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Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

November 1, 2010

Climate Change: Science vs. Ignorance, Fear and Power

Category: 5%'s Top 10 List,Climate Change – Tom Harrison – 5:29 pm

Climate change is a technical subject and few of us are true experts. I am not an expert, so I am faced with a choice of accepting the findings of science or denying it. Denial is common in history, even though science has usually been right. The Earth is not the center of the universe, but this view threatened a great power of the time, and Galileo was locked up for heresy. Today we know science was on the right track, but it shook the foundations of belief, and power.

Today we have a similar situation. The implications of climate change are far more than simply “inconvenient” — they are a fundamental threat to the current world order. The response by those under threat has been to couch it in vague terms involving liberty, freedom — enrolling and manipulating an army of foot soldiers who are kept ignorant of the facts and fighting a righteous battle for truth, justice and the American way.

But the truth is, the energy companies are holding the purse strings — energy is money is power. The company and people who own energy are now powerful beyond our ability to understand. They control part of the media, they elect our officials, and they are getting more and more powerful. Just like the cigarette companies, they know that their product is harmful — those in power know that climate change is real.

Eventually the cigarette companies were neutralized … when their CEOs’ faces were lined up in front of Congress. Eventually the energy companies will get theirs. Millions of people died early deaths because of the delay tactics of the cigarette companies — we’re faced with an even greater threat from climate change. Recent reporting has begun to reveal the lies and motives, and the faces behind them. But it’s not enough, and we’re losing through inaction and delay.

Climate Change Is Complicated and Technical

Climate change is complicated. It is technical. To understand it in any real way you need to have a pretty strong grasp of science, and in particular climate science.

Those who have this knowledge in depth account for a tiny sliver of the world’s population.

I am not part of that sliver. I do understand many of the fundamental issues around climate change because I have studied statistics, physics, economics and mostly because I have read a lot on the topic from solid, well-researched, and fact-based books, articles, and informed discussions. I am not totally ignorant.

Regardless of how my education or study of the topic has influenced me, I am still not part of the sliver that really gets this stuff. As I said, it’s complicated and technical.

It’s not that I am not able to get complicated technical stuff. I am in a different sliver that understands the things I do for my professional work — things like search engine optimization (SEO), software engineering, computers systems design and architecture, and the like. That’s also complicated and technical. But it’s also what I have been doing for several decades, and people pay me to be good at it. A different sliver — being scientific, or a technologist doesn’t make you an expert.

What If You’re Not An Expert?

So for the rest of us, those not in the sliver, we have a choice. We can have confidence in science, or we can do what humans have been doing forever as the harsh realities of science disrupt their world views: we can question the science.

If you question the science, however, are you are in the group of people who would make a concerted effort to demonstrate that what has been said is false?

Or do you question the science mainly because its conclusions do not align with your world views? When someone asserts something that doesn’t align with what you believe to be true, do you think, “That can’t be right.” — is your expertise being challenged?

We place a lot of value on expertise, I think. Few of us are actually expert on a given topic, but we like the idea of discussing ideas, thinking, and trying to frame an argument. It’s a pretty human trait. No one likes to be seen as ignorant.

Ignorance Isn’t Bad

Ignorance is a term that is often used incorrectly — it’s not a matter of being smart, sufficiently informed, or good. It simply applies to something you don’t know. I am entirely ignorant of the Chinese language, for example. I am a pretty good driver, but I am ignorant of car racing (although I have learned to keep up with, and occasionally beat my son at “Need for Speed”). I would most likely fall off a horse if placed upon one. I don’t know anything at all about Christine O’Donnell … or witchcraft, for that matter.

I am ignorant of many, many things. Most of them, in fact. My point is that ignorance is not a bad thing.

What is bad, however, is when you tenaciously hold opinions on things of which you are ignorant, yet refuse to acknowledge your lack of actual knowledge.

If you have a small voice in the world, as I do, your ignorant position could be harmless.

If your voice gets heard, your ignorance could become harmful, and that’s where ignorance gets its ugly reputation. This kind of badness is one of the things that causes wars, and other unpleasant things.

We Are Not The Center Of The Universe

Consider Galileo’s strife:

Galileo’s championing of Copernicanism was controversial within his lifetime, when a large majority of philosophers and astronomers still subscribed to the geocentric view that the Earth is at the centre of the universe. After 1610, when he began publicly supporting the heliocentric view, which placed the Sun at the centre of the universe, he met with bitter opposition from some philosophers and clerics, and two of the latter eventually denounced him to the Roman Inquisition early in 1615.

In February 1616, although he had been cleared of any offence, the Catholic Church nevertheless condemned heliocentrism as “false and contrary to Scripture”, and Galileo was warned to abandon his support for it—which he promised to do. When he later defended his views in his most famous work, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632, he was tried by the Inquisition, found “vehemently suspect of heresy,” forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

(As it turns out, Copernicus and Galileo were both wrong. Neither the earth nor the sun are the center of the universe, but they were on the right path. But that was not why Galileo was in trouble with The Church.)

There are plenty of other examples of similarly harsh responses to scientific findings that are all simple truths we’re taught in school. Yes: the Earth rotates around the sun, and we’re part of a big galaxy called the Milky Way. (Could we be wrong? Perhaps, but it’s really, really not likely.)

Several other theories are taught as what most of us believe to be true. Some are still getting ingrained fully into our body of knowledge. Consider: evolution.

Any of these theories may be inaccurate or incomplete in some way. However their essential conclusions are far more likely to be refined rather than disproven. Such is science.

The Church shunned Galileo for his heretical beliefs, ones we all now accept as fact.

And so it goes: the organizations that form our laws, culture, society and politics are typically not happy about new ideas that mess with their belief systems. When something big comes along, it typically makes people start questioning other things they thought they believed. The status quo is less disruptive. It’s worth defending.

Who Is Today’s Catholic Church?

In Galileo’s time, the Church had the power. Today the Church is still powerful, and religions are still powerful. But I think it’s a fair statement to say that by the late 1980’s or so, if you asked a world citizen what was the most powerful entity on earth, the answer would be: The United States of America.

Now in 2010, the United States still has the power. As we are not watching, the United States is being taken over. Not by China. Or terrorists.

Our system in which money is equal to power has allowed those having lots of money to gain a greater and greater foothold over our lives. Simply having money is not bad or wrong, but money is being used by some to further a belief system that is as radical as communism, Marxism and other ism’s: libertarianism.

As a reformed libertarian, I still see that it’s not “wrong” or “evil” or anything like that. Libertarianism is merely idealistic, simplistic and naïve.

Not About: Liberty, Freedom, The Constitution

But libertarianism isn’t what’s happening at the moment. There are lots of code words, some good like “liberty”, “freedom”, “patriot”, and “constitution”, some bad like “socialist”, “taxes”, “elite” — these words are used as the narrative around which a far simpler thing is happening: power is being concentrated, but couched in terms that are mostly unrelated to the real goals of those with power.

Power is being concentrated today. It will result in a change in our government in tomorrow’s election. The concentration of power is very evident as we in the US are all barraged with political ads seemingly more hateful, vitriolic and virulent than the last (if that’s possible.)

And the outcome is clear — the power which had momentarily been shaken by the toppling of our economy is back. Perhaps even more strongly than before.

Government Of the People, By the People, For the People?

As more power is concentrated, the notion that Lincoln expressed in the Gettysburg Address seems increasingly false.

We are becoming a country made up of corporations. They provide us jobs (or not), they provide us our elected officials, they provide us our media, and the more we consume this pablum, the more power is concentrated. Are we the people?

Climate Change, Science, Ignorance, Fear and Power

I assert that, like the Catholic Church in the 1600’s, there’s a group in power that is feeling very protective of their world view. Part of this world view is in direct conflict with how we would respond to the scientific findings of climate change. The power is in the hands of those controlling our current forms of energy, cloaked in the mantle of libertarian ideas.

Whether they are actually libertarians is probably not relevant, but they include Rupert Murdoch and News Corp, Karl Rove, Exxon, the Koch Brothers, and a remarkably small group of others whose power is almost completely unchecked, but more importantly, largely unrecognized today.

A large swath of people is being fed broad abstract ideas which tend to topple when put to any rational test. These ideas are being formulated to manipulate by those having power. They are very, very actively working to make sure they increase their power. It is working.

A rather significant breakthrough occurred when News Corp’s Fox “news” started warping the idea of news. News Corp also owns The Wall Street Journal and many other media outlets. This organization has an unprecedented reach and power to deliver a message — a message frighteningly devoid of fairness or balance. This message is crafted and delivered cleverly to develop hate and fear, to be anti-science and to promulgate and support falsehoods.

Energy, Work, Power

Here’s the relationship of Power, Work and Energy, as defined in physics: Power is the rate of using energy. Energy is the capacity for doing work. You must have energy to accomplish work — it is like the “currency” for performing work.

But when I was talking about power earlier, it wasn’t this kind of power … or was it?

Power in our country is derived from energy. Those who harness energy have power to produce more and greater things, food, and notably their own protection. Energy is money.

And in the US and world, energy is almost entirely in the form of oil, gas, and coal. What’s more, the whole industrialized (and industrializing) world is built energy delivered by these main fuels. And our rapacious use of these fuels is the primary cause of anthropogenic climate change.

Modern Galileo

So if some scientist named Galileo James Hansen showed up and started telling the world that the product you sell is causing the world to overheat and we need to stop using it, this might not be welcome information. It messes with all of our views of the world in some way.

For Exxon, Peabody Energy (have you heard of them?), or a smaller company like Koch Industries, anything that undermines oil, gas, and coal is the end of the world as we know it.

So if your business and life were threatened you would defend, right? Were the tobacco companies right to defend their product? The arguments about what a corporation should do when their business is threatened is far from clear cut. At some level, the managers of corporations are legally bound to defend their companies as well as they can.

The problem is that that these managers tend to conflate the corporations they run with themselves. The CEOs are the company. They are highly rewarded for the behavior of personifying their corporation. It is in this weakness that there is an opportunity to put a face on their falsehoods.

In defense of the Catholic Church, at least it’s clearly written than the guys in charge are bound to their duties by God. I cannot help but think there’s a little less morality amongst those who wrap their actions and belief systems in libertarian ideals that are dumbed down for their followers. It’s certainly all pretty self-serving.

Rex Tillerson Knows: Climate Change Is Real

There are many of us regular people who don’t believe in climate change for reasons that are expected and those I stated earlier: it’s an incredibly complicated topic. Worse, much of how we respond is based on predictions of future impacts that are necessarily imprecise. Complexity is fuel for the fires of doubt and disbelief.

Many people like Rex Tillerson understand that climate change is real — not the great unwashed masses, like me. I am talking about people who have power.

People don’t generally become “captains of industry” by being simple minded. A little common sense may be required for most. It takes only a little common sense to be able to look at the simple facts of climate change and at the very least recognize that there’s a valid question being posed.

Has it not occurred to Rex Tillerson (current CEO of Exxon) that some of the data being presented by scientists might be right? Of course it has — the guy is not an idiot! And taking it one step further, let’s imagine Tillerson realizing: “They’re probably right.”

Up In Smoke

Clearly such a moment happend to the various tobacco company CEOs. From this more enlightened position, these CEOs were able to carefully direct the response to the threat to themselves their companies such that they could retain power their stockholders were best served. And it worked … as well as one could possibly hope. Their response: deny, evade, create a narrative, have lots of righteous indignation — they delayed the inevitable.

So I assert: the people and corporations most threatened by the notion of climate change have long since recognized that climate change is real.

From The Art of War (via WikiPedia):

know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles

Putting A Face On Climate Change

So, as with the cigarette companies, the fact of climate change is being obfuscated by deflections, distortion and “deniers”. But unlike the cigarette companies, the new strategy has enrolled “foot soldiers” — a large group of people whose beliefs are being manipulated, wrapped around the flag and vague and abstract notions that seem right: liberty, freedom, patriotism.

While the cigarette companies potentially had such a group in their customers, they eventually lost the battle because they were unable to enroll their customers on a mission to save their “way of life”. And then in a famous moment, the CEOs of the cigarette companies were given faces as they testified in front of congress, at which point the people turned on them.

With climate change, the stakes are far higher. The forces in power are being smart in getting their message out to their foot soldiers. In ignorance, we are being told not only that climate change science is wrong, but also that it is part of a devious plot by those who would take away our liberty, freedom and power.

Very recently, Jane Mayer’s watershed article in the New Yorker, called Covert Operations, started to put a face on climate change — one of the first effective attempts to do so. During these mid-term elections, many other forces have re-consolidated power, and like the Koch Brothers, have done so in relative anonymity through front organizations.

In the end, climate change will eventually reveal itself to be the threat to humanity that experts (real ones) have predicted. The same was true with tobacco, and while it sounds callous to the many millions of people who died prematurely from smoking cigarettes, climate change is far more deadly. It’s also a lot harder to quit.

We need to expose the faces behind the concerted efforts to defer action on climate change. They are the same faces that are protecting their assets in other ways that will also be the undoing of the United States, and the world.


  1. […] Climate Change: Science vs. Ignorance, Fear and Power ( […]

    Pingback by Take back the power, VOTE! « An American Point of View — November 1, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

  2. In case you’re not fully tired of reading tirades at this point, here’s a great one from Joe Romm at Climate Progress discussing many of the same points.

    Except he blames Obama. Which I am thinking very hard about. What do you think?

    Comment by Tom Harrison — November 5, 2010 @ 4:28 pm

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