If there are multiple points of view on a particular issue - especially in politics - a good rule of thumb is: they are all wrong. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the application of politics to the science of climate change.
One thing that sets scientific theories apart from other kinds of knowledge is the capacity of scientific theories to make predictions about the physical world. A prediction is a logical consequence that one can derive from a scientific theory. For example, one can predict the times when and places where solar eclipses will occur on the Earth. One can predict the outcome of administering penicillin to a person suffering bacterial meningitis. While predictions are never certain (though nothing is because our knowledge is never complete) they are nonetheless possible. And they follow. That is to say there are logical reasons why they should be the case (or not be the case, as the case may be).
On the other hand, if you don’t have a scientific theory to explain some phenomena you cannot predict the outcome of your experiment. The only way of describing future states of affairs then is to guess wildly. In that case what you are doing is not predicting - in any scientific sense - you are prophesying. This distinction between scientific predictions and irrational prophesy was one made by Karl Popper and it leads to an important difference in the way people who lack knowledge view the world. In politics, attempts to describe future states of affairs are often nothing but prophesies devoid of any genuine predictions. In politics the decisions people make can always change the outcomes some person or group expects. In particular, discoveries in science can affect the decisions people make and the policies they enact. And the content of scientific theories are unpredictable before we discover them.
We cannot know what the future content of our better theories will be. Knowledge improves. In science this progress comes about by the gradual, incremental improvement of existing theories. Older theories are eventually shown false by criticism through experiment and replaced by better, deeper - closer to truth - theories. But our best theories can never predict the content of their successors.
Where this becomes critically important is in the realm of social policy. People, unlike electrons obeying the laws of physics, make choices. And those choices affect outcomes. This might seem so obvious as to not worth stating - but the problem is many people - seemingly many scientists and many with an interest in science - forget this simple truth. The fact people make choices which affect outcomes makes them unpredictable in the strict scientific sense. Psychology, it is true, makes claims about the predictability of people at least to some extent. But that is merely a misconception. Physical systems - including people - are explained by good scientific theories or they are not. If they are - then those systems are predictable in the scientific sense. But we do not have a scientific theory that can predict the behavior of people. Instead, the best we have is prophesy: attempts to foretell the future in the absence of explanatory theories.
This is not only a problem for psychology, but also sociology and politics. In those fields there is a tendency to make more-or-less confident statements about the future by appealing to scientific theories while ignoring the choices that people might make which would affect the outcome of those very predictions. Let us make this more concrete: it is common today to debate the effects of global warming on things like sea level rise and the various economic impacts while ignoring what people in the future might do and what knowledge they might discover which would affect global warming.
So, for example - we hear that economic sanctions (like an increase in the cost of carbon dioxide producing industries) are needed in order to help curb the use of fossil fuels. This, it is said, could help to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In Australia the target is somewhere between a reduction of 5% if you are on the right of politics (Labor and the Coalition) and 40% for the left side of politics (the Australian Greens). If you are on the far green left you might even hope that there is a 100% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by anthropogenic sources and you might be hoping for a quick cessation of all fossil fuel combustion.
But what we know is that the the Human Induced Climate Change Greenhouse Effect seems to be approaching a tipping point and may already have passed a number of points of no return. A 5% reduction is not going to stop, let alone reverse global warming. It will barely slow it. A 40% reduction will also have little impact - even if this was global. Even if we cut emissions in half by 2050 the planet will still warm by 2 degrees Celsius. This is more than enough to cause massive melting of the polar ice caps. And it is possible a 100% reduction will not occur fast enough (even if it was to occur tomorrow) because the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is already too much to be removed by natural processes (namely rain) to stop global warming being accelerated by feedback mechanisms like melting permafrost and methane venting. So it looks, from all angles as though if nothing drastic is done, significant amounts of the ices in Greenland and Antarctica will melt leading to sea level rises. If nothing drastic is done. What we need is not a way to slow global warming or even a way to stop global warming. These are not solutions to the problem: the problem being the ice is already melting, the sea levels are rising and the climate is changing. If we agree all of that is a problem, we have only two options as Physicist David Deutsch points out: to devise ways of surviving at the higher temperature or ways of reversing climate change (that is to say - ways of actively cooling the globe).
Economic "solutions" like taxes do not even pretend to do anything like this. They are only proposed to slow the inevitable - not solve the problem. Nor, indeed, do alternative energy targets. While alternative energy sources like solar and wind should be pursued and more money put into research in this and other areas generally (for reasons I will come to) none of this will cool the globe, if that is what your aim is: to solve the problem of climate change.
The left and right have always been divided on taxation - at least in principle if not in practice. But because the problem is that the world is already too warm and sea levels rises have already begun - merely reducing the amount of carbon dioxide by the very cumbersome and slow technique of increasing the price of fossil fuels which (we hope) somehow persuades people to use less energy will not solve the problem. As far as climate change is concerned all that taxation is purported to achieve is to merely delay the warming, not reverse it (which is what is needed). If we want global warming to stop, and reverse, we need to cool the globe. Actively reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - not merely slow its rate of increase. Increasing taxes cannot do that. Merely reducing fossil fuel combustion - or even eliminating it altogether - cannot seem to be able to do that now either. It's already too late. Take note of what Eric Rignot and other NASA climate scientists are saying about the fact glacial melting in the Antarctic is now unstoppable. Of course that is pessimistic - glacial melting is just another problem and problems are soluble. It's just that it is unstoppable if the only thing you do is stop using fossil fuels.
So stopping fossil fuel combustion cannot reverse global warming. We seem to have reached a tipping point and natural global warming is likely to continue anyway. Even if those climate scientists are wrong, they may not be far from from. If the tipping point has not already past, as they claim, it may be just around the corner. Given the growth of civilization, and the amount of carbon dioxide being put into the atmosphere and that which is and will continue to be put into the atmosphere, it is likely that global warming was already too late to stop decades ago. The seas were already warming, the ice already melting. The sea levels were always going to rise - no matter how quickly we stopped burning fossil fuels.
This sounds all very pessimistic. But it is not. Problems are not pessimistic - but proposed solutions can be. The idea that ineffective solutions we know cannot work should be tried anyway - at great expense and at great cost to individuals, industries, economies and societies is pessimistic. The idea we should search for better solutions and implement ones that just might work is optimistic. And the principle of optimism: that whatever the problem is we can solve it - should be motivating us.
And so this is why the left and right of politics are both completely wrong on this issue as they are on so many others. The left is wrong because they think economic sanctions can work and fossil fuels are evil. And the right is wrong because they will not take this issue seriously enough - unwilling to acknowledge that the danger is to large parts of civilization itself. If the sea level rises - millions will be displaced and weather patterns can become dangerously unstable as the atmosphere is loaded up with additional energy. Climate change will cause death and destruction on a scale that is almost unimaginable - if nothing effective is done. But that’s the problem with the left. They are not suggesting anything seriously effective.
It’s possible (indeed common) for all sides of an important debate in politics to be completely wrong. The strange thing is - even if global warming wasn't man made - it would still be a serious problem. But, again - the left and the right typically do not see it that way. The right seems to want to argue "well because it's natural there is nothing we can do to stop it" and the left would seem to want to say "Well that's nature and we shouldn't interfere with nature". Again - both misconceptions argue for inaction and are about problem denial, not problem solving.
So what should be done? We should prepare for the growing problem as we would for any natural or man-made disaster. We should look for solutions. We should admit that the problem is already here and we must either devise ways of living at a higher temperature, or think of ways of cooling the globe.
So we need to invest - heavily - in scientific solutions. This means pure science - across the board. Not just in fields directly related to global warming (like climate science) but more broadly. Solutions come from places we typically cannot even guess at. The solution of how to get your email and Facebook wirelessly from the server to your computer did not come from technology companies trying to build ever better modems. No. WiFi came (in no small part) from astronomy - in particular from pure research into black holes. The solution of how to scan the body for tumors at super high resolution before they became dangerous did not come from investing directly in cancer research. No. MRI technology came from pure research in quantum physics and rested in large part upon the curiosity of a “lazy” Austrian physicist interested in how silver atoms behaved in a magnetic field.
But pure research requires money. And the more urgent the problem, the more brains we need working on it directly as well as on the periphery. We need science. And that costs. Equipment costs. Salaries cost. Education costs. We need to make lots of money - and fast - to pay for the research that will solve our problems. We need to believe that there are solutions or we won’t try. Or we will try non-scientific things that simply make us feel good without actually achieving anything. We might, for example, complain that profits are evil and wealth is evil and taxation is great and so decide that slowing or reducing private investment in solutions that just might solve the problems taxation never can. This is not to say public funding has no place: of course it does. But change must come incrementally. With science it would be good to increase both at once. Not one at the expense of the other. When it comes to public funding of pure science, the words of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson ring true here: "...it's not that you don't have enough money, it's that the distribution of money that you're spending is warped in some way that you are removing the only thing that gives people something to dream about tomorrow." So it's not like we need more taxation we just need to think of better ways to spend the money that governments already have. And as nations become more wealthy and more educated, we can rely less on the few (those in power in governments) and more on the many (the individuals) to decide where to invest. That way politicians do not need to be in control of as much money (that is to say: they do not need to collect as much tax) and individuals can become better off, and better at helping to solve both their own problems and the problems of their society more broadly.
There will always be problems. That is the circumstance we find ourselves in. But for any problem there are solutions out there not yet found. So how do we find them?
Only with the most curious minds working on as many problems as possible all at once. For any solution in science, there is a scientist who was never interested in exactly that particular problem who made a crucial discovery without which the problem would never have been solved. This is to say pure science is always the key.
In the case of global warming this means the eventual solution - the means by which we cool the globe - will depend in part at least on what people not working on that problem will discover. Knowledge is a web of interconnected and interdependent ideas. A discovery in one discipline is never completely isolated from another. But this does not mean we should not also fund applied science - the more narrow application of what we already know to problems we have already discovered (in the case of global warming this would mean applying the knowledge we already have to formulate better engineering solutions we have already imagined). Of course we should put as much money into that as we can too. Not at any cost of course - but the minimum cost that will be effective and will solve the problem at a cost less than it would cost us if the problem went unsolved. We cannot, after all, ignore all the other pressing problems. We must always do more than one thing at a time. One problem cannot be at the expense of all others. The most important reason for this is that the biggest dangers come from problems we have not even encountered yet and so have no possible knowledge about. Take any huge problem facing civilisation today: global warming, genetically engineered bioweapons, the possibility of war or terrorism utilizing nuclear weapons, how to avoid an asteroid impact. None of these "problems" were dreamed of just a century ago. Again - this is why we need pure science. To uncover those problems before we fail to discover the means of averting them. The problems that lurk in our complete ignorance are the ones we need to be most urgently searching for.
But to return to the pressing problem at hand; global warming. Applied science here could mean working on how to put mirrors in space to reflect some of the Sun (an engineering effort that might cost trillions - or maybe substantially less if some industrialist or scientist stumbles upon a much cheaper technology while trying to build a better computer/car/aircraft/power station). It might mean looking at genetic engineering solutions on how to encourage algae in the sea to consume more carbon dioxide. It might mean looking at geological solutions like geosequestration.
But my guess is that it will most likely mean a solution we simply cannot foresee. Because that is how science works. That is what the history of science teaches us: that science is crucial in solving problems and the solutions come from unexpected places. In science this idea comes under the rather twee heading of “serendipity”.
But to fund all this important research we need money. As individuals, corporations and society. We need profits - that is to say additional money over and above that needed to survive. More money across all sectors and this requires growth. And lots of it. We need as much money as we can get to fund these scientists, their laboratories, their technicians and students. We need to encourage kids to enter a lucrative career in the sciences and not always rely just upon their charitable natures.
Increasing taxation on people and industries typically does the opposite. Extra taxation takes money away from the economy - it discourages investment and spending (because it simply leaves less money for investment and spending by companies and shareholders). It reduces productivity because less is being created because less wealth is available to create it. In general, politicians do not have the expertise to decide how best to spend money and they seem more and more unwilling to rely upon those who might have better ideas to advise them. Those who desire higher taxes - which takes money from industry and individuals - strangely have far too much confidence in politicians. It is a strange thing in politics that those on the right and left often claim a distrust of politicians and yet the left is willing to hand them more money to make bad decisions with and the right is willing to hand them more power to make more bad laws with.
Taxation is sometimes seen as a means by which we can punish so-called “evil” industries like coal and oil companies. But this is short sighted. Of course these industries create big problems. But all industries create problems. The size of the problem you create scales with the size of the problem you solve. In the case of the fossil fuel industry the big problem created is air pollution - but the problem solved is that of cheap energy and bringing electricity to those who otherwise would not be able to afford it. The oil and coal industries are solutions even if they are seen by some as nothing more than a source of problems. There are problems with solar too. And wind. And nuclear. It may be the case that with fossil fuels the problems are well known and large but the solutions they bring are sometimes ignored or downplayed. They, and not other energy sources, are the solution to how to bring cheap energy most quickly to people who need electricity most now. Namely - the people without it and who have never had it. The people in Africa and Asia and South America - the developing world. Where - in those places we can light up (literally and figuratively) the lives of children who might be able to plug in a cheap computer to a cheap power source and be provided with cheap internet because the coal is cheap and the power station is cheap. And yes, it’s putting out carbon dioxide. But that kid just might learn enough physics and chemistry and biology to find a solution that has eluded everyone else. They might discover the key to reversing climate change.
We hope some person, now being delivered the internet in a warm home for the first time by cheap energy might discover a truly cheap, extra efficient solar cell (because at the moment they are neither) and then we can move away from fossil fuels (this is modulo taxation. Of course if you tax fossil fuels much more then their cost will artificially be more than that of renewables. But I have already argued why I think that is a mistake).
If it truly were the case that there were cheap, efficient and effective options for the developing world to power their factories, industries, cities and societies in a way which could bring them up to the standard of living that people in places like the USA and Australia expect then those countries would already be using those sources. But they use what their people want and need most. They use the best sources. And by best we mean: the source of energy people can most afford, which are most reliable and which, on a cost-benefit analysis will allow them to have the kind of cities and technologies and societies we demand.
The solutions come faster when we can pay for people to find those solutions - (or when people have sufficient free time to work on solutions - as both Google and Apple grant their employees). And that happens when there is more money in the economy. Where development and growth happens faster.
So next time you hear someone argue that global warming is not a serious problem - you can argue they are being unscientific because the science tells us it is. But if someone says that the sea levels will rise if we don't start taxing the big polluters - they are making a prophesy, not a prediction. They are assuming that no new discovery will be made that makes that extra taxation an unnecessary impost. And those who think we need to slow growth and development through things like ceasing the use of fossil fuels altogether are being pessimistic. So be an optimist: have a stance that problems are always soluble. And people can find those solutions. Perhaps people like you or me. But also perhaps people who don’t yet have access to all the knowledge that needs improving so the big problems of our time can be solved. Optimism entails understanding that the only thing which stands in our way of finding solutions is lack of knowledge. Not lack of resources. Because the universe is infinite - resources are infinite too. But that is the topic of another post.
This post has been largely informed and inspired by the work of physicist and philosopher David Deutsch. In particular his book "The Beginning of Infinity". You can find I have used some of the ideas he articulated here, in this TED talk.