Scientists’ Second Warning to Humanity

Over 20,000 scientists from 184 countries have now signed on to the second warning by scientists to humanity to dial down its profligate destruction of the ecosystems and environments upon which we all depend. In a short paper, World scientists’ warning to humanity: A second notice, the writers of the second warning (the first was in 1992 and had little effect) initially garnered nearly 15,000 signatures of scientists endorsing the paper. Soon, the total number of scientists signed on exceeded 20,000. So, What’s the big deal?

Scientists and Politics

Most scientists prefer to stay in their labs or out in the field collecting data for the purpose of better understanding some facet of the domain in which their research specializes. Typically, they are not all that political. But things have gotten so far out of kilter in the relationship between science and public policy that the dangers of governments continuing to do next to nothing about the converging crises of our time spurred some scientists into action. Now, their warning is getting a great deal more attention than most publications of scientific origin.

Altmetric tracks the mentioning of scientific reports in diverse media. The paper was published in 2017 in the journal BioScience, not exactly a top favorite of social media. However, Altmetric reports that ‘the warning’ ranked within the top 5% of all research outputs scored by Altmetric

Scientists Second Notice Graphic coverThe “altmetric attention score” is a measure of the quality and quantity of online attention that it has received. The score for the warning paper is 7382, which is in the 99th percentile of over 10 million research outputs Altmetric has tracked. It is the number 6 top paper published since global Altmetric records began, first of similar age. Most papers in the top 100 score below 600. In other words, people are paying attention, as well they might.

The warning paper is subtitled “A Second Notice,” because a first such warning was issued by scientists in 1992. The new Warning is short and to the point. As I mentioned above, the first notice was widely ignored. Things just kept getting worse as governments and some corporations gave obligatory lip service to “going green” in their business-as-usual operations, while dodging any serious policy questions.

Social psychologists have struggled with the difficult issues of how it is that even when confronted with overwhelming evidence, so many people avoid or deny the reality of increasing climate instabilities. Of course, confirmation bias plays a big role for the individual who is part of a social group whose ideology or world view conflicts with the facts of climate science. However, the power of corporate media, which dominate most public channels of communication, from talk radio and cable TV ‘news’ to social media, steers how the little public discussion of the topic is framed and circumscribed. The corporate state frames the issue as “controversial,” as does the propaganda of the fossil fuel industries and their political allies and agents in Congress and the White House.

Messengers of scientific fact are generally sidelined; they do not get a seat on the Sunday talk shows. Discussion of the most urgent confluence of crises humanity has ever faced is stifled. Perhaps the exposure of this powerful document via online channels may be able to draw the attention it deserves.

Dystopia, Utopia, or Drift?

Looking forward into the future is no easy task. It is hard to decide what to believe will happen next, and nearly impossible to predict a few years or decades down the line. So many variables, so many viewpoints, so many things are just not the same as we had expected them to turn out today. Now, the unexpected has become the rule, and a lot of us do not like the profound discomfort that causes. So, how can we look beyond today’s surprises and expect to see what is coming soon, much less later.

Of course, we live in a culture whose faith in “progress” is both deep and profoundly flawed. Maybe we just have an embedded optimism gene, but I think not. We do have a history of amazing good fortune, at least for some, and a trajectory of economic growth that seems unbounded. But it does seem to be reaching its limits. The die-hards still project their faith in technology and “free markets” to pull any rabbit out of the hat if the need arises. I used to see no end to the potential for new technology in every realm, but no more.

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Utopia may be more distant than we think.

Technology, after all, is a highly political matter. It is not just what’s possible, and that is not just anything we want. It is also about what someone pays for. Utopian dreams have become ever more expensive to realize, because there are limits.

For a while at the end of the twentieth century, the study of the future became quite popular. So called “Futurists” forecasted all manner of good things and a few possible trouble spots down the line and into the twenty first century – that would be now. We do not seem to hear so much from futurists these days. Or am I just not listening anymore?

As it turns out, although nobody knows for sure, everyone has an opinion about the future. Yet so many feel no need to base their opinions on facts or trends observed. In fact, most of the time opinions are not fact-based. Facts are what people selectively use to bolster their opinions, ignoring any facts that happen not to be consistent with closely held beliefs. Psychologists call that syndrome “confirmation bias.”

As things have developed in recent years, I have paid more and more attention to how confirmation bias interferes with rational thought and distorts public policy. Politicians face increasingly complex international, ecological, economic, climate, social, and just about every other kind of problem imaginable. Yet, they miserably fail to address these critical issues because they completely fail to “get it” and act in the public interest. But there is much more to it than confirmation bias, which is, for politicians at least, a convenient vehicle to carry them to the deepest levels of corruption.

If facts do not favor a political cynic’s position, well, they can just trot out “alternative facts,” conjured solely from the politics of the moment. Why? Because, they base their decisions not on rational analysis of the situation in context of the public interest, but on personal self interest in gaining wealth and power for themselves. (Now, that is a rather blanket statement about politicians and it is not true of many politicians, just the majority.)

Sarah Chayes has written a book called Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security. It focuses mostly on what she discovered from many years of direct experience in working with citizens in nations such as Afghanistan, and as a defense official trying to get the higher ups to see the futility of both military and diplomatic efforts that produced both corruption and terrorism out of the impossible positions such policies put people in.

I think Chayes’ work is highly applicable to the situation within the United States of America as well. Her on-the-ground work shows clearly how shortsighted officials corrupt social and political systems. Such highfliers focus more on their political careers than on the realities their work ought to address.

The result is denial, corruption, and failure to achieve the progress that U.S. mainstream economics and politics always claims but increasingly rarely achieves. As the last vestiges of democracy fall to the Corporate State, drift becomes Dystopia.

Politics of Denial, Technology and Reality

I keep running across obsessively denialist arguments in Face Book groups such as “Climate Change Discussion,” that make claims like, “Green Energy Is Expensive & It Won’t Save The Environment.” They brazenly tout false information, distortions of out-of-date facts, and assumptions that have no factual basis. They seem to reflect no critical thinking ability. Otherwise, we would have to classify them as outright propaganda.

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Carbon Emissions are Real. Photo:  Ghana Coal Plant.

Some social psychologists have gone into great detail explaining the complex sources of climate denialism in terms of compliance with social norms, avoidance of cognitive dissonance, and other factors that make it hard for people to believe that such a catastrophic global trend could be happening, even in the face of clear evidence. “Confirmation bias” is a concept that captures much of the psychological basis of the distortions of reality that would seem impossible if one simply looks objectively at the facts. But there is more at play here.

 

Social Psychology of Ideology

After all, who is purely objective? Most people (including scientists) routinely exclude evidence that conflicts with their existing beliefs until the evidence is too strong to resist. People find ways to “interpret” evidence to make it appear to confirm their biases; if that doesn’t work some folks simply deny the validity of the evidence, no matter how strong it is by scientific standards. Only when others in their social group recognize the facts do they come around to the conclusions the facts imply.

There is, of course, the general human resistance to change. In the case of climate disruption, the human changes actually needed to adequately deal with the problem are extreme. People subconsciously know that an adequate response would completely transform the way they live. That is a huge and threatening unknown, very hard to process.

As a social psychologist myself, I certainly understand these processes and the difficulties people face in recognizing a new and threatening reality. That is especially true when a new reality:

  • has seemed until now a speculation about the future,
  • is so massive in scale that it is hard to conceptualize,
  • is thought to be something that happens far away in little known places,
  • seems to not directly affect my life today, and
  • appears to be beyond my own influence anyway.

Ideology and Technology

Some denialists focus more on technology than on climate itself. They pitch for the conventional high-energy technologies of the industrial economy that caused the problem in the first place. Among these folks, the ideology of endless progress through new technology and new materials reigns supreme. That is why the ‘nuclear option’ is so appealing to them.

Bill.Gates_Photo by Platon_Pinterest

Techno-Billionaire Bill. Photo: Pinterest

Bill Gates and his billionaire buddies would have governments pour billions into new nuclear power plant designs and let existing viable technologies languish. As one scientist put it, “nuclear power is an extraordinarily elaborate and expensive way to boil water.” Thermal solar collectors are far more efficient and cost-effective at producing steam. However, existing technologies have no profit potential for new capital investment – no new patents there, only benefit to people and planet. I see no reason to accept techno-billionaires as directors of global energy policy.

 

I have had to conclude that NO single technology, or even a combination of several, can do enough on its own to reach the NEGATIVE carbon emissions now necessary to reign in the trajectory of planetary heating already “in the pipeline,” without major reductions in energy use and waste by humans. That is the only hope to stabilize global climate.

Even producing and deploying existing low-carbon technologies requires the use of carbon-emitting processes. We must industrially manufacture even the “greenest” technologies in order to deploy them on a significant scale. All that involves carbon emissions from the processes of material extraction, industrial manufacture, distribution, and installation. In that context, nuclear power, being the most capital-intensive of all technologies is most carbon consuming and expensive to build and activate. Never mind its reliance on outdated vulnerable grid configurations that we must decentralize along with power production. On top of that, we simply do not have enough time to deploy significant numbers of nuclear power plants to replace coal and gas-powered electricity generation before the climate collapses beyond hope, even if we ignore the extreme dangers and costs.

Climate Realism

“The solution” must combine near-zero emissions technologies with major constraints on ALL but the most necessary energy consumption, mostly by the current highest energy consumption nations. That is where most of the excessive consumption and waste is. That is the uncomfortable and very difficult fact, which is why confirmation bias is so rampant and clear thinking on the matter is so rare.

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Solar and Wind Power offer Cost-effective Energy Production with the Lowest Carbon Emissions to Install and operate. Photo: Shutterstock.

At the same time, the most vocal public denialists studiously tout false logic as utility corporations do their cost-benefit analysis and increasingly find wind and solar a better economic deal than coal or now even fracked gas. So they add more wind and solar to their mix. Obsessive technophilia keeps touting nuclear power as “green” despite uneconomic and carbon-intensive construction and maintenance and perpetually failed efforts to find a way to store nuclear waste safely.

 

The climate crisis is now. If we were to wait for nuclear power plants to come on line to replace coal and gas, ignoring their inherent dangers, we would have passed the point of no return on climate chaos. Equating wasteful fossil-fuel energy consumption or a new nuclear power program with “civilization” is to degrade the concept by replacing human values with obsession with overly complex technology — which is exactly what we need to get over. We must optimize deployment of existing solar and wind power, and electric-powered transportation, while constraining our over-use of fossil-fueled electric power in our daily lives and rapidly restoring ecosystems, in order to achieve the negative carbon emissions necessary to curtail climate collapse.