the best data set of any country, covering 99% of the globe and going back to the 1880s—and their warnings have been astonishingly accurate to within 0.05 degrees Celsius. The IPCC’s consensus statements use words like unequivocal, unprecedented, 95-100% probability, severe and irreversible impacts. The conclusion is that the world must cut carbon emissions in half by 2030, reaching net zero by 2050, and that it’s doable. If there is a better approach to believability, let’s hear it.

Another framing is that this is the problem from hell because it features so many qualities that human psychology isn’t well-suited for. The list is long and incriminating. We don’t do well with: long-termism, ambiguity, probability, selfishness, counterfactuals, uncertainty, invisibility, tribalism, and on and on. Well and true, but insufficient. You could argue the very basis of central features in society like religion is to act in a faith-based way so as to be moral, altruistic and achieve distant future goals. Same goes for parenting. Insurance is another cornerstone idea we readily accept to mitigate fat-tail risks. The odds of terrorists exploding a nuclear bomb that kills hundreds of thousands is roughly on the same order of magnitude as climate change, and we move heaven and earth to prevent it. A big part of civilization has always been to manage risk and complexity through investment and innovation, this is not an exotic idea.

Most people sense this is the case. When Pew asks citizens around the world whether climate change is a major, minor or not a threat, clear majorities across all advanced democracies say major, including America. In fact, all the opinion trendlines here at home are moving in the right direction, up big over the past five years, and up huge over the past ten. Per Yale, majorities believe global warming is happening, believe it’s caused by humans, believe most experts are in agreement, believe it is personally important, believe they will be harmed, and are worried. We also support a carbon tax if the proceeds go to environmental restoration or renewable energy R&D. Only one in seven think it’s too late to do something about it.

The point is that skepticism is a bit of a canard.

The reason we feel that initial compulsion to figure it out is a lingering sense that there is contention on the issue. And contention there is, if not so much on the merits as the urgency. The proportion of Americans who lean Democrat and believe climate change is a major threat has been in the 80 percentiles in recent years, and has risen steadily, while those who lean Republican are in the 20s and haven’t budged. In an increasingly polarized society, so long as half the government is telling half the people to ignore an issue that is unknowable at the individual level, we’re going to have a problem.

It’s important to appreciate how unique what the GOP is doing is. They are the only major party among any advanced nation that is stonewalling on climate change. It’s not like they’re saying let’s do this but in the optimal cost-benefit way, they’re plugging their ears and not trying. By doing so, and by taking measures such as pulling the world’s economic and technology leader out of the Paris Agreement, they subvert the consensus of the rest of the world—and in many aspects the future—so they may signal to their Republican constituency, which constitutes 1% of humanity.

Why would they do that? All parties have a vested interest in heeding expertise to conserve our shared planet. Plus, it would seem conservatives would hew towards conservation; playing fast and loose with the planet is not exactly a conservative play. It’s almost hard to believe, but more than anything, it boils down to advertising. One of the firmest conclusions in political science is that what motivates politicians’ behavior at the individual level is winning elections. Ninety-five percent of election winners in the past three cycles were the candidates with the most money, and ninety percent of the money is spent on advertising.

The GOP depends on large contributions and PACs funded by specific business sectors—energy, utilities, materials, industrials—who see action on climate as disadvantageous to profits. The funders must be pleased for the dollars to flow so the ads can roll.

In theory, this same pro-business pressure could polarize the other democracies of the world, we just happen to be unique in the way our politics is funded. Instead of publicly funding campaigns so our representatives can represent, much of the funding is private and winds up seeding a system of quid pro quo. Total election spending next year of $5 billion will amount to 0.1% of the federal budget, so for what amounts to a rounding error, fate will again be a political pawn. The oddity is that Congresspeople hate fundraising, and they could wake up tomorrow and call a vote for publicly-funded elections. All of which is based upon the premise that we the people will abdicate our most-prized civic duty if only advertising from obviously-biased sources screams at us enough in the form of thirty-second, dumbed-down half-truths. It’s pretty dim.

Or we could put our other differences aside for now and say enough. If both parties were embracing the expert consensus and signaling urgency like the rest of the world, we have more than enough resources to fund innovation at an unnaturally high rate and solve the problem. This is not string theory, the answers are upon us. But the truth is that the world cannot adequately address climate change without America’s leadership, that the scale of investment on the timeline required is only possible through a paradigm of federal funding, that this can’t happen until the Republican Party joins the cause, and that they won’t do so until we cast our votes on the basis of climate or campaign finance. There is no alternative.

So that’s one way to think about climate change. Next time, we’ll come at it from a different angle—the upside.

For more deep thoughts clarified by Jase Bumgardner please visit:

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