What To Do (rev. 7/1/19)


A belief states the way things are. In both the sciences and in liberal democracies, it is not possible to prove for sure that a certain view is correct because the dominant method is bottom-up inductive. Both systems of establishing belief require a certain degree of initial skepticism, to enable one to accurately infer the reality of a changing and complex world, sometimes using statistics. Although there are modern top-down authoritarian political orders that developed from a wish for simpler times, these are not our concern. The looming problem of climate change and the current travails of liberal democracy require dealing well with these complex systems.


In biology, it is obvious that living reality is very complex. In “The Sense of Reality,” Isaiah Berlin wrote, “To be rational in any sphere, to display good judgement in it, is to apply those methods which have turned out to work best in it. What is rational in a scientist is therefore often Utopian in a historian or a politician (that is, it systematically fails to obtain the desired result)…” 1 In a complicated world, it takes experience and craft to find a good solution to a complex problem.

Like the beginning of a tropical hurricane, the first gusts of these winds herald large climate changes in the future:

·       In the words of the 5//21/19 Washington Post, “We’ve already witnessed the undeniable first terrors: the projection fires that erased Paradise, Calif., in a day, the storms that savaged Houston and Puerto Rico, floods in the Midwest, droughts that forced millions to migrate from what used to be called the Fertile Crescent.”


·       The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are beginning to melt. There is a risk to any forecast. But given new data, the models predict increasing sea level rise which, in the worst case, could result in a 6 ½ foot increase by 2100 if emissions continue to be high. This could,  …swamp roughly as much territory around the world as is contained in Western Europe and make 187 million people homeless.” 2  Ten percent of all people generating 10% of gross world product live on a narrow band of land within 33 feet of sea level.3


·       If you still doubt the fact of global warming, consider the widespread 3/19 Midwest floods that have turned this Nebraska highway into a Louisiana bayou. Concerning climate change, do you believe Donald Trump or your ly’in eyes?

The Republican party is totally out of action on this issue. They have no solution to what is likely the largest existential crisis we face. Candidates of the Democratic party, and the rest of the world in the Paris Agreement of 2018, acknowledge climate change and the necessity to limit global warming by limiting carbon. The second figure on this page shows, a zero net carbon goal by 2050  - denoted by the straight line - is consistent with the lowest carbon emissions pathway in the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report. This carbon pathway will keep the global temperature increase below 1.5° C. (The increase is already 1° C above pre-industrial levels.) Below 1.5° C, the earth’s weather extremes will not get much worse. But we have to start carbon emissions reductions in 2020, and start planning now.

If we don’t, our children will live in a much more difficult world.


Why Act?

In a heartfelt book, Falter, Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out, Bill McKibben (2019) writes:

“Climate change is not a normal political negotiation between different interests, where compromise makes obvious sense….Climate change is a negotiation between human beings and physics, and physics doesn’t compromise. Past a certain point, there’s no more room for maneuver….

“And yet, one can’t help but think, We’ve faced problems from hell before.

“In the twentieth century we faced Hitler. Most Americans initially wanted to deny the threat he represented…The eventual effort cost more money than anything anyone had ever done…” 4

According to the FAQ for the Green New Deal, “We invested 40-50% of GDP into our economy during World War 2…we produced 300,000 planes (and lost 400,000 lives)”  5

So what stands in the way of U.S. climate change remedy besides simple inertia?


What Are the Impediments?

The most obvious impediment is those running “The Party of No,” which to them means no (or minimal) government. It appears that simple. But behind this intransigence are more fundamental political forces. The first is the support of populism, which is a distrust of elites who are seen to be unresponsive to the concerns of “the people,” who suffer from the effects of economic change. Here economic and cultural issues intertwine; but economic issues are likely easier to deal with. This is also true in Britain and France. There are also a few populists who, out of frustration, just want to punch someone in the face.

The second force is right-wing businessmen whose business is producing atmospheric carbon, and who want to be free from constraints. One of the major failures of market fundamentalism is the growth of monopoly power. In People, Power and Profits, Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz (2019) writes in great detail how monopoly power results in, “Too little competition – too much power in a few hands…(and) too many individuals with too little income for a decent life...” 6

How is monopoly possible in a democracy? Professor Stiglitz writes:

“…except for the owners of coal, gas, and oil companies, most of the country’s interests should be in doing something about climate change. But just as money has contaminated America’s politics, it has contaminated beliefs more generally. The Koch brothers, oil and gas companies, and other vested interests have managed to hoodwink large parts of American into becoming climate skeptics, just as we noted earlier the cigarette companies, some fifty years ago, persuaded large parts of American into becoming skeptics over the findings that cigarettes were bad for one’s health. The coal companies don’t like the evidence concerning the role of greenhouse gases in climate change any more than the cigarette companies liked the evidence that cigarettes cause cancer and lung and heart diseases.” 7

They both “cast doubt on scientific findings,” (we would say overwhelming scientific opinion) thus manipulating the public’s beliefs in their economic self-interest. 8

It is socially unacceptable to simply declare, “Greed is good.” The author Ayn Rand supplied the ideology. In Bill McKibben’s words, “Her books animated many of the people are who dominated American politics at crucial moments…(her philosophy was) Government is bad. Selfishness is good. Watch out for yourself. Solidarity is a trap. Taxes theft. You’re not the boss of me.” 9  Her books elevated the laissez-faire economic philosophy, “…from the crankish obsession of right-wing economists to the governing credo of Anglo-American capitalism (and of the Reagan administration).” 10 Her followers include Donald Trump who called The Fountainhead (1943) his favorite book, ‘It relates to business and beauty and life and inner emotions (sic)…That book relates to everything.” 11

The British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher once said “There is no such thing as society.” 12 We don’t see how people with this challenged mindset can at all deal with the two major problems U.S. society faces: Climate Change and Inequality, that threaten liberal democracy.


What to Do?

Good leadership requires both personal values and the public values of reason, proportionality and justice (common rules of fairness that enable cooperation). Unlike autocracies, which consist of groups organized top-down to support the goals of the State, liberal democracies consist of voluntary groups acting bottom-up for independent economic, social and cultural reasons. This independence results in the complex social dynamic of change and adaption. 12a In liberal democracies, the political process consists mainly of gaining the support of these voting groups, by convincing people that you have the solution that will benefit them. (As those candidates who go to the Iowa caucuses and New England town hall meetings know.)

In A Thousand Small Sanities, New York magazine writer Adam Gopnik (2019) describes how democratic societies act collectively:

“This is a lesson liberals and the left perpetually forget and have to be perpetually retaught. As (British prime minister) Disraeli put it himself with prescient clarity, ‘In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is, not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, the traditions of the people, or in deference to abstract principles and arbitrary and general doctrines.’” 13  (The French Revolution of 1789 is obviously still reverberating here. The best change comes with consent.)

What is obvious to some is not to others; and concerning matters of great public import such as climate change and gross inequality, the public has to be brought along. Before the United States entered W.W. II, Franklin Roosevelt took several years to prepare the country for this great effort.

In liberal democracies, important components of collective action are public opinion and group support. Public opinion may be diverse and fickle; but once it is formed, liberal democracies are capable of great collective effort, an effort that authoritarian regimes can’t match because their energies are largely directed to suppression.

Take, as an example of necessary group support, the cause of anti-pollution in the State of Washington. On 11/6/18 Washington voters rejected, by a large margin of 56% to 44%, ballot Initiative 1631, that would have imposed a carbon tax that would increase from $15 per ton to maybe $55 per ton, and would have invested the proceeds in clean air, clean water and rural communities. 

What led to this rejection? Economically efficient as carbon taxes (or cap and trade programs) are, they were taxes (disliked by voters), they involved additional government to make the investment (disliked by the Right), and were opposed by the oil companies (Chevron, Phillips, and BP contributed most of the $31M spent in opposition versus the $15MM spent by advocates). 14 Too many people were not on board.

The 5/19/19 WSJ editorial reports that essentially the same set of reasons contributed to the defeat of the Labor Party in Australia. They write, “…caring in abstract isn’t the same as doing something that has tangible costs. Faced with lost jobs, higher taxes and a higher cost of living, voters in democracies time and again have rejected climate-change policies…”


Lieutenant General Russel Honoré was Commander in Chief of Joint Task Force Katrina in 2005. His experience with industrial pollution in Louisiana, he says, radicalized him. He is now an environmental activist. The following is an excerpt from a CNN interview on 5/30/19.

General Honoré:

 …the state’s not helping us. The federal government is not helping us. And we created the Green Army to help give voice.

Paul Salman:

…but how to recruit in such a red state?


If I go in and say, I’m talking about global warming, nobody’s going to listen. They will get up and walk out.


Because that’s such an ideological trigger?


Right. It’s fake news. It’s a hoax. Well, bull—We got pollution.


Which is why the general has taken to the speech circuit to make the larger case.


(concretely) How many people like clean air? How many people like clean, safe water? How many people like their crawfish without any oil on them? (applause!)


We contacted the state’s five largest industry groups about General Honoré’s comments. All declined an on-camera interview.


On 4/22/19 Washington State passed SB 5116, this time with the support of major groups for a much more sophisticated bill that “…aligned the interests of utilities, energy developers, and unions behind the project of equitable decarbonization. They all benefit from it. That makes them allies in the fight, rather than at loggerheads, as they have so often been in the past.” 15

The goal of this bill is for the utilities to generate 100 percent of their electricity from clean sources by 2045. Major provisions of this bill are:

·       For the utilities - A rolling cost cap that stipulates that the incremental cost of compliance cannot exceed 2 percent of the previous year’s electricity revenue. Progress is thus built-in. Furthermore, the utilities will incorporate “the social cost of carbon” into their baseline planning process. Washington produces 68% of its electric energy from hydro sources and 24% of its energy from fossil fuels. 16 The national average for fossil fuels is about 78%. 17 Clearly the U.S. has a way to go.

·       For renewable energy developers – Tax exemption for clean energy projects (which presumably also includes those of the major oil companies), tiered as follows.

·       For the unions – 50% tax exemption for projects that make a good-faith effort to procure products from businesses headed by women, minority, or veteran-owned businesses and from those that have a history of complying with federal and state wage and hour laws and regulations. 75% tax exemption for projects that meet the above criteria and also compensate workers at prevailing wage rates determined by local collective bargaining. 100% tax exemption for projects developed under community workforce or project labor agreements.

·       For low income households - All utilities in the state will make funds available for “energy assistance” to low-income households. 18

We must also crucially note that in 2018 the governor was confronted with a divided legislature. The Republicans had a narrow control of the Senate. The Democrats had control of the House. After the election, in 2019, the Democratic governor had Democratic majorities in both branches and was able to pass this landmark antipollution bill, making Washington one of the four states, and more than 100 cities, that have similar legislation. 19 According to a 12/18 Yale survey, “A majority of Americans are worried about harm from extreme events in their local area including extreme heat, flooding, droughts, and/or water shortages.” We hope they are ready to act through their political representatives.

Which leads to this final point. Global warming and extreme inequality are complex system problems, that require government (however mistrusted by some) to solve. Both have happened before. The first led to the five previous mass extinctions. The second led to extended periods of social chaos. Effective government is the only solution to the complex systems problems we face in the 21st century.

That is, if we want the future to at all resemble the past.




Why such opposition to the concept of global warming? A July, 2018 Scientific American article titled, “The Science of Anti-Science,” notes:

“In principle, scientific thinking should lead to decisions based on consideration of all available information on a given question.”

In fact:

“Scientific findings have long met with ambivalent responses. A welcome mat rolls out instantly for horseless buggies or the latest smartphones. But hostility arises just as quickly when scientists challenge the political or religious status quo….”

                                                                  Testing the Reasons

“Our own research and that of our colleagues have identified key obstacles that stand in the way of clear scientific thought…Among the many hurdles, three in particular stand out:

·       Shortcuts. “Human brains are endowed with a facile means for dealing with information overload. When we are overwhelmed or are too short on time, we rely on simple heuristics, such as accepting the group consensus or trusting an expert. (solution) …when communicating complex evidence, sufficient time is needed to switch from a heuristic (rule of thumb) to a systematic mode of thinking that allows for a better overall evaluation.” Also, a good expert who really understands a problem can almost always simplify it to its essentials.

·       Social Goals. “…powerful forms of social motivation can interfere with an objective analysis of the facts at hand. Whether one is biased towards reaching one scientific conclusion versus another can be influenced by the desire…to conform to the views of a social network…(as illustrated earlier, short-term economic interest or politics can be distorting motivations)…investigators tested the theory that conservatives are more distrustful of scientific evidence than liberals, perhaps because such individuals exhibit rigid thinking and are less open to new experiences. What they discovered, though, is that those on both the right and the left reject scientific findings that do not jibe with their own political ideologies. (solution)…first explore whether agreement within the group really exists. Someone who disagrees with an erroneous opinion can sometimes open other group members’ minds.”

·       Confirmation bias. “When we care enough about a topic and have the time to think about it, we move beyond simple heuristics to a more systematic analysis of the actual evidence. But even when we try hard to retain an objective perspective, our existing knowledge may still get in the way. Abundant evidence suggests that people pay selective attention to arguments that simplify reinforce their own viewpoints. (solution) Confirmation biases can often be overcome by changing one’s perspective. The…Stanford researchers who studied attitudes toward capital punishment also investigated how to change them. They instructed some students to remain objective and weigh evidence impartially…That instruction had no effect. Other students were asked to play their own devil’s advocate by considering what their opinions would have been if the research about the death penalty had contradicted their own views. Biases suddenly vanished – students no longer used new evidence to bolster existing preconceptions. (our note)”

The third is a very useful way of thinking, because it enables us to understand our own position by arguing the opposite. For this, we turn to two well-funded conservative websites, The Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, who we assume will field their strongest arguments against climate change.

The Cato Institute

Cato is a public policy research organization dedicated to the principle of limited government and market fundamentalism. In “Climate Models and Climate Reality: a Closer Look at a Lukewarming World,” they argue that the data show that there is no danger of acute global warming, and obviously no role for government to remedy it. “Perhaps the most frank example of the growing disconnection between forecast and observed climate change was presented by the University of Alabama’s John Christy to the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness…It isn’t the usual comparison between global average surface temperature and the current family of general circulation climate models. Instead, it’s the forecast and observed temperatures for the middle troposphere (which ranges from the surface of the earth to 50,000 feet).” That data has been scaled for a maximum weighting of 12,000 feet above the surface, and is smoothed over five years. The following graph from the study shows that the earth’s climate warming, so measured, scaled and averaged, has been minimal since 1975. This contrasts with the troposphere predictions of the widely accepted Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Model, also so treated.


Since almost all life on earth exists below the average weighted troposphere, we don’t see the direct relevance of this study to the problem of global warming. Maybe this data are useful because all temperature changes on earth are caused by temperature changes at this high atmospheric level. This possibility, however, is not so because the earth’s climate is caused by complex factors, some of which are: energy from the sun, absorption by the earth and the reflection of this energy back into space, the earth’s spin, mountain ranges, complex ocean and wind circulation patterns. When predicting the climate, models of increasing sophistication take these factors into account.

This study looks more like a conclusion looking for the data, with millions of lives at stake.

American Enterprise Institute

AEI’s membership includes some of the largest corporations in the United States. In “Observations on the Alliance for Market Solutions’ ‘Conservative’ Case for a Carbon Tax,” the author hangs his hat on the troposphere argument, mentioned above, noting “…the absence of a trend in lower stratosphere temperatures since the mid-1990s suggests that the recent ‘pause’ or ‘slowdown’ in surface (?) or tropospheric temperatures is not a mere measurement error….There is little trend in the number of ‘hot’ days for 1895-2017…Global mean sea level has been increasing for thousands of years; it may or may not be accelerating. The Northern and Southern Hemisphere sea ice changes tell different stories…Tropical storms, hurricanes, and accumulated energy show little trend…The number of US wildfires shows no trend since 1985.” To challenge just three of these last statements: he obviously neglects the different speeds at which the Arctic and Antarctic ice are melting, * the massive havoc of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and the intensity of wildfires in California. He also doesn’t mention the recent large floods in the Midwest.

The Cato and AEI arguments for no global warming are not convincing. Is this a massive untruth?


Temperature Data from the U.S., Japan and England

Here it is. By direct measurement from five sources, four of them government, the earth’s climate has been warming since the 1880 pre-industrial level. The current increase of this level since then is about 1.25 °C from the preindustrial level. The following graph is from NOAA, “2018 State of the Global Climate.”


If global warming is to be limited at or below the 1.5°C level, carbon reduction has to start in 2020. If this does not occur, it is very likely that the global temperature increase will exceed the level of 2°C, which will change life on earth.


* To discuss the Arctic. It is obvious that the Arctic has already warmed greatly, “The Arctic is warming far faster than the rest of the planet. Its permafrost, frozen year-round for thousands of years, is thawing. Sea ice is disappearing, Glaciers are melting, causing sea levels to rise globally." The official US position, "Great news for trade,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Arctic Council. (Quartz, 5/8/19) The bad news is, the permafrost is thawing, releasing even more carbon into the atmosphere.

To discuss Antarctica and a few interesting details. The behavior of the polar ice sheets (large masses of ice on sea and land), “…is a key uncertainty in predicting sea level rise during and beyond this century.” 1 The marine West Antarctic Ice Sheet contains a sea level equivalent of about 3-5 meters (9.8-16.4 feet) of world-wide sea level rise, and the marine East Antarctic Ice Sheet contains about 19 meters of potential sea level rise, if they were to totally melt. Clearly, the total melting of the marine East Antaractic Ice Sheet would be catastrophic.

Large parts of the marine West Antarctic Ice Sheet sit on bed which is both below sea level and downward sloping inland. This flowing sheet is especially susceptible to undermining by warmer sea water. A detachment of this ice sheet from the land supporting its weight is causing a world-wide sea level rise due to the displacement of the now floating ice’s weight by an equivalent weight of water. (Archimedes’ principle)

The behavior of the larger marine East Antarctic Ice Sheet remains to be studied in detail; it sits on upward-sloping land. We mention this because the climate is likely to provide many structural surprises such as the above, that an ideological gloss from an elevation of 12,000 feet cannot deal with. Better to deal with global warming soon.

1 Nature, September 20, 2018.


And finally, click here for a recent global warming map.

footnotes            RETURN TO PREVIOUS PAGE