A short reaction from a scientific perspective to the speech of the environmental activist might be useful for the Romanian citizens interested in efficient and effective spending of public money for environmental problems.
From the very beginning I want to underline that climate changes are real and caused by at least the following coupled processes: solar processes, volcanic events, and human activities. It is an objective, scientific fact that human activities contribute to the changes observed at the time scale of the last century. On the other hand, it is also a scientific fact that there is not certain at all that by reducing the emissions of selected gases the overall trend will be reversed, for two reasons:
- the processes occurring at Earth scale are not linear and have a historical character (as in the case of humans, for instance, giving up smoking will not guarantee us that some associate illness will never occur)
- other processes involved in climate changes may interfere with our effort in a desired or not desired direction.
Based on such knowledge about the natural processes an honest scientist might communicate the reality, and suggest various action scenarios with their associated probabilities of realization, if available. If the probabilities of realization are not available this should be explicitly stated. The public and the policy makers can then evaluate the available resources to be spent, the objectives desired by the societies at different scales, the order of priorities, and the resources allocated to each objective.
Greta Thunberg’s Speech (transcript available here) is written according to the standards of shaping the governments by public communication (chapter 32 here) and has proved to be efficient in terms of the impact. However, in my opinion some aspects in its content make it ineffective for solving environmental problems.
A key statement is that “For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear.” Anyone used with science is aware that science is based on a process of continuous evolution of knowledge. Moreover, in life and earth sciences the complexity of the phenomena is so large that we never have a single clear representation of what is happening. We always need complementary theories reducing in different ways the dimensionality of the objects and processes. The belief in the crystal clearness of environmental sciences might be the result of an education system lacking critical thinking, pluralistic presentation of theories and elements of history and philosophy of science.
It is true that “Entire ecosystems are collapsing.”, although it is misleading to state that this situation is always due to human impact. It is for sure not scientifically guaranteed that “We are at the beginning of a mass extinction”.
When the problem to be solved is formulated superficially it is natural that “the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.” It is false that only some decision makers have not understood the nature of the problems, as Ms. Thunberg seems to assume: “Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.” Many environmentalists also make use of too simplistic representations of the natural and human processes in their public action, and seem to rely only on the goodwill and their morality. Goodwill and morality are of crystal clear help in formulating strategic goals and using the resources in the right way at operational level, but are of no use for imagining realistic tactical and operational goals serving the strategy.
In the end Ms. Thunberg touches on some technical issues, for instance: “Fifty percent may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice.” I would not bring into discussion such a very specific aspect because this is beyond my competence, and I’m not aware of any scientific agreement around such specific and precise numbers. However, as a negotiating tactic for pushing the people in the right direction, specifying clear numbers is the right way, I myself use the method asking, for instance, co-workers to produce large number of articles in highly reputed academic journals.
I am sympathetic also with the final rhetoric figure, namely telling major politicians of the planet that they are not mature: “There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.” Although this is probably not true it opens an interesting discussion about maturity, education, and public actions, highly relevant for the functionality of liberal democracies.
To conclude, Greta Thunberg’s speech at the U.N. Climate action summit is representative for the state of environmentalism in the Western civilization. It is definitely good that people are given a voice to express their concerns and provide a bottom-up feedback to those in power, and that they have the resources to do this (which is not the case in Romania where most of the civil society is manipulated by those in power). There are also fundamental problems in how the environmentalists create their argumentation, and perhaps the major ones are the lack of critical thinking and the false representation about scientific knowledge, in particular about the environment.
There is an obvious temptation to overuse scientific knowledge (descriptive statements in cultural evolution by scientific method with interferences from external factors) in order to provide moral statements, which since David Hume on seems problematic. Well educated persons should not fall into this trap.
An earlier version of this text was significantly improved by the feedback from a reader of Contributors.ro platform.
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