Within 24 hours, thousands of comments have been written on Trump’s abandonment of the Paris climate accords, and the obviously related abandonments: political leadership and competitiveness, business leadership and competitiveness, and scientific leadership and competitiveness. Into this void various competitors will leap, including the Chinese and Europeans, who actually have already been leapfrogging the US in many research endeavors. At the last international science conference I attended, the Europeans and Chinese were talking about their research results, while the Americans were mostly talking about scraping up enough funding to get through the winter.
As expected, Trump has based his argument on dubious science and economics. Even a cursory look at how electric energy is being produced in this country shows that “alternative” energy is booming, without a lot of government help. (For more on that, check out the fabulous Energy Information Administration website, before they too become victim to the ongoing federal budget hackathon.)
Interestingly, people, businesses, and even state governments are rising up and declaring their commitment to climate control, whether the feds are on board or not, for the obvious reason that most of us have direct or indirect international connections, and to maintain those relationships we need to be aligned with how most of the world thinks.
OK. But none of this was really unexpected.
I have this question: What’s the difference between our current climate crisis, to which the US government is not responding, and the communist crisis of the 1950’s and 1960’s, which spurred a gigantic, and highly successful, investment in federal research laboratories and the government-business collaboration which put men on the moon?
People haven’t changed. The same kind of people – nerds, basically – who participated in the 1960’s technology boom are those who insist that we face a genuine crisis due to climate change. C.P. Snow’s observations in The Two Cultures remain in force, then as now. Many people harbor a suspicion and slight dislike for the analytically-minded, even though many of us are actually pretty normal – we eat, drink, get pissed, ride Harleys, and have families pretty much like everyone else. Regardless, the Two Cultures are still with us.
Isolationism hasn’t changed. The United States has indulged an isolationist streak throughout its history. In the 20th century it was a major effort to engage the US in two brutal but necessary wars. In the mid-20th century, the communists were the enemy and purging them from all aspects of society was very near priority one. We are nominally more connected to world affairs, with the result that the US is once again attempting to disengage from the world.
Demagoguery hasn’t changed. There was McCarthy then, and Trump now, giving ammunition to the idea that the most virulent and toxic political personalities are simply reincarnated precisely when we need them the least.
However, the nature of the threat is different. In the 1950’s skillful propaganda, augmented by the dawn of the nuclear age, made communism a real, immediate and visceral threat for analytical and emotional people alike. There was a direct line between nuclear bombs in the hands of unstable communist rulers, and the need to take immediate and concrete action. If we needed a lot funding and nerds to keep ourselves safe, that was the price of freedom. The threat was accepted, and action taken.
The nature of the climate threat is harder to appreciate, and even the most ardent supporters of action rarely understand the underlying science. The threat isn’t immediate. Its impact is unclear. Arguments on its behalf frequently take the form of “a lot of really smart people say this is going to happen, so you should believe it,” which is a no-no in analytics, and also a no-no in persuasion – ask C.P. Snow. In short, climate change is, to borrow a phrase from the 1970’s, plausibly deniable.
Deniable, but still likely. And with potential consequences not very different from what the Cold War might have wrought – drought, famine, massive dislocation, and social upheaval.
Bringing a challenge, and an opportunity. The challenge is to show in concrete and comprehensible terms, understandable to intelligent people without a specialized background, why climate change is nearly inevitable and the consequences of that change. I don’t think that’s impossible, but so far when communicating this threat to general audiences we’ve relied far too much on arguments from authority. Those accepting these arguments are often visceral in their belief, but without an understanding of the underlying science those beliefs don’t hold up very well in debate.
The opportunity, once the threat is understood, is to apply the same energy and ingenuity to managing climate change as we applied to travel in outer space, monitoring nuclear threats, and intercepting ballistic missiles. Many people – including those charged with doing the job – thought John Kennedy was nuts to commit the US to placing men on the moon within a decade. We now hear – again based on authority – that severe consequences of climate change are now probably irreversible. Perhaps, but we haven’t really tried to solve the problem, and with the current administration we’re not likely to try. At some point, time will really run out. Those appalled at the self-serving and short-sighted action of Trump are entirely correct, but we need to examine why Trump and his supporters can get away with their game of plausible denial – it’s because we in the technical community have fallen short in illuminating the climate threat as clear, immediate, and real. With the threat understood, concerted action is possible, and with concerted action we might be surprised at what we can do – so history tells us.