This post is a follow-up to my essay Humans Are Not Rational Problem Solvers, which I reprinted last Sunday. Here I will examine anthropogenic climate change (global warming) through the lens of Jared Diamond's explanation of why humankind has done little or nothing to address the climate problem. Diamond is well-known to thoughtful people as the author of Guns, Germs And Steel, Collapse and other fine books which discuss the human condition. Diamond reminds me a bit of Mr. Spock, but let me say at the outset that I like him and admire him for openly talking about the Big Questions. My remarks today should not be construed as a personal attack on Diamond, even if I am sometimes a little rough on him. That said, Diamond's rational view of human decision-making appears to be almost wholly misguided.
Diamond's relevant remarks start at 27:39 in the lecture below and continue until about the 35 minute mark. I have transcribed the beginning of these remarks and included the video, which you need to watch in order to fully understand my critique.
In this area, which poses issues of long-term thinking, how do you manage a society so it will last hundreds or thousands of years? There have been surprises, and perhaps the biggest set of surprises has to do with that question that my UCLA students have kept asking me: How on Earth do people end up doing these dumb things? Why do they practice such short-term thinking? What don't they, at least, foresee a decade ahead? Why do people do something so obviously dumb as to chop down all their trees? Or to kill off all their big animals? Or to run out of fresh water?
That turns out to be an unexpectedly complicated [set of questions]. There are not simple reasons why people make bad decisions. We know that in our individual lives, people make bad decisions sometimes. Sometimes we marry the wrong person, or we invest in the wrong investment, or we make a poor choice of career, and there are complicated reasons why we make these poor choices. Similarly for human groups. Human groups sometimes make bad decisions for the same reasons that individuals do, but with groups there are additional reasons for failures of decision-making, [these are] problems intrinsic in group dynamics...
Diamond goes on to discuss three reasons why people "make bad decisions" and uses global warming to illustrate those reasons. What is the salient real-world fact about humankind's handling of the climate change problem? It is this: every few years representatives of the Earth's nations get together (e.g. Copenhagen, Denmark or Durban, South Africa) and make no binding, concerted decision about global warming. They agree to postpone any meaningful action until the next meeting. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see that such procrastination never ends. This real-world observation sets the context for this discussion.
Here is my quick critique of Diamond's three reasons why humankind continues to make poor "decisions" about global warming. My main remarks come afterwards.
- failure to anticipate the problem — In fact, if you read Spencer Weart's The Discovery Of Global Warming, you will find out that scientists did indeed anticipate the problem. Syukuro ("Suki") Manabe's group at Princeton had created the first working (but flawed) models by 1965, which were based (as all climate models are) on the basic physics of how greenhouse gases work in the atmosphere. The Charney conference to try to iron out a consensus took place in 1979. See this page at Weart's website. By the time Jim Hansen testified before Congress in 1988, climate scientists had been working on the problem for a long time. Anticipating the global warming problem has had no bearing on our failure to do something about it.
- slow-moving problems, imperceptibility — While this consideration is generally valid because humans are designed to react quickly to fast-developing or immediate problems, the general failure to make good "decisions" about mitigating global warming has not depended on this human limitation. Early on, smart people were quick to grasp the problem. They understood perfectly that the problem existed, even if it was slow-moving and abstract. Those we might call "fence-sitters" who wanted more data before making a decision about whether the problem existed are not now, and have not been for quite some time, the ones preventing a good "decision" from being made about climate. And no amount of annual temperature data will satisfy those who have denied in the past and deny now that global warming is a problem.
- resistance by vested interests, insulated elites — Diamond's contention that powerful vested interests and insulated elites are preventing humans from mitigating global warming is partially valid, but misses the point (see below) and is not nearly general enough. We have heard this argument before. The good "liberal environmentalists" want to solve the problem but the bad "pro-growth conservatives" won't let them. I debunked this politics-as-usual fantasy in The Inherent Contradictions Of Pro-Growth Environmentalism. And I might add that those who protest the burning of fossil fuels make use of the energy these fuels provide. They are not living off the grid. Those opposed to "fracking" for shale gas are very likely using natural gas (at the source) for electricity, heating or cooling, cooking, and so on. Billions of people on this planet have a "vested interest" in continuing the harvesting of fossil fuels for energy.
Diamond's Spock-like logical approach to why humankind has failed to good "decisions" about global warming assumes that humans are rational problem solvers, or at least have the potential to be, but have been impeded for the reasons he mentions. This is nonsense, it is orthogonal to what's really going, and therefore debunking it directly (as I did above) is not the best approach if you want to explain what's really going on.
I assume that humans are not rational problem solvers in the general case. Therefore there are no "decisions" being made now and there will not be any "decisions" made in the future. Inaction is indeed a kind of decision, but this choice is not made through some rational thinking process. Remember, we are trying to answer questions like these: why do people make "dumb decisions" [Diamond's phrase] like killing off all their large animals or continuing to burn fossil fuels as fast as they can?
It is helpful to change our perceptions of what's going on by re-framing the problem. What would rational decision-making look like?
Statement By World Leaders, Qatar, December 7, 2012
As you know, collectively the Earth's nations continue to pursue business-as-usual with respect to carbon dioxide emissions. We have decided that humankind will simply have to take its chances with a warming Earth in so far as it is in nobody's best interests to slow or reverse our 200-year legacy of success in providing improved standards of living for expanding human populuations as implemented through economic growth, exploitation of the Earth's abundant natural resources, and remarkable human ingenuity.
Perhaps one day technological solutions in energy and geo-engineering will emerge which effectively fix the global warming problem and do not require sacrifice. This is our hope and our faith. If this comes to pass, we have made the right decision today. If no such solution is forthcoming, our message to future generations is simply this: Good Luck & God Bless.
[My note: Read the "inherent contradictions" post I alluded to above if you want to fully understand what I've said here. You should also be familiar with Tim Garrett's work (and here) if you want to fully understand my previous remarks. It would also be helpful to look at my essay For Humans, The Economy Is Everything.]
But of course this is absurd. You will never hear such a statement, yet this is what a rational decision regarding our continuing failure to address global warming would look like. The very absurdity of this imaginary statement underscores the very real fact that humanity is stumbling blindly into the future, not only with respect to global warming, but also regarding our precarious crude oil supply, the ongoing destruction of marine ecosystems and species, the acidification of the oeans, and a host of other problems created by willy-nilly human expansion on this finite planet.
Now I hope you can see why Diamond's explanation of why humans have done nothing about the climate problem is simply nonsense. Anticipating the problem, the slow-moving nature of the problem, and resistance by vested interests which perpetuates the problem are insignificant factors in explaining ongoing human neglect of the Earth's health. In fact, the peak of crude oil production has been glaringly obvious in the global data for about seven years now. Nobody is doing anything about that, outside of mostly futile efforts to replace (in terms of flows) the bountiful crude oil which has already been consumed. This very fact falsifies Diamond's slow-moving problem hypothesis. It is impossible to make strong predictions about human behavior based on Diamond's hodgepodge of reasons for human inaction on important issues, or he is simply wrong.
Diamond assumes at least the potential for rationality in solving these huge environmental problems. He talks in terms of "decisions" being made or not being made. I assume as a matter of course that no decisions are being made, and that's what we observe in the real world. At bottom, I am an empiricist. Theories of Human Nature can not be constructed if real-world observations are not taken into account. If you don't have a theory of what makes humans tick, or you make use of an unexplicit, naive theory as Diamond and most people do, you are very likely spouting nonsense. If we truly want to understand why humans continue to burn fossil fuels as fast as they can, regardless of the well-understood dangers of doing that, we need to construct a theory which predicts the observed behavior.
Briefly stated, my own view is that the urge to grow is biologically-driven (innate). You can not ask people to stop having so many babies, you can not ask them not to strive for greater material comfort for themselves and their offspring (and thus enhance the survival of those offspring). In short, you can not ask people to do things they are not able to do. In fact, humans have fewer offspring only when their material comfort has become well-established (or so they believe). Our misnamed species Homo sapiens is a species like any other, even if we do see remarkable plasticity in our cultural and individual behavior, and despite our astonishing technological abilities.
But some things can not be changed. Sometimes there are no "decisions" being made. A substantial part of human behavior is pre-determined—what you see is what you get, and what you're going to get. Will there be future wars? Of course. Human inaction on global warming and other problems resulting from unchecked growth is not nearly the same as making a conscious decision not to address the problem through a rational thought process. As I said, humans are stumbling blindly into the future.
In many matters, and especially with respect to the big issues affecting our future on this planet, humans are not (or even potentially) rational problem solvers as Jared Diamond seems to assume. As I've said before, my view of Human Nature is falsifiable. I would be glad to be proved wrong about anthropogenic climate change and many other things. But I believe that future events will only confirm what I've said here. I'm not happy about it, but that's very likely the way it is now, and will be in the future.