U.S. politics and the greenhouse

Most weekends, Judith Curry, who blogs at Climate Etc., shares with us “a few things that caught [her] eye this past week,” under the title of The Week in Review.

They’re always interesting and thought-provoking. This week in Week in Review 10/13/12 she offers a potpourri of perspectives from Kevin Trenberth (who decries what he sees as a decline in the quality of the IPCC process), Keith Kloor (who argues that the falling interest in climate change as a political issue is an anomaly), Bill Clinton (who brings to bear his prodigious powers of explanation on the global change issue), Bjorn Lomborg (who disparages the use of scare tactics in public discourse), and Roger Pielke, Jr. (who argues that scientists should avoid getting sucked into media spin). [My apologies; this synopsis fails to do justice to any of the original material; hopefully you’ll give it a fuller read.]

What a grouping!

A number of responses are coming in to Ms. Curry’s blog. My favorite so far was from early on, from Ken Maize, attributed to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair: “I don’t make predictions. I never have and I never will.”

Worthy of Yogi Berra at his peak.

Mr. Maize was referring to a prediction made by Keith Kloor, who sees the decline in political interest in climate change as “an anomaly, owing largely to a confluence of circumstances stemming from the global financial meltdown and the rightward shift of the GOP. If the economy continues to rebound and severe weather continues to be associated with global warming, I bet the politics of climate change will soon return to what they were in 2008, when both major parties in the U.S. agreed that reducing greenhouse gases was an imperative.”

Predictions are always risky, but I’ll venture two:

Here’s the first prediction.

Over time, the debates over climate change as such will increasingly take a back seat to a larger debate. That more comprehensive discussion will center on three human tasks: (1) resource development and extraction (food, water, energy, plus more) to meet the needs of seven billion people, going on nine billion; (2) protecting the environment and ecosystems and attempting to slow environmental degradation, loss of habitat and biodiversity, changes in landscape, etc.; and (3) maintain or increase community- and other forms of resilience at the local level worldwide. It will increasingly attempt to incorporate the way these three tasks intersect. It will be driven by (1) values: what kind of world do we want? (2) science: what kind of world is likely if we take no action? and (3) practicalities and tradeoffs: what kind of world is possible if we act effectively?

The debate participants, and the watching public, will see climate variability as inevitable and natural, and human-induced changes in climate and variability as a symptom…only one of many…of human influences on everything the planet does.

But this brings me to

The second prediction.

Because that debate will matter, spin and scare tactics and abuse of science will be rampant. So will complexity and urgency. It’ll be tough for all seven billion of us to follow the action.

As a result, the IPCC process will continue. But it will mature, and in the process look a bit different.

What might it look like? Let’s try a forecast-by-analogy: the nation’s economic statistics. GDP. Unemployment. Balance of trade. Leading economic indicators. These are put out monthly. There’s an IPCC-like process for gathering the statistics and running the models that go into the calculations, but these have been internalized into the nation’s way of doing business over time. They’ve become more routine, more sustainable, less-wrenching on the economists who do the work for the U.S. Department of Commerce and its collaborators. Expect to see the IPCC process similarly streamlined, following the so-called 80-20 rule, that says that in many activities in life you can get 80% of the results you want with 20% of the effort.

At the same time, the monthly economic statistics have produced a community of people who might be called Commerce-skeptics (does the nomenclature sound familiar?). Some are experts who see the Commerce process as flawed. They gather their own data, run their own models. They’ve started up a whole cottage industry. They publish academic papers on all this and/or feed the supposedly superior information to Wall-Street clients, who make money off the shortcomings of the Commerce process, arbitrage the errors against what they expect in the way of Commerce re-calculations over the ensuing months, and so on. Other Commerce skeptics see and decry manipulation of the economic data for partisan political ends. We’ve just seen a spate of that in response to the September figures which appearto show an improving economy and thus seem to help the Obama re-election chances at a critical moment in the 2012 Presidential campaign.

Maybe, to respond to Climate Etc.’s questions, that’s what makes sense; that’s how the future looks.


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