New Big Thinking on Wicked Problems

By Brent Fewell

Roger Pielke Jr. has a thoughtful piece over at The Breakthrough Institute titled The Irrelevance of Climate Skeptics.  Himself, having long been labeled by some as a climate skeptic, Pielke’s seemingly self-effacing perspective is that public opinion on climate change is over and the battle for the plebeian mind has been won by those professing man-made climate change.  But before delving into Pielke’s intriguing idea, I first offer a comment about the Institute, lead by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus – not household names to those outside the wacky world of environmentalism – whose 2004 essay The Death of Environmentalism featured prominently on the front page of the NYT.

The Institute represents an encouraging paradigm shift, free of the reflexive “us v. them” environmentalism and stodgy party politics and usual partisan divide, with a bevy of new generation, smart research academics and free-thinking policy wonks who care about the human condition and finding practical solutions to some of civilization’s most pressing environmental challenges – or “wicked” problems as David Ropeik likes to call them  – on water, energy, climate, and sustainability.  In 2011, Nordhaus and Shellenberger started the Breakthrough Journal, which The New Republic called “among the most complete answers” to the question of how to modernize liberal thought, and the National Review called “The most promising effort at self-criticism by our liberal cousins in a long time.”  Pretty remarkable collision of liberal and conservative praise.  Check out their website – it’s worth your time, as the Institute’s big think approach is changing the way the next generation will analyze, debate, and govern in a world filled with wicked problems.

Back to Pielke.  For those who may be unfamiliar with the Pielke name, Roger Jr. and Roger Sr. are the bête noire father-son duo and so-called “climate deniers.”  Senior, an accomplished climatologist by training and vocation, and Junior, a professor of environmental studies at University of Colorado Boulder, have been outspoken critics of global warming science and climate campaigners.  And, as such, the duo has come under considerable attack by some within the scientific and environmental communities on their contrarian views.  The Pielke’s, however, are hardly your average “deniers.”  Pielke Jr. believes that greenhouse gases and human activities are contributing to climate change, although he is critical of the science behind CO2 as the singular forcing event and the push for costly solutions advocated by climate activists.  Moreover, he promotes carbon capture strategies and technologies as the more viable among many policy solutions to reducing the harmful effects of too much atmospheric carbon – a no regrets policy approach.  So say what you will about Pielke Jr., he makes some salient points in his short essay, namely that the obsession with climate “deniers” is both irrelevant and impeding progress.  He opines,

Earlier this week, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times announced that the “climate skeptics have won.” His comments echo those of former NASA scientist James Hansen who told an audience in Edinburgh last year that the skeptics “have been winning the public debate with the help of tremendous resources.” The action needed in response to this situation was spelt out by Lord Stern – the eponymous author of the well-known 2007 report on the economics of climate changewho once called skeptics “forces of darkness” who had to be “driven back.”

Such comments reflect a conventional wisdom in the climate debate. Climate skeptics, or deniers as they are often called, are presented as all-powerful forces bankrolled by rich corporations who have wielded their awesome power to block efforts to deal with the threat of human caused climate change. How do we know that climate skeptics have such power? As Martin Wolf explains, it is the “world’s inaction” on climate policy which reveals their power.

From this perspective then, a key challenge of securing action on climate change is to defeat the skeptics – to drive back the forces of darkness so that the forces of good might prevail. Victory will be achieved by winning the battle for public opinion on the state of climate science.

However, a closer look at the logic underlying such arguments reveals a chain of causality which scholars of the public understanding of science have long critiqued as the ineffectual “deficit model” of science. Even more troubling, there is reason to believe that the focus of attention by climate campaigners on skeptics actually works against effective action.

The so-called “deficit model” suggests that the public lacks certain knowledge that if it were known properly (so closing the deficit) would lead them to favor certain policy actions. In other words, if only you understood the “facts” as I understand them, then you would come to share my policy preferences.

Citing to the work of Dan Kahan, whose work I’ve discussed here on this blog, Pielke agrees with the notion that one’s political views and vision for a better world largely influences one’s perception of facts which, in turn, shapes an individual’s perception of reality.  In such case, objective facts may become completely irrelevant, because individuals are blinded by our own beliefs and tendencies to gravitate to those who think as they do.  With an evenly divided electorate where the political stakes are so high, the arguments about science and policy solutions devolve into political screed and table-pounding in an effort to win over the public’s belief about the evils (or non-existence) of climate change.  Pielke’s argument is not that public opinion is entirely irrelevant, but rather that the campaigners’ continued efforts to shape public opinion is for naught, and may indeed be harmful, because the public has already accepted the need to act.

Data on public opinion on climate change has been collected, in some cases for several decades, in countries around the world. What it shows is remarkably strong support for the so-called scientific consensus, as well as strong support for policy action. Even in the notoriously climate sceptical United States, Gallup finds: “trends throughout the past decade – and some stretching back to 1989 – have shown generally consistent majority support for the idea that global warming is real, that human activities cause it, and that news reports on it are correct, if not underestimated.”

[I]nstead of motivating further support for action, efforts to intensify public opinion through apocalyptic visions or appeals to authority, have instead led to a loss of trust in campaigning scientists and a deep politicization of the climate issue. Citing the ample evidence of the ineffectiveness of such approaches, Dan Kahan complains of climate campaigners: “They keep pounding the data, and with a rhetorical hammer that drives home all the symbolism that generates distrust and resistance in larger parts of the population …

I would caution against Pielke’s premise, however, and argue that public opinion in this case is irrelevant only if you believe that the climate change debate is solely about fixing the climate problem.  To many campaigners, the battle over climate change is much much bigger, and for those individuals the battle for public opinion is still very relevant, but only so far as the solutions society opts for coincide with their world vision.  Motivation aside, the erosion of public opinion on the matter at hand is borne out in recent public opinion polls that show a drop from 70 to 63 percent in those who believe that climate change is occurring.  Pielke continues

A second obstacle to action is the pathological obsession of many environmental campaigners with the climate skeptics. By concluding that the skeptics are the main obstacle to action, campaigners are not only demonstrating a spectacularly circular logic, but they are also devoting their energies to a fruitless fight. Make no mistake, fighting skeptics has its benefits – it reinforces a simplistic good versus evil view of the world, it gives a sense of doing something, and privileges scientific expertise in policy debates. However, one thing that it does not do is contribute towards effective action on climate change.

The battle over public opinion on climate change has long been won, and not by the skeptics. But simply by virtue of their continued existence, the climate skeptics may have the last laugh, because many climate campaigners seem to be able to see nothing else in the debate.

Couple of points worth making.  One, from my perspective, while the public’s opinion on climate change doesn’t really matter – because, as I’ve argued before, the science is simply too complicated for most to figure it out on their own, so why care about the opinion of those who are largely illiterate on the matter (see Rush Limbaugh is Wrong on Climate Change) – public opinion matters a whole lot on the ability to move the needle for a policy solution to a problem that fewer and fewer people believe exists.  This to me is the crux of the problem – itself a wicked problem.  The erosion of trust in science to deliver credible, objective facts and our polity to ably and credibly govern in an increasingly complicated world, filled with irrational actors, is a grave risk to society.  And left unchallenged, these developments portend risks far greater than those posed by climate change.

Lastly, Pielke’s latter point regarding the ineffective action by climate activists parallels that of the left-leaning WaPo editorial which called into question the wisdom of activists’ focus on stopping the Keystone pipeline, which I discussed here, as opposed to pursuing and promoting viable policy solutions and sustainable energy alternatives.  My sense is that the majority of Americans, regardless of politics, appreciate the complexity and uncertainty of climate science (and the causal connection with human activities) and, as Pielke concludes, are slowly waking to the notion of action and common sense solutions to hedge against the potential harmful impacts of a wicked, yet solvable problem.