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Which Climate Change Generalist?
This post is the second in a series to do with the ‘Net Zero Professional’. In yesterday’s post — Who's the (Climate Change) Expert? — we discussed the critical distinction between the generalist and the specialist. We suggested that the first step in becoming a professional in this area is to become an educated generalist. We need to listen to the experts, but that we then need to place their work in a broader context, and only generalists can do that.
The above thoughts do, of course, beg the question as to which generalists we should listen to. After all, the internet is full of people who know very little about climate change but who nevertheless express their opinions at great length and volume, and with great assurance. How do we separate the ignorant, pontificating time-wasters from those whose opinions are worth our ? There can never be a conclusive answer to the above question, but the following thoughts may provide guidance.
They are grouped as follows:
The Golden Mean;
Tipping Points; and
A Golden Mean
The first response to the question as to who we should listen to is to look for the “golden mean”.
The first post in this series was framed around Aristotle’s call for people to be educated, as distinct from knowledgeable in just one specialist field. In his Nicomachean Ethics he talks about what we sometimes refer to as the ‘Golden Mean’. This is not a mean or average in a statistical sense. For example, anger is a vice but anger in response to a serious crime is not a vice. In such a case the golden mean does not call for a person to move toward a middle place halfway between complacency and anger. Righteous anger is justified.
So it is with climate change. We need to seek a balance between doomerism and hopium. But that does not means that we need to seek a middle ground. Based on the objective evidence it appears as if are nearer the doomer end of the scale. If so, we should act appropriately. In other words, we should not necessarily look for the middle position — sometimes referred to as, “On the other hand-sim”.
Any generalist who is worth listening to will have done his or her homework. He or she will probably have written many web pages, blog posts and articles to do with climate change. Does what they have written indicate a depth and thoroughness of learning? Does the author cite credible authorities? Do the writings express opinions which do not necessarily align with the a currently fashionable meme? Someone who is new to the scene may be able to provide fresh and interesting insights. But those insights need to be backed up by evidence such as references to the work of people who have worked in the area for a long time.
A generalist worth listening to should be knowledgeable about the many facets of climate change. For example, he or she should understand issues such as Energy Returned on Energy Invested, ocean acidification, the time it takes to build a nuclear power plant, the actions of the federal reserve, the Hubbert Curve and greenhouse gas equivalency. He or she should also understand how factors such as these interact with one another.
We are all have our prejudices and unidentified assumptions as to how the world works, and what is right and wrong. Nevertheless, a credible generalist should do his or her best to be objective and rational. His statements and opinions should be based on facts and logical analysis, not on feelings, hope or fear.
In order to demonstrate objectivity, it is particularly important that a person be willing to read, understand and convey information that goes against their preconceived point of view. After all, we are all prejudiced in as much we ‘pre + judge’ situations. The most credible person is one who takes time to understand facts or opinions which are challenging and unsettling.
Climate change is not a stand-alone topic. It is merely one topic among many, including finance, resource depletion, biosphere destruction and over-population. A credible generalist needs to have a grasp of systems thinking, and should not see issues in isolation. A good generalist understands that there is no single cause of climate change, nor is there a single solution.
For example, the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has risen steadily, rapidly and inexorably since the early 1950s. Someone who considers only climate issues may assume that this trend will continue. However, if that person looks at the oil supply situation, he or she could conclude that we have entered an era of ‘Peak Oil’. Therefore, he would conclude that, like it or not, CO2 concentrations will not continue to increase. On the other hand, if we replace oil and natural gas with coal as a source of fuel then CO2 concentrations can be expected to increase.
None of this is easy.
We generally assume that the future will be more or less a linear continuation of the past trends. For example, we have seen that someone may assume that atmospheric CO2 concentrations will continue to rise because that is what has happened since the early 1950s.
But drastic change often occurs at “tipping points”. A system suddenly shifts from one state to another very different state. An example is a potential climate tipping point is what is sometimes referred to as the “clathrate gun”. This is an unproven hypothesis hat increases in sea temperatures (caused, in part, by increased methane concentrations in the atmosphere) can trigger the sudden release of methane from methane clathrate compounds contained within seabed permafrost. This has the effect of releasing more methane, thus creating a positive feedback loop, an irreversible runaway process comparable to the firing of a gun.
Understanding climate change requires an understanding of non-linearities, such as the clathrate gun.
One of the occupational hazards of studying climate change is that people tend to drift toward extremes. (The polarizing nature of social media probably has something to do with this.) At one end of the scale we have the “doomers” who maintain that we are heading toward catastrophe sometime in the near future. At the other end are those who tout “hopium”. Like Wilkins Micawber in the novel David Copperfield they are sure that “something will come up”.
“Doomer” predictions are too numerous to count, but they go back a long way. For example, in the year 2009 a leading Peak Oil writer said,
Ordinary people are unlikely to be able to afford oil products AT ALL within 5 years.
Twelve years after her forecast we see people are grumbling about rising fuel prices but the roads remain as congested as ever.
At the other end of the spectrum there is the hopium (defined as being addicted to false and unrealistic hopes). For example, on November 20th 2021, the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper featured an article entitled Nuclear fusion is close enough to start dreaming. Maybe nuclear fusion has a future, but any article on the topic needs to address the fact that that technology has been “on the horizon” for almost three generations. This article failed to do so. The article The Tortuous Way to Nuclear Fusion provides for more realistic reading.
A good generalist knows to steer clear of extremes such as these.