In the comments on my previous post Rachel mentioned a recent article by Bill McKibben called we can’t negotiate over the physics of climate change. Given that he makes an argument that’s similar to what I’ve said myself, I should probably like it. However, I think he kind of fluffs it a bit.
When discussing drilling in the Arctic McKibben says
They think the relevant negotiation is between the people who want to drill and the people who don’t. But actually, this negotiation is between people and physics. And therefore it’s not really a negotiation.
Because physics doesn’t negotiate. Physics just does.
In a sense he right. How a system (our climate) responds to changes (increasing anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) is set by basic physics, and no amount of wishful thinking will change that. However, this is essentially always true. That something will happen doesn’t immediately tells us what we should do. That our climate’s response to anthropogenic influences is set by physics doesn’t immediately mean that we should, or should not, do something specific. In my opinion, we should be using physics to make an argument for why we should – or should not – do something, not simply say “physics says we mustn’t do this”.
To be clear, Bill McKibben’s underlying argument is reasonable; that responding to climate change may be inconvenient does not influence what will happen. Neither do our values or what is politically feasible. We can’t negotiate with physics; we simply need to decide how best to proceed, given our understanding of how the physical system will respond. My main issue with much of this debate is those who either suggest that it won’t respond how we think it will, or who select a possible – but unlikely – outcome to justify their preferred policy.
In my opinion, we really should be accepting our best scientific understanding when trying to motivate a particular policy option. Although I suspect that Bill McKibben does accept this, I think it’s a pity that he didn’t use this to motivate his argument, rather than simply essentially claiming that not being able to negotiate with Physics makes the option obvious. It might be to him, but maybe not to all.
Of course, I realise that I’m looking at this from the perspective of a scientist who would like people to at least gain some understanding of the physical system, and then use that understanding to inform their decision making. It’s quite possible that this is naive and unrealistic. Maybe – as a campaigner – Bill McKibben’s goal is simply to get a message out, and to try to make a strong and convincing argument. In fact, one reason I thought I’d post this is to get some views from others as to what we should expect from campaigners, compared to what we might expect from professional scientists. I don’t think we can hold them to the same standards. There’s a difference between using the scientific evidence to support a preferred policy option, and explaining our best scientific understanding.
Given that this post is about how Physics should motivate our policy decisions, maybe I’ll express mine. I think our basic understanding of physical climatology tells us that we should reduce emissions as fast as possible. Okay? But what do I mean by “as fast as possible” and and how do we actually do so? As I think I may have said before, this – in my opinion – is the most difficult aspect of this whole topic, and I don’t know the answers to either of those questions (well, apart from the fairly obvious step of introducing a carbon tax). Also, since I’m having a brief discussion with Richard Betts about this type of thing on Twitter, I’ll also make clear that this isn’t an argument about “mitigation” over “adaption”. Some level of adaptation is unavoidable and clearly our understanding of the physical system will inform both what mitigation strategies we should be pursuing, and what type of adaptation we should be adopting.