Why Greta Thunberg’s fans are still wrong

A few months ago, I wrote an article suggesting that what the young environmentalist sensation Greta Thunberg should be criticized not for her age but for her demagoguery and blind fanaticism. Somewhat unexpectedly for a relative unknown like me, the article generated a lot of commentary from the Medium readers, most of it predictably from Greta’s fans.

Many of the comments are not even worth addressing at length as they contain insults or ad hominem or completely misrepresent what I wrote or my views. One critic went so far as to threaten Medium to end his subscription if Medium were to continue publishing articles by heretics. And by the way, while we are at it, yes, even though I am a white male, I am perfectly entitled to, and will, criticize female figures like Greta Thunberg, get over it.

At the same time some of the objections were meaningful if frequently expressed in impolite ways, and they fall under four main categories that I will deal with in what follows.

Economic growth is not an enemy of the environment

There were quite a few comments decrying pro-market economists like me or even economists in general for worshipping economic growth at the expense of the environment and believing that such growth could be infinite.

When serious economists use the admittedly somewhat simplistic term “infinite growth”, what they (we) really mean is that economic growth is not about merely using more and more materials, space and energy to produce more value.

It is certainly true that humanity today makes use of vastly more materials, energy and land than at any point before the Industrial Revolution. However, this does not mean that future economic growth is bound to employ more and more of them. In fact as the painstaking research by Andrew McAfee from MIT demonstrates, people in developed economies have been using less and less of most inputs in the last few decades but the growth has continued unabated.

The reason for this is that it is profitable to economize on inputs and at a certain level of technological sophistication, it becomes possible to do so through both groundbreaking innovations like the smartphone and less spectacular advances like lighter buildings.

Some of the breakthroughs that are part of economic growth are particularly beneficial to the environment, and even to the CO2 emission reduction objective. I am talking here about GMOs that allow using less land and other resources for the same yield and fracking that allows extracting natural gas cheaper and replace coal-powered power plants with ones using natural gas.

Bizarrely, many if not most people extremely alarmed about the environment in general and climate change in particular tend to resent both of those innovations, raising legitimate questions whether their views are a type of religious belief without god rather than an evidence-based policy. They also seem to prefer to ignore the inconvenient fact that CO2 emissions in many developed countries have recently been trending down. Even in the U.S., despite its government not taking any serious emission-reduction measures. Another assumption that is perhaps even more important is that is there are no major endogenous natural sources of climate variability. It has to be about humans or the Sun or something “outside” the climate.

The climate change issue is not remotely simple

Several critics claimed that although nuanced views are generally to be preferred, the climate change issue is so clear-cut that there is no place for much nuance here. One can either swallow the alarmist view whole or be akin to the flat-earthers. It is not as complex as the economy, move on.

This could not be further from the truth. Just like economics, climate science deals with an extremely complex, chaotic system. It is complex because of the sheer number of factors involved only some of which (like fluid dynamics) are well-understood. It is chaotic not in some negative sense but in the sense that it is non-linear and that precise outcomes strongly depend on the precise past conditions.

Furthermore, just like in economics modelling the climate, especially in the way needed to make relatively precise predictions about future temperatures, requires making important assumptions which are rarely explicitly acknowledged and may often remain unreflected upon, much less known to the general public or wide-eyed activists.

Climate scientist Roy Spencer recently addressed one of those assumptions. Climate models tend to take it for granted that regardless of the external influences on the Earth’s climate system, most of which boil down to the Sun’s activity, the system always returns to its “preferred state.” The importance of this assumption becomes clear when one looks at the data on global average temperature anomaly since 1978 when it started increasing. It is not difficult to see that the major jumps tend to coincide with the El Nino phases of the ENSO pattern in the Equatorial Pacific, especially those of 1986–87, 1997–1998 and 2014–2016.

A recent study by Wang et al. nicely illustrates the point that I am trying to make. The study recognizes the intensification in the El Nino pattern since 1970 but does not even attempt to prove that this intensification is due to climate change. Instead, it just assumes it and proceeds from there. However, one could instead easily ask the question whether it is the little-understood intensification in the El Nino pattern that may have caused some of the observed warming since 1978.

I do not know about you but making this sort of assumptions without convincing theory and evidence does not seem to constitute good scientific practice. Which leads me to my next point.

The three meanings of science

Those convinced by climate alarmism usually say that the virtue of alarmists is that they and their leaders like Greta follow the climate science as it is done by most of its practitioners. Even if this were true (which, as I pointed out in my previous article, it is not), this view would still be deeply misguided.

As I touched upon above, climate is a complex system whose particular states are not precisely derivable mathematically or logically from first principles. Perhaps, both because the climate phenomena are emergent and because the numerical values of many variables are not knowable with the required accuracy, or at least due to the latter. Facing this reality, climate scientists have resorted to statistical analysis as a means of demonstrating that the recent global warming is highly likely due to the increasing concentrations of CO2 and, to a lesser extent, methane.

Coming from an economic research background (and yes, sorry, economics is also a science, dear greens, even if you hate growth), I can draw the attention of the reader to the problems with statistical modelling of the complex, nonlinear systems that I am more used to study. So far, the use of statistical methods in economics has not allowed the practitioners to resolve a single major disagreement. Neither on whether minimum wage laws tend to increase unemployment, not on whether fiscal stimulus is an adequate response to economic crises, nor on whether patents facilitate more innovation than they discourage, and so on. I also already mentioned the quiet use of questionable assumptions in modelling, and modern economics is, sadly, replete with it.

Modelling economic phenomena may be more challenging because the humans that are responsible for them are, perhaps, unlike ocean currents or clouds, capable of completely new responses to seemingly broadly the same conditions as in the past. However, the failures of statistical validation of theories in economics should, indeed, make one think twice before blindly accepting statistical “proofs” in climate science.

As a researcher by training, I also understand something even more significant. There are at least three ways in which one can use the world “science”. One of them refers to the body of knowledge that appears to have been validated with the best possible methods at our disposal. The statements that the Earth is spherical, that it orbits the Sun, that all the known communicable diseases are caused by organisms or misfolded proteins, and so on are uncontroversial elements of it.

Another meaning of science is a social process, the pattern of human activities and interactions that is aimed, and tends to expand the aforementioned body of knowledge. While scientific disciplines may differ in many ways, the key high-level requirements to the correct knowledge-seeking process that they must satisfy are largely the same. The process’s results, procedures and evidence that led to attaining them should be as widely available as possible. The theories should be formulated in clearly-defined terms and be, at least in principle, contrastable with the relevant evidence. Perhaps, most importantly, the incentives that the practitioners face should not make them systematically biased towards claiming to produce particular results. Without one of these elements in place, the process in question may become science in a purely sociological sense, namely, merely something perceived by most people to be science.

In my view, the recent climate in the climate science (pun intended) has been incompatible with preventing systematic bias but before I address this, notice that bias does not mean conspiracy. No serious sceptic of alarmism claims that there is a global cabal of climatologists who try to strong-arm all their colleagues into promoting the alarmist cause in their research. Even if at least one small group of alarmist researchers clearly tried.

Rather, bias refers to the prospects that a climate scientist faces if she decides to explicitly swim against the alarmist current. The prospects of having trouble obtaining funding from government research support bodies (who actually finance most of climate research, and not the evil Big Oil), for instance. Or of potential backlash and incendiary accusations of denialism and demands for the researcher to be fired, of having trouble publishing because of the hostile referees, etc. Just listen to Judith Curry here and here or Roger Pielke, Jr.

A systematically biased scientific process in a given field is far less likely to succeed in expanding the body of solid knowledge than if such bias were absent. Thus, brandishing it as an ultimate argument does not cut it.

Fanaticism is a wrong cure for complex social issues. Maybe even for some simple ones

The final criticism that is worth answering is the idea that even though the climate fanaticism of activists like Greta Thunberg seems to be way over the top, it may be extremely useful in that it may finally get the politicians to act where nothing else could. If climate change is a human-caused global disaster in the making, is not this the only thing that matters?

Well, not really. First, as discussed previously in this piece, the alarmist dent in the climate change research may well be based on dubious assumptions, inappropriate faith in statistics as an arbiter in the absence of controlled experiments and systematic bias. With the latter potentially driving much of the former two.

Secondly, by going way beyond its justification, fanaticism invariably ends up invoking the most scary scenarios that not acting on its demands will invariably bring about. Recall Greta’s completely bogus claim of the irreversible chain reaction in 11 years.

If one looks at history, massively pumped scares have never led to beneficial policies. Just remember the Prohibition or look at the hysteria around vaping in the U. S. and the completely misguided response to it. And in the response to the climate change department, just consider that the alarmists stubbornly ignore or downplay (hello, Greta!) the only solution that could quickly reduce emissions without astronomical costs or dangerous atmospheric experiments — nuclear power.

Climate change is a very complex issue, and dealing with it is no less complex because to the extent that it arises from CO2 emissions, it arises from the economic activities of countless people and organizations spread over many diverse countries. The biggest emitters have political regimes that are unlikely to respond to desperate calls of Western activists. Without them, developed countries can only have an impact through attempting drastic emission reductions that would probably just result in the relocation of much of the affected activities to the territory of the biggest emitters or massive social unrest with which the Yellow Vest unrest in France would pale in comparison.

One could go even further and say that the historical record of fanaticism is mixed even with regard to much simpler issues than climate change. Consider the undeniable evil of slavery. One could say that the single-minded efforts by the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade were a huge success. However, perhaps, they have eventually succeeded only because they were not too radical in the immediate time frame. They targeted the ban on slave trade instead of a complete abolition of slavery, and this perhaps allowed to make the opposition less stringent. On the other hand, the U.S. abolitionist movement may have overplayed its hand. If it had initially focused on getting the Northern states to allow Southern slaves to escape freely to their territory instead of directly abolishing slavery in the South, the catastrophe of the Civil War could have been avoided and slavery in the South would have been badly undermined.

Written by

PhD, economics (2018) from Aix-Marseille University, independent blockchain adoption consultant based in Aix-en-Provence, France, Email: daniilgor2004@gmail.com

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