Questions for Portland Friends Meeting to consider in deciding on climate change actions
Glenn Picher, 24 May 2015
- Does fear of the future play an outsized role in our decision making?
- Are we open to viewing the human future hopefully rather than fearfully, considering the trend lines of progress in human welfare that we in the developed world have recently enjoyed?
- Do we also fear, in some reasonable balance, the consequences of denying access to what has powered our own prosperity to the rest of the world? Our widely available and reliable energy infrastructure, historically dependent on the affordability of fossil fuels, has made possible:
- modern sanitation and copious safe drinking water;
- cooking and heating technologies that don’t choke and kill;
- resilient construction techniques that save lives in natural disasters;
- enhanced agricultural productivity and food availability; and
- refrigeration to improve nutrition and preserve vaccines that save lives.
- Will current international relationships of resource disparity, long understood to be an occasion of war, be cemented in place by people of privilege setting a harder path to prosperity for the rest of the world? (International development assistance for energy infrastructure is increasingly limited to alternative energy technologies with higher relative costs and lower carbon dioxide emissions than what the developed world expects of itself. This seems to be an unjust product of a political culture of the privileged world that too highly fears CO emissions.)
- Are we mindful of the occasional temptations we face to exaggerate certain fears over others, beyond a reasonable basis in fact, to promote the particular actions we desire? Are we aware when we are vulnerable to other people affecting us when succumbing to this temptation?
- How do we translate our highest priority values, such as environmental stewardship, concern for our children’s future, or global economic justice, into specific effective actions to take– this one, but not that one?
- Do we believe the actions that we currently prefer are the only defensible means to put our moral and ethical values into action?
- Do we imagine that those who oppose such actions, or who are as of yet unready to undertake them, must value the environment, love their children or seek justice any less than we do?
- Do our moral and ethical values impel us not simply to do “something, anything,” but to do something actually likely to work, without doing more harm than good?
- Have we valued thoughtful and searching moral and ethical consideration of the undesirable impacts or possible ineffectiveness of our proposed actions, in a reasonable balance with what we hope our actions can accomplish? To follow our leadings of the heart, do we broadly enough also engage our heads, looking from all other morally necessary perspectives?
- Do we unjustly value the uncertain future suffering due to a warmer climate of people of distant generations more than the certain and known suffering of the poor who are with us now?
- Would justice have demanded that the poor of the Dust Bowl generation sacrifice more of themselves– or that the privileged people of those days make that choice for them– in order to render our more prosperous and resilient generation even more secure?
- Will the quite possibly better-off future generations look back on our values and actions on climate more surely with admiration, or sadness?
- How would someone like Woody Guthrie, who sang on behalf of rural electrification in lifting up the poor of his day, look forward in time to our current choices?
- Do we consider the insight of scientific research and reasoning, without mistaking it for Truth?
- Do we consider a breadth of scientific perspectives outside of the materials closest at hand or most consonant with our current thinking?
- Do we seek scientific evidence of both the costs and the benefits of a warmer climate, avoiding a bias in our attention to confirm only the worst news? There is scientific evidence that–
- fatalities in cold weather exceed those in hot weather by a factor of twenty, which would be fortunate for a warming world;
- food production has improved, forest land has rebounded, and satellite photos show the world greening in step with recently rising CO
- methane, which tends to warm the climate far more than carbon dioxide, does not seem to be emerging from the Arctic permafrost or ocean bed at dangerous levels, as had been feared (with more recent research suggesting it is not likely to in the future);
- the accretion of coral growth on low lying islands, based on the geological record and from current measurements, seems to be well able to keep pace with sea level rise (perhaps the very reason these islands have come to exist at sea level now).
- Do our preferred policies recognize and accommodate divergent national interests that flow from measurably different distributions of these costs and benefits (especially considering nations’ different current levels of poverty and infrastructure development), or do they unwisely presuppose a global uniformity of thought and purpose?
- Do we respect scientists’ warnings about their limits of knowledge in accurately modelling and predicting climate impacts on the regional scales necessary to plan locally appropriate policies (for instance, whether the U.S. East Coast should now be preparing for more snow or drought)?
- Are we mindful of the differences in degree of certainty of, for instance, the physics of the atmosphere, in relation to how much we can surely know about future social behavior of relevance to the actions we support? For instance,
- the likely political attainability, nationally or internationally, of the policies we would prefer, in light of many years of experience so far trying and failing to attain them;
- the possibility of their future circumvention by powerful corporate or national actors, or even by the powerless, with whose interests these policies may not fully align;
- the possibility of their vitiation or reversal by the next election season’s political winners;
- the plausibility of accurately projecting the full range of economic impacts and changes in consumption that flow from them over the decades; or
- the impact on the workability of such policies of completely unpredicted changes in the natural world, cultural landscape, international military and diplomatic alignments, or technological developments.
- Do we assign undeserved authority to the opinions of, for example, atmospheric physicists, in fields of scientific or social knowledge well outside their expertise, or grant undue privilege to their preferred human values and policy directions?
- Do we value reports of scientific consensus more highly than scientists themselves do?
- While science is an inherently social enterprise (because it depends on the trustworthy communication of the reproducible results of testing falsifiable theories), its value as a method of truth seeking derives from its findings, not from the social consensus among its practitioners. Scientific history is replete with discarded hypotheses that were once consensus. Scientists themselves respect this; for instance, Richard Feynman’s catchy definition of science was “the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
- Scientific societies issuing position statements is a rather modern development, not a general scientific practice. That this has become more common in climate studies than other scientific fields is viewed by many scientists as a problematic aberration, because
it puts a political project to attain consensus in the place of scientific truth seeking itself.
- Statements indicating an urgent consensus have sometimes been drafted by activist but non-scientist staff of such societies, and never submitted for approval to the scientist membership. The dearth of contrary position statements from scientific societies–
- may indicate some degree of scientific dissent to the very idea that science can’t speak for itself without resort to consensus; and
- should not surprise anybody, since you can not sensibly count and compare how often non-activist scientists have lacked enough motivation to get their societies to issue unified statements of the topics they don’t agree on.
- Have we considered alternative readings of the sociological studies that are frequently mischaracterized as indicating something like a 97% consensus of all scientists or scientific papers supporting specific climate change actions? For instance,
- the trivial nature of the questions posed, such that nearly every scientist who is doubtful of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change is counted as concurring;
- carbon dioxide never being cited in questions as the causal factor, such that scientists’ assessment of the impacts of land and water use, deforestation, agriculture, and particulate pollution are all lumped in together with CO levels;
- specific policy solutions like a carbon tax never being mentioned in the questions, meaning they were never opined upon by surveyed scientists;
- the elimination of responses from scientists who did not self-identify first as climate scientists, or who had not recently enough published in select climate-related journals (resulting in the consensus being calculated only among about seventy responding scientists out of many thousands); and
- more straightforward questions and methodologies reporting a far lower percentage of consensus that humans are primarily responsible for a warming world (about 59% of the members of the American Meteorological Society).
- Do we give due moral weight to the historical reality, and ongoing possibility, of the catastrophic failure in human terms of mistaken scientific consensus? (For instance, eugenics, the science of racial purity and improvement, had an institutional home in a great many U.S. colleges and universities in the early 20th century, with nearly four hundred courses enrolling more than 20,000 students. Eugenics enjoyed the support of notable Quakers such as Maine’s own Prof. Henry Goddard of East Vassalboro, a graduate of Haverford, principal of Quaker schools, and
scientific researcher who concluded that 83% of immigrant Jews were “feeble-minded.” Eugenics became a project of political consensus, was an American intellectual export to Germany before World War II, and produced with minimal Congressional opposition the discriminatory Immigration Act of 1924, which was not reversed until 1965.)
- Do we consider the distortions of scientific process and public policy that can result from large disparities in earmarked institutional, governmental and foundation funding and support for specific scientific research topics, as was warned about for instance by President Eisenhower?
- Do we appreciate and accommodate in our decision making the different degrees of insight, usefulness and proximity to scientific truth-seeking that emerge from the different steps of the prevailing climate science research and policy environment (the UNFCCC’s IPCC) —
- scientists’ original research;
- panels of appointed scientists assessing and summarizing such current research;
- the summarizing for policy makers by non-scientist appointees of national governments of the contents of such scientific summaries (arrived at by vote, sometimes resulting in redrafting of the scientific assessments);
- the reporting by non-scientist mass media outlets on such summaries for policymakers;
- the interpretation and call to political action of motivated non-scientist citizens in response to such reporting?
- How can we know whether climate change deserves to be in a position of privilege as the most important problem we face, whether within our Meeting or in the larger political order?
- What is the likelihood, both scientifically and politically, that a warming world is truly an existential crisis, and that emissions mitigation policies are still capable of reversing it?
- While humanity can work on more than one problem at a time, how might certain actions on climate impede simultaneous or complementary action on other issues? For instance,
- due to privileged concern for CO emissions, disallowing fossil fueled electrical or gas cooking to replace the dung fires that kill somewhere around a half a million poor people annually, due to indoor air pollution;
- spending an undue proportion of limited global wealth on decarbonization, limiting resources available for other priorities; and
- monopolizing human attention, causing compassion fatigue and inability to
summon political will for other significant issues.
- Is it prudent to bet the future on only one number on the roulette wheel– to put all of humanity’s eggs in the one basket of minimizing CO emissions? Globally improved prosperity that could flow from continuing to allow some fossil fuel usage could improve adaptability and survivability, especially that of the poor, in the face of multiple threats– earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, disease, war and others unknown.
- Does the position of privilege of people who support climate action, in terms for example of social class or ethnic background, confer the undue privilege of agenda setting for climate change as an issue? (Recent public opinion research indicates that climate action is considered a low priority by the large majority of Americans, even among those who say they are supportive of environmental protection. It’s also ranked last among sixteen issues by continental Africans.)
- Do some alternative energy policies deliver unjust privileges? For instance–
- large regressive tax credits to the tune of many thousands of dollars for families able to afford electric or hybrid automobiles, even luxury electric sports cars, thus transferring wealth from the poor to the rich;
- net metering (the mandated parity pricing of electricity produced and consumed at different sites, or at power-producing and power-consuming times of day) externalizing the costs of the electrical distribution system for solar farm and solar home customers onto less wealthy ratepayers, an ultimately unsustainable practice; or
- allocations of government funds to large alternative energy installations such as wind, redistributing wealth disproportionately to landowners and investors.
- Is our Meeting the right or only place to express political consensus for climate action?
- Are our actions and rhetoric on climate issues consistent with respect for that of Light in everyone, or do they tend to devalue others by for instance–
- attributing insincerity, moral compromise or denial to those reaching other conclusions;
- using the language of war, such as “public enemy #1” and “crimes against humanity”; or
- imposing social ostracism, through divestment or otherwise, on the people who produce the fossil fuels we all continue to use and depend on every day, even if only indirectly?
- Is our Meeting truly in a diseased state of “paralysis” if we are not moved to take unified action on climate? (We do not prevent members or committees from acting outside full Meeting approval.)