Notes on the dangerous difference between science and political science
President Obama is visiting Alaska this week — a territory changing as rapidly as any on earth thanks to global warming. He’s talking constantly about the danger that climate change poses to the planet (a welcome development given that he managed to go through virtually the entire 2012 election without even mentioning it). And everything he’s saying is right: we are a nation, and a planet, beset by fire, flood, drought. It’s the hottest year in earth’s recorded history. July was the hottest month ever measured on planet earth.
But of course the alarm he’s sounding is muffled by the fact that earlier this year he gave Shell Oil a permit to go drill in the Arctic, potentially opening up a giant new pool of oil.
It’s as if the health teacher giving the anti-smoking talk to junior-high assembly had a Marlboro dangling from her lip.
To most of us this seems like a contradiction. But to the political mind it doesn’t, not really. In fact, here’s how David Balton, the State Department’s diplomat for ocean issues, explained it. On the one hand, he said, the idea that we should stop all Arctic drilling was “held by a lot of Americans. It’s not a radical view.” On the other hand, “there are plenty of people on the other side unhappy that areas of the Arctic, and areas on land, have been closed to hydrocarbon development by the very same president.”
So — and here’s the money quote — “Maybe that means we’re in the right place, given that people on both sides are unhappy with us.”
Maybe. But probably not. Because here’s the thing: Climate change is not like most of the issues politicians deal with, the ones where compromise makes complete sense.
Down the hall from Balton’s office at the State Department, he has some colleague negotiating the Iran nuclear deal. By its very nature, a deal has two sides and you meet somewhere in the middle — to insist that Iran get nothing in return for giving up their nukes would be to kill the very idea of negotiations. That’s true in most encounters. If I want $30 an hour to work for your fast food restaurant, and you’d just as soon use slaves, then $15 an hour represents a workable compromise. We can come back in 5 years and negotiate some more. Be reasonable. One step at a time. Zealots make bad policy.
But climate change isn’t like that. Balton — and Obama, and almost everyone else in power — makes the same simple-but-deadly category mistake. They think the relevant negotiation is between the people who want to drill and the people who don’t. But actually, this negotiation is between People and physics. And therefore it’s not really a negotiation.
Because physics doesn’t negotiate. Physics just does.
Press link for more: Bill McKibben | medium.com