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Tragedy of Our Times – Why Climate Change is Such a Wicked Problem



With COP21 in full swing in Paris, I thought I’d postpone any discussion of Canada’s contribution, or of the result of that conference, and instead present some thoughts on why climate change is the most wicked of wicked environmental problems, and why it has taken us so long to get to this point. And saying that, I know that after Paris we will all know that we have a lot further to go.

1. Tragedy of the Commons – Why the management of natural resources frequently fails to be sustainable.

There are abundant examples of renewable natural resources collapsing. Renewable resources are items like fish or timber or water, in contrast to non-renewable resources like gold or oil. Within human lifetimes, properly managed renewable resource can multiply through growth and reproduction, replacing those individual items that are harvested. In this way, harvest can be perpetual. Except, mostly they are not.

Given that it must be in our self-interest to manage renewable resources so they are perpetually available, given that we invest in management science and policy to achieve such sustainability, why do we fail so frequently?

An important part of the complex answer is the tragedy of the commons. That term was coined in 1968 in a landmark paper in the journal Science, by Garrett Hardin, of University of California at Santa Barbara. By this term, Hardin was referring to a problem that is more technically defined as the problem of management of a common pool resource. A common pool resource is one that is shared. For reasons buried in history, many societies have designed their use of renewable resources as a process in which individual harvesters make use of a common pool resource. Also, by historical convention, natural resources – both renewable and non – are conventionally without economic value until such time as they are harvested. The fish in the ocean have no value until they are caught and brought to market. Water has no value until it is fed into a pipe to be used. Trees have no value until they are felled and converted to timber products, and oil has no value until it is extracted.

Now, we do not treat all natural resources this way, and there is no fundamental reason why any should be managed this way. For example, the mining industry usually treats minerals in the ground as an unvalued resource, but individual miners can purchase the right to prospect in particular likely locations, and if they find the minerals, they can assess the quantity present, and then develop a notional market value for them which they can place on their balance sheets as an asset even before they dig them out of the ground. That is what oil reserves are – oil that has been moved from the common pool into the hands of a particular individual, even though it has not yet been extracted from the ground. Many forestry management programs and a growing number of fishery management programs operate similarly, with individual harvesters purchasing the right to fish, or fell trees, in a particular place.

Garrett Hardin describes the problem faced by the farmers of a pastoral English village:
The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.

  1. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.
  2. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of 1 {if there were 100 herdsmen, the addition of one cow has a cost of 1/100 to the farmer adding the cow}.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Some would say that this is a platitude. Would that it were! In a sense, it was learned thousands of years ago, but natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial. The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers…..

….. In an approximate way, the logic of the commons has been understood for a long time, perhaps since the discovery of agriculture or the invention of private property in real estate. But it is understood mostly only in special cases which are not sufficiently generalized. Even at this late date, cattlemen leasing national land on the western ranges demonstrate no more than an ambivalent understanding, in constantly pressuring federal authorities to increase the head count to the point where overgrazing produces erosion and weed-dominance. Likewise, the oceans of the world continue to suffer from the survival of the philosophy of the commons. Maritime nations still respond automatically to the shibboleth of the ‘freedom of the seas.’ Professing to believe in the ‘inexhaustible resources of the oceans,’ they bring species after species of fish and whales closer to extinction.”

Garrett Hardin goes on to note that pollution problems are, in a sense, the tragedy of the commons in reverse. Here, each individual polluter puts his/her waste materials into the environment which acts as a commons to receive, and hopefully process those wastes. With few polluters all is well. But as the amount of pollution grows, it comes to overwhelm the capacity of the environment to process it. And, no individual polluter faces the full cost of the damage his/her pollution is causing – that damage and cost is shared across all polluters and all other individuals in the society.

Back when the human population was counted in millions or fewer, the tragedy of the commons was not a factor. We still occasionally overfished, over harvested, or over polluted, but we did so very locally, and the usual solution was just to move to some place new. As our population has grown, as the extent of our use of natural resources has grown, as the amount of pollution has grown, we now find ourselves causing damage everywhere. The commons is collapsing and there is no place new to move.

2. Beyond the Commons: The paradox that is management of environment

While the tragedy of the commons describes one particular problem that frequently arises in the management of resource exploitation or pollution, there are additional issues that make environmental management a weak aspect of governance in societies set up like ours.

We all live in an environment, and depend on that environment in a number of ways for food, shelter, other material wants or needs. Our quality of life, and I suspect, our degree of contentment – spiritual and otherwise – depend on that environment.

Too many of us are unaware of this essential dependence on our environment, but our communities, our societies, and our nations have all evolved ways of acting to ensure (to some degree) that environment continues to provide the goods and services we seek. In small communities, as well as in nations, one aspect of governance is to provide management of environment. Mostly that management is a set of processes to manage our impacts on our environment, rather than to manage the operations of the environment directly. (Our impacts include our extractive uses and our disposal of wastes, but in addition they include our destruction of habitat to serve our own needs for farms, factories, houses, parking lots and roads, our intrusions into the lives of other organisms unable to tolerate our presence, and increasingly our willingness to engage in terraforming on a magnificent scale.) Ideally, our management should ensure that our impacts are limited sufficiently to sustain the functioning of the natural processes inherent to the environment, and necessary if the environment is to continue to provide the goods and services we require.

A major problem in the world of today is that our mechanisms for managing environment are commonly weak. I suggest they are far weaker than our mechanisms for managing most other components of our lives and the effectiveness with which our communities function.

Structural reasons for weak environmental management

All aspects of government can be weaker than desired because of personnel management regimes that fail to achieve best performance, because of corruption, because of failures of leadership to articulate desired goals, and because of lack of vision and effective planning. I’m here concerned with additional reasons for weakness that are specific to environmental management.

As communities grow in size and complexity, eventually becoming nations, they take on a growing range of management activities and create government and a civil service to accomplish these goals, thereby permitting growing numbers of their members to spend their lives in other pursuits. In addition to managing our impacts on environment, communities manage defense, provision of food and water, health care, education, and enforcement of established law to govern the effective operation of the economy, business and industry, while resolving the inevitable conflicts among corporate bodies and/or individuals within the group.

With one exception, for each of these types of governmental management, missions and objectives can be clearly stated. Individuals charged with managing health care seek out ways to best use available funds to improve health in the community, and compete within government to grow funds to support their needs. Individuals charged with managing defense, or enforcing established law, seek to deploy their available resources to best meet threats, while competing with other branches of government to increase financial support for their activities also. This is not the case for environmental management.
There are two parts to the problem. First, environmental management, in order to prevent deleterious impacts on the environment, involves preventing some or all members of the community from doing things they would otherwise have done. An environmental manager seeks to use available funds to put the best possible management actions in place, while competing with other branches of government for funding. But the environmental manager regularly finds him- or herself in conflict with other branches of government and with members of the community because the management actions are increasing costs or reducing opportunities for some sectors of the community. (I’ll call these Type 1 conflicts.) These increased costs or reduced opportunities seem to have no commensurate benefits because they are being forced by actions that will simply preserve the environmental status quo. The environmental costs that are being avoided are uncertain future costs, frequently unquantified, and saving them provides no monetary benefit to any part of the community.

Second, the governance structure for environmental management is frequently attached to the structure designed to care for particular sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, fisheries, forestry or mining. Caring for one of these economic sectors involves taking steps to ensure sustainability of employment and of production of the economic goods that sector provides, steps that can be directly in conflict with the needs for environmental management unless both environmental and sectoral economic sustainability are viewed on a common, and long-term time frame. (I’ll call these within-agency conflicts Type 2.) Type 2 conflicts exist within a government department, while Type 1 conflicts arise between departments of government. There is a second difference between the Type 2 conflict involving food production and environmental sustainability, for example, and the Type 1 conflict that might arise between policies for health care, say, and defense. The benefit provided by wise environmental management is seldom formally part of the economic and budget process, and is therefore invisible and not easily weighed against that from enhanced food production, for example. By contrast, the benefits provided by effective health care or effective defense can each be part of formal economic analysis and measurable. In both Type 1 and Type 2 conflicts, our failure (nearly universally among societies) to properly value the costs of environmental degradation, and the benefits of sustaining environmental quality has created the problem. This failure to value is a major part of why environmental management is weak.

An additional complication intervenes in many larger communities. Perhaps because environmental management is not seen as a core essential government service, the responsibility for environmental management gets distributed among government departments with a diversity of core mandates. Thus some aspects of environmental management may be the responsibility of a Department of Agriculture, a Ministry of Natural Resources, a Division of Fisheries, a Bureau of Land Management, or a Department of Biodiversity and Conservation. Not only are there opportunities for Type 2 conflicts within each of these agencies, there are opportunities for Type 1 conflicts among them, and between any of them and other agencies of government. If we consider larger nations, the situation is made even more complex by the division of responsibilities for environmental management across tiers of government as well as among agencies within tiers. Don’t even think about the problem of managing environment shared by countries, yet managing the oceans, for example, or the atmosphere, is inherently a trans-national task.

Another issue: Thinking like a civil servant

As an academic scientist, I have always been free to think about environmental problems untrammeled. If there is a question concerning water quality, I can happily think about possible causes of poor quality ranging from industrial or agricultural activities upstream, inadequacies in waste management, aerial deposition of pollutants from far away, and resuspension of pollutants from contaminated sediments being exposed by some natural or human-induced change in flow pattern. I can also think about consequences for biota, for humans, and for ecological processes. By contrast, a civil servant with the same educational qualifications and knowledge base as I have must begin by asking, ”Is water quality within my terms of reference?”, and “Are things happening to cause poor water quality within the jurisdiction for which I have responsibility?” If the answer to either question is ‘No’, that terminates consideration. Government agencies rarely have the time or resources to consider problems for which they lack a mandate, and nor should they do so. But the result of this is that the civil servants become accustomed to the blinkers that the governmental structure places on them, and problems needing solutions fall into the cracks.

Accustomed to deal only with those problems that legitimately fall onto one’s desk, and to not raise one’s eyes to look around, it also becomes easy for the government employee, confronted by a Type 2 conflict, to cast a quiet vote in favor of short-term economic gain instead of long-term environmental gain, if that seems to be the way the wind is blowing in his/her department that year. Workers in governments in which environmental responsibilities are distributed across agencies will also tend to solve Type 1 conflicts without putting up much fight on behalf of environment if the leadership seems bent on cutting taxes, preserving jobs, or any of the other simple goals that predominate in thinking by most governments at present.

The commonly heard statement “We do not have authority to do that” may well be factual, but it is too frequently used as an easy way to deal with an environmental problem that does not clearly fit into an agency mandate. Using it deals with the problem only in the sense that it removes it from the desktop, and governments have been slow to create agencies whose job it is to articulate the needs of the environment. Meanwhile environments degrade, and we all wonder why this is happening.

3. The particular problems of climate change

Climate change is what is formally known as a wicked problem. It has the worst attributes of an environmental issue, being at its simplest an air pollution problem which is global in scope, so cannot be dealt with except through an effort involving a large number of countries, each of which has particular pollution activities to address and particular benefits to accrue if success is achieved. The costs and benefits are not distributed uniformly, per capita, or fairly among countries – some risk disappearing from view under a rising ocean while others risk somewhat less, some have available abundant non-polluting sources of energy while others are less well endowed with these, and some are in a pattern of population/economic growth that demands continuing increases in energy use while others are at a more stable rate of energy use. These factors make achieving the cooperation necessary to find a solution very difficult.

Given that the world does not have, and does not want, a global government capable of requiring action, the only approach to building the international collaboration to act on climate that has been attempted is to develop a UN treaty. Treaty negotiations are, by convention and practice, a form of negotiation in which every participating country seeks to maximize gains and minimize its costs. A treaty to work to limit climate change is one where the costs are very evident and the gains are future possibilities that will only accrue if all (or a sufficiently large set) countries commit to act and then follow through. A UN treaty around an environmental issue is unlikely to have real teeth to ensure compliance into the future, yet to be effective, this agreement needs to be very long-term. The treaty on acid rain involved only Europe, North America and Japan, but took 20 years to negotiate. It took the world 30 years to negotiate a treaty called the Law of the Sea, some countries including the USA have still not signed on, and disputes such as the one festering in the South China Sea still occur. Climate is more complicated than acid rain or shared use of the ocean.

Climate change is happening exceedingly rapidly by comparison to any changes in climate in the geological past, but it is still a very slow process by human standards. The benefits that accrue if change is slowed accumulate slowly, well past the time of the next election (or even the next overthrow of a dictator), and they are chiefly benefits in the form of costs averted. Who is to say, with any great degree of precision, how much the cost of coastal protection will be in Canada over the rest of this century with and without climate change brought under control? Or the cost of agricultural water supply? Or the cost of forest management? Or the cost of weather-related public health? The costs of acting are more immediate and more measurable – costs of new infrastructure, costs of early closedown of existing energy infrastructure, costs of stranded energy-sector assets. Assessing these costs is particularly difficult when our economies have developed under a paradigm that does not include environmental services or damage to these in the economic balance sheet. It is also difficult when we live within a paradigm that sees humanity, our societies and economies, as outside the rest of the biosphere.
For these reasons, as well as for all the other issues that make environmental management problematic, the climate change problem is probably the most complex problem humanity has ever tackled. It would be very difficult to solve, even if there was universal agreement that it should.

4. The Science of Climate Change

Before talking about the politics of climate change, I want to set out the basic science. The first three following statements (A, B, C) are as incontrovertible, as universally accepted within the science community, as any scientific statements can be. They are comparable, in degree of certainty, to statements such as ‘gravity causes apples to fall to earth’, ‘the earth is round’, ‘water freezes at 0oC’, or ‘the many species of organism that now exist are related through evolution to each other and to numerous ancestors over at least 3.5 Billion years on this planet’. The fourth statement (D) is a logical deduction from the first three, and includes information on how climate models are used to test this deduction. The final statement (E) is the choice humanity now faces.

A. Our atmosphere is a mixture of gases, some of which are differentially transparent to shorter wavelength (light) radiation while being less transparent to longer wavelength (heat) radiation. These gases allow light from the sun to enter and be absorbed by objects (molecules to mountains), but tend to trap the re-emitted heat that otherwise would be radiated back into space. In this way they act much like glass in a greenhouse and are termed greenhouse gases (GHG). GHGs include CO2, Methane, Water vapor, Nitrous oxide and Ozone. Their presence explains why temperatures on Earth average 10oC while those on Mars average -62oC.


B. Direct measurements since 1958 have established that the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere has increased continuously (except for a seasonal cycle due to differential photosynthesis).

This image is from NOAA ESRL website, is updated monthly, and is available for free download. The black line is the graph of annual mean CO2 concentration, while the red line depicts the trend in the monthly mean concentration. The wiggle in the red line is due to the earth ‘breathing’ as photosynthesis increases in the northern spring and declines in the northern fall.


Less direct measurements such as samples from air bubbles in ice cores have extended these measurements back 420,000 years (The Vostok ice core, Antarctica). Less direct proxies can extend estimates of CO2 in the atmosphere back at least 500 million years, though with less precision further back. CO2 concentration has been a lot higher than it is now at some times in the distant past, just as temperatures have fluctuated, however CO2 is not the only driver of temperature so in the distant past the relationship between CO2 and temperature is not always the same as today. Ice core measurements show that CO2 was at about 280 ppm at 1750. It now exceeds 400 ppm. Methane and Nitrous Oxide concentrations have also increased over this time span. Here I quote from Chapter 6 of Working Group 1 Report in the IPCC 4th Assessment in 2007 and include their Figure 6.4:

The present atmospheric concentrations of CO2, CH4 and nitrous oxide (N2O) are higher than ever measured in the ice core record of the past 650 kyr (Figures 6.3 and 6.4). The measured concentrations of the three greenhouse gases fluctuated only slightly (within 4% for CO2 and N2O and within 7% for CH4) over the past millennium prior to the industrial era, and also varied within a restricted range over the late Quaternary. Within the last 200 years, the late Quaternary natural range has been exceeded by at least 25% for CO2, 120% for CH4 and 9% for N2O. All three records show effects of the large and increasing growth in anthropogenic emissions during the industrial era. Variations in atmospheric CO2 dominate the radiative forcing by all three gases (Figure 6.4). The industrial era increase in CO2, and in the radiative forcing (Section 2.3) by all three gases, is similar in magnitude to the increase over the transitions from glacial to interglacial periods, but started from an interglacial level and occurred one to two orders of magnitude faster (Stocker and Monnin, 2003). There is no indication in the ice core record that an increase comparable in magnitude and rate to the industrial era has occurred in the past 650 kyr”.

IPCC AR4 WG1 fig-6-4

IPCC WG1 AR4, Figure 6.4. The concentrations and radiative forcing by (a) CO2, (b) CH4 and (c) nitrous oxide (N2O), and (d) the rate of change in their combined radiative forcing over the last 20 kyr reconstructed from Antarctic and Greenland ice and firn data (symbols) and direct atmospheric measurements (red and magenta lines). The grey bars show the reconstructed ranges of natural variability for the past 650 kyr (Caption edited from original).

The pattern and steepness of all three curves in recent past is unmatched anywhere in the 650,000 year record. It can only be explained as emissions due to human activities (with small additions due to volcanos and natural forest fire).

C. Mann’s ‘hockey stick curve’ used direct measurements, ice core data, and less direct proxies such as tree rings to set out temperature on the planet for the last 2000 years. This plot also shows a period of ~10,000 years of relatively uniform temperatures followed by a steep rise with industrialization. (While the hockey stick curve has been relentlessly attacked by deniers, it is still seen as robust science.) The trend in temperature over this time period is explained by the increases in GHG concentrations, and particularly (almost entirely) by the changes in CO2. It cannot be explained by any of the other factors known to influence climate.
Bloomberg trend in global temperature and drivers (animation)

This image is a screen-grab from an animation in an article by Roston & Migliozzi, published on-line by Bloomberg Business. It shows clearly that when all the known drivers of climate are considered, they accurately account for climate change observed since 1880, but the contribution from CO2 is responsible for the great majority of the change that has occurred.


D. It is a reasonable assumption that if we go on emitting CO2 and Methane, atmospheric concentrations will continue to rise and global temperature will also continue to rise. A warmer world is a world in which sea level rises, ice melts, weather patterns are disrupted, and weather systems become more violent. Global Climate Models, which are highly complex computational models, can replicate the observed trends in climate over the recent past with considerable accuracy. Validated in this way, they can be used to project into the future, making specified assumptions about our global economy and therefore our releases of CO2, Methane, N2O. The future climates they project can be treated as scientifically-based estimates of what the actual future climate is most likely to resemble if we do emit as assumed in the model runs. The 20-odd different models, developed in different climate research centers around the world show considerable agreement in behavior, giving reason for confidence in their projections for the future.

E. The projections from global climate models give considerable reason for concern. Not only will business as usual be likely to usher in unacceptable change in climate, there is the real risk of positive feedbacks getting set up (such as if warming leads to the release of vast stores of methane trapped in permafrost, or in deep sea clathrates) that would push climate well beyond even tolerable bounds. If humanity decides that there is value in keeping climate close to what it has been throughout human history, we could do this by reducing our emissions of GHGs. There is no other plausible way to stop warming. We have a decision to make, and the science tells us that failing to act is a risky choice.

5. The Politics of Climate Change

Major aspects of current economies result in emissions of greenhouse gases. Our global energy needs (which grow each year due to growing economies and growing population) are served primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, and modern transportation, in particular, is heavily dependent on use of fossil fuels. Our land use practices, including removal of forests, farming methods that keep land fallow through part of the year, and maintenance of large herds of livestock fed on corn, also result in a net emission of greenhouse gases.

Changing a society in fundamental ways is always difficult, and shifting away from use of fossil fuels, or current land use and food production methods is a substantial change. To be effective in reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, all (or most) societies have to make these changes. For some this will be relatively easy; for others difficult. The benefits that accrue are not necessarily equivalent to the costs of emissions reduction for each country, so there will be winners and losers.

The nature of the agreement being sought on emissions (a treaty among many nations with minimal penalties for failure to comply) makes agreement difficult to secure, and makes compliance difficult to ensure. For all these reasons, reaching agreement, and being successful, would be extremely difficult even if all countries were strongly committed to act. But they are not, and there are people willing to provide justification for not acting.

Politics between nations

Reasons for not wanting to limit emissions:

  • A country has an economy strongly dependent on fossil fuel extraction and/or refining.
  • A country lacks access to alternative fuels such as hydro or nuclear
  • A country is in a development phase in which growth in energy demand is very high
  • A society has a strong tradition of food type and production, and no obvious way to retain this tradition while reducing emissions

In such circumstances, that country could be very resistant to joining a treaty to reduce emissions. It will want concessions from others to sweeten the choice. This is the first, and simplest kind of politics of climate change. A good example at present is India, which is experiencing considerable growth in energy use and a rapidly growing population, has its own coal, but little hydro.

Politics by business

While Walmart tops the list for 2014, bumping Exxon-Mobil down to 4th place, the top 10 largest companies worldwide, as listed on the Forbes Fortune 500, include seven in the fossil fuel business, and two automotive companies. Here is the list:

1. Walmart – retail
2. Sinopec Group – China, oil exploration/refining
3. Royal Dutch Shell – oil exploration/refining
4. CNPC-China National Petroleum – oil exploration/refining
5. Exxon-Mobil – oil exploration/refining
6. British Petroleum – oil exploration/refining
7. State Grid – China, electricity utility using coal plus other sources
8. Volkswagen – automotive
9. Toyota Motor – automotive
10. Glencore – Switzerland, oil exploration/refining

Economically, each of these corporations is larger than many of the world’s nations, and economic might brings political power. With the exception (perhaps) of Walmart, they are all heavily invested in the global economy as it is currently structured, with fossil fuels as the primary energy source and the internal combustion engine as the primary motor for transportation. It is in the self-interest of each to resist a radical change in either of these aspects of life. In most countries, and especially in the USA, big business has very considerable influence on government.

Ownership in these massive corporations (plus many others high on the Forbes list) is widely distributed among individual shareholders, who also might have powerful self-interest in not changing the fundamentals of our economy too quickly. It should not be surprising if many elements of the business community argue against any moves to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The wealthier individuals among the shareholder community have the most to lose if formerly valuable investments become devalued quickly, and wealthy individuals in most countries have considerable influence on government.

Politics by individuals who are unable to accept the science

Apart from individuals with economic interests in the status quo economy, societies include individuals who for one or another reason cannot accept the reality of the science on climate change. Some of these have strong religious beliefs that prevent them accepting the possibility of a world that would become difficult to live in – the universe was created for humanity – or accepting the possibility that a loving god will fail to take care of them. Some others have strong religious beliefs that teach them the world is approaching its end and they should look forward to what will follow.

Other individuals have deep faith in the balance of nature, and are unable to believe that our activities could possibly disturb the planets basic functioning. These individuals have great faith in the existence of cycles of one sort or another, and believe that even if climate is currently warming it will cool again (before it is too late) because the universe is a place that does not change fundamentally, at least here on Earth. Their faith in the balance of nature can be as strong as the faith of any deeply religious person despite the fact that they, and the rest of us, are all perched on a rocky orb hurtling through space on a path and at a speed that is totally outside our control.

Other individuals, either because they do not think very deeply about such things or because they genuinely believe that maintaining the health of our economy is paramount, refuse to consider taking steps that they think will damage economic growth, even if those steps have a good chance of preventing environmental/climate change.

All three groups are susceptible to arguments for not adopting changes in our behavior in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They enthusiastically embrace any suggestion that the science of climate change may not be ‘complete’, ‘fully settled’, or ‘absolutely beyond question’, forgetting that it is the nature of science to never be any of these.

Politics of climate change

Some have suggested that there is a conspiracy among climate scientists, environmentalists and the UN to foist the hoax of climate change on us, in order to destroy the free-market economy and usher in a new era of socialism. This conspiracy is farcical for many reasons: What do the perpetrators of the hoax gain? If the data on CO2 concentrations are part of the hoax, it was started in 1958 – how old were today’s climate scientists then? How do you plan a hoax with the entire climate science community part of the plan to misinform? Did the scientific community get together in a giant hoax just so Al Gore would be able to earn large speaking fees in his post-VP years?

In contrast to this non-hoax, there has been a common interest, and perhaps some cooperation and collaboration among various interest groups that believe they stand to lose if we tackle climate change, to cast doubt on the science, on the projections of future climate, on the veracity of the individuals engaged in bringing this information to the community, and to argue that we should do nothing to respond to climate change until there is incontrovertible evidence that we must act. This movement has been called a denialist campaign, a denialist conspiracy, but that perhaps creates a sense of more unity of purpose than actually exists. For a variety of reasons there are large numbers of people, some rich and powerful, who do not want to change the status quo. Their actions have seriously impeded progress to reduce emissions.

The effort to argue against the need to act has been helped by two things: the inherent complexity of the climate story, and the efforts of the media to achieve ‘balance’ in their reporting. Explaining climate is not something that can be done in a few sentences. While the effort to achieve balance is laudable, the media have increasingly been tokenizing this effort, being content to have quotes from one or two people on the side of the science, and one or perhaps two others taking an opposing view. The credentials of the various people quoted are rarely dissected in any detail.

The UN first discussed climate change at the first Earth Summit held in Stockholm in 1972. The IPCC was formed late in 1988, and in 1989, the UN General Assembly approved the effort to develop a Framework Convention on Climate Change. Climate discussions continued at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and 158 nations signed on to the Framework Convention protocol. Now, 23 years further down the road, countries are meeting in Paris. While Paris looks likely to bring some successes, it is already clear that there is still a long way to go before the world is on a path that is likely to keep climate change manageable. And still there are large numbers of people, organizations and countries resisting every step of the way.

The politics of climate change have been well researched in a book by the University of California at San Diego historian of science, Naomi Oreskes, “Merchants of Doubt” published in 2010 by Bloomsbury Press. They are also well described in a remarkably non-polemic publication, available for download from the Greenpeace website.
The story involves wealthy investors such as the David and Charles Koch who (through Koch Industries) support a number of right-wing causes in the US, including the denialist agenda through a veritable octopus of difficult to trace funding links to organizations such as the Heartland Institute, Americans for Prosperity, the Fraser Institute, the Cato Institute and many others. Funds then move to support individual spokespersons, and conferences and workshops, to lobby politicians, and to generate media releases that attack the science and the scientists. It includes institutions such as Heartland Institute that set up ‘dummy’ conferences with invited speakers who receive significant ‘speaking fees’ for giving speeches attacking the validity of the science or the credibility of the scientists.

The spokespeople for the denialist cause are an interesting set of retired scientists, scientists outside the realm of environmental or climate science, engineers, accountants, economists, indeed almost anybody, from any field, with the PhD degree. Here are a few:

  • Fred Singer – PhD in Physics, government administrator since 1970s until retirement, support from Tobacco, Oil, Heartland
  • Freeman Dyson – renowned theoretical physicist who has taken to speaking out on climate in his old age (now 91).
  • Willie Soon – PhD, Aerospace Engineering, from USC, not affiliated with Harvard, though claims this, claims expertise in sea level rise, support from oil, Heartland
  • Patrick Michaels – PhD from U Wisconsin in agricultural climatology (growth of plants under different conditions), accepts the general climate thesis but says the projections are exaggerated. At the Cato Institute, majority of funding from the oil industry. In 2012, published a report minimizing climate impacts, with a cover that was identical to a new White House report on climate, except for one word: Addendum. Deliberate confusion/obfuscation.
  • Lord Christopher Monckton – degree in classics and a diploma in journalism. He claims expertise in climate science and reports publishing an article in American Physical Society Newsletters – it was a letter to the editor. Yet he was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher. Class matters in the UK.
  • Anthony Watts – attended Purdue in electrical engineering/meteorology, did not graduate, former TV weatherman, active blogger but no expertise.
  • James Delingpole – journalist/blogger on the Daily Telegraph for a number of years, wrote authoritatively, background is in English, not science.
  • Bob Carter – Paleontologist/Geologist, had an adjunct position at James Cook University. Funding from oil and Heartland among others. Was removed from his adjunct (unpaid) position by the university, because of his outspoken denialism.
  • Judith Curry – PhD in Geophysics, from Chicago, initially focused on cautious and critical examination of the science, but shifted to emphasizing all the doubt and arguing that we don’t have a complete answer yet (and like all science, we never will). Is now gaining funding from oil and Heartland.
  • Bjorn Lomborg – PhD in political science from U Copenhagen. Moved from lecturing in statistics in a political science dept of a university to government service (think tank) then back to a university position in a business school from where he launched the Copenhagen Consensus Center. Government funding for the center collapsed in 2012, and he moved it to become a non-profit based in the US. Most recently he was being courted by the Australian govt which tried to force U Western Australia to establish a center for him there. The university resisted successfully. He is a frequent speaker with the message that climate change is happening but it is not as serious as the scientists claim, so we should not act hastily.

This set gives a sense of the variety, from genuine climate scientists to scientists of other specialties, to non-scientist academics to non-experts. Many of them are well linked into the various funding sources. The net result of their activities is to confuse the science, and give the public and politicians exactly the argument they need for not changing from the status quo.

Perhaps it should not be surprising to learn that Fred Singer was an opponent of the arguments that CFCs were causing destruction of the ozone layer, that smoking causes cancer, or that rising CO2 levels are leading to global warming. Philosophically, he believes in free markets and minimal government regulation. What is disturbing is to see the way in which funding from sources wanting to maintain the status quo finds its way to these people, and to realize that many of the individuals involved were also active in Big Tobacco’s long battle to prevent government regulation of cigarettes.

Because it is recent, I close with some comments concerning Exxon-Mobil and climate change denial. This September, the on-line news organization, Inside Climate News, began publishing a series of articles that investigate the performance of Exxon-Mobil with respect to climate change. In six articles from September 9th to October 22nd, these investigators set out the story in considerable detail. To do the story, they investigated internal Exxon documents going back to the mid-1970s.

Over the past year, the Energy and Environmental Reporting Project at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, with the Los Angeles Times, has been researching the gap between Exxon Mobil’s public position and its internal planning on the issue of climate change. Their project required searching thousands of documents housed at Univ. of Texas and at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, as well as reviewing published science and interviewing former employees of Exxon-Mobil. The story of how Exxon-Mobil went from leader to skeptic on climate change was published in the Los Angeles Times on 23rd October 2015.

In this article, the three journalists, Katie Jennings, Dino Grandoni and Suzanne Rust, set out some details of the now familiar plot line. Exxon-Mobil had an active and respected research program on climate change through much of the 1980s, but by 1990 the public stance of the company had altered. While still funding some research, it poured millions into a public campaign that questioned the reality of climate change and urged a go-slow approach by government. The article points to a Board of Directors meeting in 1989 (following the particularly long dry 1988 summer in the US). At that meeting, according to internal documents, the Board was appraised of the reality of climate change as then understood and of the growing pressure for regulatory action – action that would be detrimental to Exxon’s objectives.

In 1989, Exxon scientists and managers began briefing staff at all levels on the policy implications of climate change. The Exxon position was that the science was suggestive, but there was still some uncertainty. Because of this uncertainty in the science, it would be prudent for governments to proceed with caution, rather than risk serious economic disruption for nought. This is essentially the same story provided by the articles at Inside Climate News.

Naomi Oreskes, in an op-ed in the New York Times on 9th October, reports on this story, and comments on how Exxon-Mobil fostered uncertainty. She writes, “Exxon (which became Exxon Mobil in 1999) was a leader in these campaigns of confusion. In 1989, the company helped to create the Global Climate Coalition to question the scientific basis for concern about climate change and prevent the United States from signing on to the international Kyoto Protocol to control greenhouse gas emissions. The coalition disbanded in 2002, but the disinformation continued. Journalists and scientists have identified more than 30 different organizations funded by the company that have worked to undermine the scientific message and prevent policy action to control greenhouse gas emissions.

“These efforts turned the problem from a matter of fact into a matter of opinion. When the Exxon chief executive, Lee Raymond, insisted in the late 1990s that the science was still uncertain, the media covered it, business leaders accepted it and the American people were confused.

These studies are fascinating reading. They make the claims of a conspiracy to create climate confusion that much stronger, and they reveal the power of large corporations and a little bit about how it is wielded. There seems to be a court case coming, which could find Exxon-Mobil in difficulty, much as the tobacco companies were eventually found to be. A new article in Nature Climate Change, by the Yale University sociologist, Justin Farrell, has used advanced statistical methods to examine the pathways for money flow between Exxon-Mobil and the Koch brothers on one hand, and a broad range of recipient individuals and organizations to reveal a tightly clustered group engaged in the business of climate change denial.

It is not surprising that we have not yet solved the climate problem!