Timothy Gowers posted a comment on the ‘Technology for Azimuth’ thread which deserves to be a post in its own right. So, I’ll move it here:
John, this isn’t to do with the technological questions, but it’s sort of relevant. One of the reasons I’ve done nothing about climate change is a feeling that even if the science were 100% clear to all serious-minded people in the world, there are enough non-serious-minded people and vested interests, and enough prisoner’s-dilemma type problems, that actually getting something done about the problem is hopeless.
My question therefore is what you mean when you say that you want to help save the planet. Or rather, I think I know the answer, but I want to check that I’ve got it right. Is it something like this: you want to create a resource that is so well-informed (it would get a reputation for being scientifically very sound) and so balanced (it would also get a reputation for being very clear about what is known and what is not known, and what the general certainty levels are) that it would become a recognised authority, and one that cranks would have a very hard time criticizing.
Why does that help save the planet? For precisely the political reasons I’ve just talked about. It is clear that actually changing policy is much much easier if you have most voters on your side. And to do that, people have to act as go-betweens, explaining the science in a clear and checkable way to non-scientists. In other words, you would be trying to help push the world towards a benign tipping point where it becomes politically easy to take measures against climate change rather than politically virtually impossible.
If something like that is your mission statement, then a general remark about the technology of the forum and wiki would be that it should be designed to optimize the result from that point of view. (That is supposed to be the very slight relevance of this comment to this thread, but really I’m interested in the question for its own sake.)
One of the reasons I’ve done nothing about climate change is a feeling that even if the science were 100% clear to all serious-minded people in the world, there are enough non-serious-minded people and vested interests, and enough prisoner’s-dilemma type problems, that actually getting something done about the problem is hopeless.
I agree, it’s hopeless. That’s an important realization. I was rather gloomy for a year or two after that sank in.
But then I came to my senses. I said: okay, so the problem is “hopeless”. But what does that actually mean? Is the world coming to an end? Will everyone die? Will all species go extinct?
I think the answer is obviously no.
If the world were coming to an end, and we knew that for sure, we’d be off the hook. We could say: “Nothing I do will have any really have any effect, so I might as well just relax and enjoy myself”.
But we are not off the hook. Even if a disaster of some sort is certain, there are different degrees of disaster, and it’s our responsibility to minimize the disaster.
I’m pretty sure that politicians and the mass of citizens will take significant action on global warming only when things get quite bad. By then, even drastically slashing carbon emissions won’t improve the climate for hundreds of years. Emission reductions will be necessary to keep things from getting worse, but not sufficient to make things better.
So, while we’re frantically struggling to cut carbon emissions, kicking ourselves for not starting sooner, we’ll presumably also do a mixture of:
2) geo-engineering, and
(Under the heading of ‘geo-engineering’ I include actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere as well as various potentially riskier strategies to cool down the Earth — including strategies that could backfire and make things a lot worse.)
But how will it go, exactly? I think there’s quite a spectrum of possible futures to consider here, ranging from slightly bad to quite bad to very bad to very very bad. And I think we should all work hard to avoid the worst end of that spectrum.
And we have to do it now, because people don’t always get better at optimizing their collective behavior when things get worse. Sometimes they do things like start wars.
(Civilizations have collapsed due to climate change before. I’ve been reading about that a lot, and I’ll talk about it someday.)
My question therefore is what you mean when you say that you want to help save the planet.
I mean I want to do my best to achieve a future near the better end of the spectrum of possibilities.
But of course the question is then: how do I do it?
And the answer to this presumably depends a lot on the person asking it. We’re all good at different things, and if we take advantage of our particular skills, I think we can accomplish a lot more than if we do what’s ‘best’ in some general way but not particularly best for us.
So, while global warming is mainly a political issue, and we really need some brilliant politicians to tackle it, I have to figure out something else to do — something that I’ll be good at — since I’m not good at politics. And I’m still trying to figure this out. But I have some ideas.
Is it something like this: you want to create a resource that is so well-informed (it would get a reputation for being scientifically very sound) and so balanced (it would also get a reputation for being very clear about what is known and what is not known, and what the general certainty levels are) that it would become a recognised authority, and one that cranks would have a very hard time criticizing.
Actually that’s not quite my goal — though it’s close enough that I might try to do that too.
You see, I do think it’s important to make reliable and well-presented information about environmental issues more easily available. But I don’t think making it ‘hard for cranks to criticize’ should be a major goal. That strategy is too purely defensive. And cranks will criticize anything.
Of course you can try to provide information that’s so clear that ordinary citizens will see it makes much more sense than what the cranks are saying. And this is a good idea — though at least in the US, it would be quite hard to change a lot of minds that are already made up.
But I’m starting to lean towards something more like this: try to provide information that’s so clear that scientists and engineers will see it makes much more sense than what the cranks are saying.
And, simultaneously, provide these scientists and engineers with ideas about what they can do now. There are lots of projects to work on. Lots of scientists are already doing them — but where can you look to see all these projects, in a nicely organized way? Where can you see people with many different approaches discussing their relative merits? I think there might be a hole here.
Ideas are welcome! That’s one thing the Azimuth Forum will be about: what to do.
I don’t know what John’s “tactics” are, but here’s my personal “hopes”.
The view of vested interests, whilst certainly having some truth to it, doesn’t strike me as the whole story. Human beings are incredibly, amazingly bizarre creatures with almost often seemingly arbitrary obsessions. There are all sort of phenomena (for recent examples consider twitter, buying iPads, the tea party movement, owning a Prius, buying fairtrade, etc, as well as older examples such as “sending me to the moon”) where (in my personal analysis) an awful lot of the people involved don’t really have deep personally thought out reasons for their behaviour, they’re more responding to something in the collective atmosphere (“zeitgeist”) that vaguely resonates with existing personality and values. Note that I’m not saying that there aren’t some people engaged in any of those activities who haven’t thought long and hard about them and that they aren’t necessarily good things, just that most of the “followers” haven’t. And it seems like with increasing media ubiquity and commonality, the size of “group behaviours” is increasing all the time. (FWIW, I’m sure I have my own zeitgeist behaviours, it’s not an “I’m superior to them” point.)
As such, it doesn’t seem impossible to me that, if scientists and technologists come up with some “improvements” (whether it’s a gadget, technology, behaviour) that it could be marketed in such a way that they become various group behaviours that are big enough to affect the planet. (Whilst not impossible, it does strike me as unlikely, but orders of magnitude more plausible than governments acting on the basis of scientific reports, which I imagine we both think is virtually impossible.)
So what I’d hope is that the Azimuth resources point new scientists/technologists to both
(a) actual problems to work on responses
(b) areas where science doesn’t have any idea what’s going on so that they can be firmed up into concrete problems and feed into point (a).
Indeed, these are some of the things I hope we do!
I’m going to Bali for a while, but then I’ll come back and on September 27th I’ll open the doors to:
• the Azimuth Project (our wiki)
• the Azimuth Forum (our discussion forum).
The Azimuth Forum will be a great place to discuss issues of strategy as well as more day-to-day aspects of running the wiki. But for now let’s talk about strategy here.
We need to be smart about this to have any significant effect.