The Golden Mean of Climate Change
Updated: Nov 22, 2021
Yesterday’s post, Who’s the Climate Expert?, discussed the need to listen to generalists rather than specialists when trying to figure out the truth about climate change or other similarly complex topics. The theme of that post was that we need to listen to the experts, but that we then need to place their work in a broader context, and only generalists can do that.
The above thoughts do, of course, beg the question as to which generalists we should listen to. After all, the internet is full of people who know very little about climate change but who nevertheless express their opinions at great length and volume, and with great assurance. How do we separate the ignorant and time-wasters from those whose opinions are worth our valuable time? There can never be a conclusive answer to the above question, but the following thoughts may provide guidance.
Any generalist who is worth listening to will have done his or her homework. He or she will probably have written many web pages, blog posts and articles to do with climate change. Does what they have written indicate a depth and thoroughness of learning? Does the author cite credible authorities? Do the writings express opinions which do not necessarily align with the a currently fashionable meme? Someone who is new to the scene may be able to provide fresh and interesting insights. But those insights need to be backed up by evidence such as references to the work of people who have worked in the area for a long time.
A generalist worth listening to should also be knowledgeable about the many facets of climate change. For example, he or she should understand issues such as Energy Returned on Energy Invested, ocean acidification, the time it takes to build a nuclear power plant, the actions of the federal reserve, and greenhouse gas equivalency. He should also understand how factors such as these interact with one another and so contribute to an overall understanding of climate change.
A credible generalist should be objective and rational. His statements and opinions should be based on facts and logical analysis, not on feelings, hope or fear. It is particularly important that this person be willing to read, understand and convey information that goes against their preconceived point of view. After all, we are all prejudiced in as much we ‘pre + judge’ situations. The most credible person is one who takes time to understand facts or opinions which are challenging.
Sometimes a writer’s preconceived notions take time to surface. It may be necessary to read a few of their publications to detect patterns and bias.
Climate change is not a stand-alone topic. It is merely one topic among many (others include finance, resource depletion, biosphere destruction and over-population). They are fall within the broader topic of Overshoot. This means that a credible generalist needs to have a grasp of systems thinking, and should not see problems in isolation. Hence a good generalist understands that there is no single cause of climate change, nor is there a single solution.
One of the occupational hazards of studying climate change is that people tend to drift toward extremes. (The polarizing nature of social media probably has something to do with this.) At one end of the scale we have the “doomers” who maintain that we are heading toward catastrophe sometime in the near future. At the other end are those who tout “hopium”. Like Wilkins Micawber in the novel David Copperfield they are sure that “something will come up”.
“Doomer” predictions are too numerous to count, but they go back a long way. For example, in the year 2009 a leading Peak Oil writer said,
Ordinary people are unlikely to be able to afford oil products AT ALL within 5 years.
Twelve years after her forecast we see people are grumbling about rising fuel prices but the roads remain as congested as ever.
At the other end of the spectrum there is the hopium in today’s newspaper (Richmond Times-Dispatch 2021-11-20). An article entitled Nuclear fusion is close enough to start dreaming was featured in the op-ed section. Maybe nuclear fusion has a future, but any article on the topic needs to address the fact that the technology has been “on the horizon” for almost three generations. This article fails to do so.
A good generalist knows to steer clear of extremes such as these.
A Golden Mean
The first post in this series was framed around Aristotle’s call for people to be educated, as distinct from knowledgeable. Let’s return to another of his famous thoughts. In the Nicomachean Ethics he talks about what we sometimes refer to as the ‘Golden Mean’. This is not a mean or average in a statistical sense. For example, anger is a vice but anger in response to a serious crime is not a vice. In such a case the golden mean does not call for a person to move toward a middle place halfway between complacency and anger.
So it is with climate change. We need to seek a balance between doomerism and hopium. But that does not means that we need to seek a middle ground. Based on the objective evidence it appears as if are nearer the doomer end of the scale. Nevertheless, when listening to generalists we need to be careful about those who do not have a sense of balance.
The above paragraphs provided some thoughts as to what makes someone a generalist worth listening to. Of course, no single person can possess all of these attributes — we are all human beings with the usual quota of limitations. In practice, we will probably find two or three generalists in which we have confidence. Ideally, these people will not always agree with one another, but they will help us achieve credible conclusions.
The above paragraphs have also been written on the assumption that we are looking for good generalists to provide us with thoughtful, balanced and knowledgeable information and opinions. But we also need to be aware of these issues with regard to our own opinions. These issues apply to us all, including, of course, myself.