Climate Change and Philosophie des als Ob

This well put together article by Charlie Martin offers a “big picture” view of the climate debate from a skeptical perspective. Whether one agrees with all or some of the arguments is not so important and ultimately less interesting than a certain literary interpretation of the “would-be” aspects of the CO2 market scheme/scam (depending on your preference).
Writes Martin:

Where do carbon offsets come from? Simply enough, some authority must certify that someone else has either reduced their CO2 output, or has agreed not to do something that would increase CO2 output they would otherwise have done. For every ton of CO2 you don’t emit, you get a certificate that you can sell on the carbon market to someone who needs permission — an indulgence — allowing them to emit a ton of CO2…

Once you have the carbon credit you need to sell it, which means there must be a market — a role filled in part by the Chicago Carbon Exchange (CCX). The CCX, which was started with seed money from both government and private non-profit sources, is most emphatically a for-profit firm that functions like any commodity exchange. If you have a story about the carbon you aren’t emitting and need it certified, the CCX can certify it — for a fee. Then the CCX will help you sell it — for a commission. If you need to buy carbon credits, the CCX will match you up with a buyer — for a fee — and sell you the certificate (and charge you a commission)…

It is, of course, purely a coincidence that this market, which simply doesn’t exist without the legal requirement that companies reduce carbon emissions, is closely connected with the politically connected people who are pushing for carbon restrictions by law and treaty.

Martin concludes with a description of the three types of audience/stakeholders in the climate debate, which he labels (i) “the true believers” (a group that could be identified with the “useful idiot” archetype); (ii) the Al Gores (who may or may not be true believers); and (iii) “the rest of us”. Of these, the second is purportedly the ‘wild card’ to watch out for:

There is another, larger group, who may or may not be true believers — who can know what is in another man’s heart? — but who don’t seem to worry too much about their own carbon impact, like Al Gore. (Oh, he buys indulgences from his own company, which is one little mercy — he could conceivably instead say he would have built a bigger house with more carbon impact, and claimed a carbon credit.) A fair number of these people, though, seem to be set up to make an immense pile of money off the carbon markets, and they all seem to have impeccable political connections. This larger group makes sure that the true believers get big grants, and travel to conferences in Gstaad and Tahiti, and have well-financed platforms from which to speak.

It’s that second group we most need to watch. In the old Soviet Union, these people — the Communist Party members who received positions of power — were called the nomenklatura. They weren’t necessarily the true believers (in fact, a lot of the true Communists, like Beria and Trotsky, ended up dead or in Siberia), but they could mouth the slogans, pass on the Communist Party line, and play the system to get positions and power, dachas, and access to the “special” stores that always had sausage, green vegetables, and toilet paper.

There has been in recent months a lot of talk about the ineffectiveness of the climate change communication and PR campaign and its impending and inevitable demise, not without a doze of ridicule on the part of skeptics vs. naïve, back-to-nature, relics from the 60s believers. I would like to argue the opposite. I believe the campaign is smartly subtle, more effective than the skeptics care to admit and certainly far from over. I’m going to comment extensively in an upcoming post  on the employment of dance as an extremely effective PR strategy of climate risk communication, which is ridiculed here. But for now I will just concentrate on the “would be”s of the CO2 market scheme Charlie Martin so eloquently exposes.

As usual, we come back to and begin with language. At the turn of the 20th century, a lesser known German philosopher, Hans Vaihinger, expounded a theory known as the Philosophie als des Ob (literally, Philosophy of As If; the German entry on wikipedia is more comprehensive than the English). Encyclopedia Britannica summarizes his argument as the willing acceptance of falsehoods or fictions in order to live peacefully in an irrational world. This theory of useful fictions despite (or perhaps because of) its fallaciousness has had many practical applications in the 20th c (Nazism and Marx-Leninism would be the first big ticket items). Its utility in the climate change context is obvious and ripe with potentials. The CCX or those politically connected to it seem (from my ivory tower of observation) to be at least cognizant of the potential of exploiting the power of what is known in grammar as conditional clauses – devices for expressing the atemporal or time shifts (depending on the category of the conditional) as well as varying degrees of unreality.

Let’s look at Borges’ story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius – a fictional story about a fictional world of absolute idealists. It is a world without material or temporal existence. It is rather, a mental proposition, a conditional. The story opens with a “real” dinner conversation between two friends and the narrator proceeds to take us on a journey through real and fictional books and characters, weaving unreality into reality, blurring fact and fiction until we are transported into the dream-nightmare world of Tlön. Conceived in the minds of a scholarly society of philosopher kings, this “brave new world” is thought into existence in opposition to terrestrial chaos and eventually substitutes itself for reality. Since reality on Tlön is strictly mental, the only discipline which constitutes its culture is psychology and speculations à la Philosophie des als Ob the typical pastime:

It is no exaggeration to state that the classic culture of Tlön comprises only one discipline: psychology. All others are subordinated to it. I have said that the men of this planet conceive the universe as a series of mental processes which do not develop in space but successively in time. Spinoza ascribes to his inexhaustible divinity the attributes of extension and thought; no one in Tlön would understand the juxtaposition of the first (which is typical only of certain states) and the second – which is a perfect synonym of the cosmos. In other words, they do not conceive that the spatial persists in time. The perception of a cloud of smoke on the horizon and then of the burning field and then of the half-extinguished cigarette that produced the blaze is considered an example of association of ideas.

This monism or complete idealism invalidates all science. If we explain (or judge) a fact, we connect it with another; such linking, in Tlön, is a later state of the subject which cannot affect or illuminate the previous state. Every mental state is irreducible: there mere fact of naming it – i.e., of classifying it – implies a falsification. From which it can be deduced that there are no sciences on Tlön, not even reasoning. The paradoxical truth is that they do exist, and in almost uncountable number. The same thing happens with philosophies as happens with nouns in the northern hemisphere. The fact that every philosophy is by definition a dialectical game, a Philosophie des Als Ob, has caused them to multiply. There is an abundance of incredible systems of pleasing design or sensational type. The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding. They judge that metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature. They know that a system is nothing more than the subordination of all aspects of the universe to any one such aspect. Even the phrase “all aspects” is rejectable, for it supposes the impossible addition of the present and of all past moments. Neither is it licit to use the plural “past moments,” since it supposes another operation… One of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present memory. Another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process. Another, that the history of the universe – and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives – is the scripture produced by a subordinate god in order to communicate with a demon. Another, that the universe is comparable to those cryptographs in which not all the symbols are valid and that only what happens every three hundred nights is true. Another, that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men.

I see in Vaihinger’s “theory of cognition”, and include Borges’ text because of its literary superiority, some clear parallels with the climate dialectics. As we sink deeper into the fiction, Borges’ voice of quiet sadness and resignation haunts the illusory landscape.

Things became duplicated in Tlön; they also tend to become effaced and lose their details when they are forgotten. A classic example is the doorway which survived so long it was visited by a beggar and disappeared at his death. At times some birds, a horse, have saved the ruins of an amphitheater.

Climate Change Risk Communication: Apathy or Denial?

I came across this online publication by Peter M. Sandman, psychologist and communication specialist, which mildly raised my (apathetic) eyebrow after weeks of following an exasperatingly dull ‘communication campaign’ in the blogosphere on whether the climate change debate is dead in the aftermath of Copenhagen 2009 and this winter’s record low temperatures.

That the debate is dead is an extraordinary fanciful statement on the part of skeptics who, ironically, are the ones kindling it in the first place. What seems evident, however, is that both the skeptics and the activists in this field are in desperate need of reinventing their vocabulary.

In this light, Mr. Sandman’s article is well worth reading, even if I don’t buy his “denial” theory. His basic argument is that an effective communication campaign should distinguish between an apathetic audience and an audience that is said to be, in the parlance of psychology, in denial. Writes Sandman: “By ‘global warming denial’ I don’t mean the claims of people who aren’t upset about climate change and aggressively insist that it isn’t real or isn’t serious. I’m focusing on people so upset (or hopeless) about climate change they can’t bear to think about it: people “in denial,” not “deniers.” Who are these people, Mr. Sandman? A few concrete examples will suffice.

The gist of the argument is that advocacy, based on the precautionary principle is lost on the poor people in denial. They need a stronger and bitterer medicine, namely “crisis communication”: “Precaution advocacy is designed for audiences whose outrage is too low. But the outrage of people who are in or near denial isn’t too low; it’s so high they’re having trouble bearing it. The correct risk communication paradigm for them isn’t precaution advocacy; it is crisis communication”.

When I read this I couldn’t help but think (and smile) of Mencken’s aphorism that democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and they deserve to get it good and hard.

It’s not the arrogance of Mr. Sandman that bothers, rather his patronizingly prescriptive sales pitch. If only he could just be satisfied with offering a diagnosis!

All that said, if you can suffer through having your opinion about climate change psychoanalyzed, the article links to a host of resources on risk communication (in and outside the context of climate change) that could be of interest to both activists and skeptics. Depending on whether one is interested in an offensive or defensive (communication) strategy, it is a resource full of tips on how to encode the message as well as how to decode it, should one be of a more paranoid disposition. My personal approach is precautionary.

Rhetoric of Irreversible Climate Change

The concept of irreversibility in the context of climate change is semantically ambiguous in that it has a different meaning in scientific and public policy discourse. In scientific discourse, the question of irreversibility depends on the different observed phenomena and on the time scale of observation. The current prevalent estimate is that global-scale warming will persist for thousands of years, depending on the level of CO2 emissions while the sea level rise associated with the warming will persist even longer. Compared to the time scales on which societies plan and conceive information, this time scale could be said to be effectively irreversible.

Solomon et al., define irreversibility in the following way: “Future carbon dioxide emissions in the 21st century will hence lead to adverse climate changes in both short and long time scales that would be essentially irreversible (where irreversible is defined here as a time scale exceeding the end of the millennium in year 3000.”

In public discourse, the concept of irreversibility, together with attributes such as catastrophic, abrupt, tipping point, point of no return, etc. is used as a rhetorical device to express a sense of urgency and to stimulate the advance of particular policies. It is, in effect, a risk communication strategy that aims to transform public perception of the long term processes of climate change (usually equivalent to low risk perception) into signaling immediate danger and consequently increasing public risk perception and influencing behavior. In scientific discourse, while rapidity and abruptness of change is acknowledged in events such as glacier retreat or melting Arctic ice, irreversibility is emphasized as likely but not considered definitive.

Not all public discourse is unanimous when it comes to the message of irreversibility for the purpose of defining a threshold for danger. Proponent arguments maintain that there is a lack of suitable sense of urgency in public opinion on the issue of climate change, which leads to a dangerous false sense of security. Those who argue against the so called alarmist rhetoric of irreversibility claim that it leads to fatalism and cynicism, manufacturing anxiety over the possibility that climate change could pose problems outside of human control or incapable of human solution. This, in turn, has been used to justify a comparison between the proponents camp and an un-scientific, religious “cultification “of the climate change debate. In reviewing the recent December 2009 Copenhagen summit, Caroline May – policy analyst for the National Center for Public Policy Research in the US – writes: “Faith is belief without verifiable evidence. This unquestioned adherence to the theory of Global Warming bears all the markings of what traditionally would be recognized as a religion. Complete with sin (the emitting of carbon dioxide), scriptures (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports), commandments (drive a Prius, use Compact Florescent Light bulbs, do not eat meat etc.), indulgences (carbon offsets), proselytism, prophets (Al Gore), priests (scientists), prophecy and apocalypse (floods, hurricanes, dead polar bears), infidels (Warming skeptics), and salvation (the halting of carbon emitting industrial progress) the religion of Global Warming fits the mold.”

The concept of irreversibility is clearly laden with moral, political and psychological implications – areas traditionally in the realm of social debate. But as can be seen from the above Biblical analogy, it has also succeeded in bringing to the table the age-old dichotomy between science and religion, showing that in debates involving natural phenomena and natural hazards, God is far from having said his last word. This brings us back to the point of the role of science in the discourse of irreversible climate change. The question then arises should scientific writing use words such as irreversible, catastrophic, urgent and chaotic to denote climate change phenomena and some of their key impacts to avoid getting bad press with the popular press, and if not what are appropriate ways of communicating information about the degree of threat or changes in the public understanding of the threat without obscuring the message in scientific jargon that is inaccessible to non-scientists. The establishment of some standard criteria in the language of risk communication on (irreversible) climate change is, therefore, an important preliminary step in the concrete discussion on how we deal with the problem and its consequences as well as implications for policy. Failing the ability to find a common discourse, the climate change debate risks the doom of silence as the fallen tower of Babel.

In the paper “Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions” Solomon et al. offer a quantitative analysis of carbon dioxide concentrations that have already occurred or could occur in the coming century, implying that dangers related to climate change are already irreversible (according to their scale) and argue that policies about discount rates of economic trade-offs are not a sufficient mitigation mechanism precisely because they ignore the issue of irreversibility. They make a similar claim with regard to the efficacy in trading greenhouse gases on the basis of 100-year estimated climate changes, pointing to the significantly longer term effects of carbon dioxide. Yet while exposing these alleged policy shortcomings, they stop short of offering different policy recommendations.

As an economic problem, it is important to consider implications of climate change on national and international policy decisions about the control of greenhouse gas emissions or investment in measures to reduce the cost of change. The main policy response options for climate change are mitigation or adaptation. Mitigation usually refers to action that reduces the cost of an event thereby implying action before the event. Adaptation, on the other hand, may involve actions taken before, during or after the event, and usually implies actions that reduce the expected damage (e.g. adoption of building standards that minimize earthquake damage), but it also includes actions that pool or transfer the risk of an event (e.g. insurance). Perrings argues that action as a result of a mitigation policy is only possible under the assumption that mitigation will affect the probability of climate change, i.e. the acknowledgment that anthropogenic emissions of green house gases significantly contribute to climate change and that consequent reductions in their concentration would yield a favorable outcome. Examples of mitigation policies include carbon and other energy taxes, energy policies to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, multilateral environmental agreements to reduce emissions (FCCC, Kyoto), and actions to increase absorption of CO2 (afforestation).

Adaptation, on the other hand, is a defensive strategy of reducing the cost of climate change if it happens. Examples of adaptation include construction of coastal and estuarine defenses to adapt to sea-level rise; strengthening or relocation of infrastructure and industrial, commercial or domestic structures to adapt to the increased threat of storm damage; the relocation of threatened populations; and the use of financial instruments to spread the risks of climate change through insurance, securitize the risks (e.g. catastrophe bonds) or reduce the cost of adaptation.

According to Perrings, the optimal balance between mitigation and adaptation as response options to the prospect of climate change depends on their relative costs and benefits. While adaptation is shown to substantially lower the cost of climate change at the global level, it may not be an affordable strategy for many low-income countries which are disproportionally affected by extreme climatic events such as hurricanes, cyclones, storms, floods and droughts not so much because of their geographic location as their limited coping capacity and poor or non-existent infrastructure.

Another policy strategy of consideration, which is particularly salient under conditions of uncertainty, potential irreversibility and generally unknown outcomes, is the so called precautionary approach. Essentially, it advocates the commitment of resources to safeguard against low probability high impact events while ‘buying time’ for the decision-makers until further evidence becomes available. A characteristic of such low probability high impact events is that they often lack historical precedents, which makes it difficult to back up decisions by quantitative analysis. Identifying knowledge gaps is, therefore, a preliminary task of a precautionary approach.

Finally, it should be acknowledged that the choice of strategy for policy-makers is dependent on political circumstances at national, regional and international levels. National policy responses tend to focus on adaptation measures. Under conditions of higher uncertainty and more abrupt climate change and extreme events, the pressure might increase to put more focus on mitigation or at least precautionary strategies. However, since mitigation of climate change is a global issue, a successful implementation of a mitigation strategy will necessitate global cooperation. As demonstrated at the Copenhagen summit in December 2009, such global cooperation is at present a mirage; hence adaptation remains the only current realistic alternative.