Working for a Better Future

The 2016 presidential election campaign is heating up in the US and it seems to me that the widely accepted degree of cynicism about politicians is reaching new heights. In fact, it has already reached the point of paralyzing important parts of the government. Naturally, political campaigns focus on candidates’ promises of future action rather than accountability for their past activities. Climate change is at the forefront of such debates. Climate change activists are calling for action now as they try not only to ensure a better future, but to prevent some of the global catastrophes whose initial markers are already visible. Given how many politicians have actively worked to prevent actions that would help mitigate the dangers of anthropogenic climate change, public distrust is not surprising. Indeed, politicians’ tendency to discount the future is reaching new heights. Here, I’d like to elevate the debate from the collective shouting match over of what the future will hold to a more educational level.

I will start with academic research effort that was recently documented in the New York Times Op-Ed “The Power of Precise Predictions” by Philip E. Tetlock and Peter Scoblick:

The problem with such predictions is that it is difficult to square them with objective reality. Why? Because few of them are specific enough to be testable. Key terms are left vague and undefined. (What exactly does “underscore leadership” mean?) Hedge words like “might” or “could” are deployed freely. And forecasts frequently fail to include precise dates or time frames. Even the most emphatic declarations — like former Vice President Dick Cheney’s prediction that the deal “will lead to a nuclear-armed Iran” — can be too open-ended to disconfirm.

There is a familiar psychological mechanism at work here. One of us, Professor Tetlock, has been running lab studies since the early 1980s that show that if people expect that others will evaluate the accuracy of their judgments — that is, if people feel they will be held accountable for their views — then they tend to avoid cognitive pitfalls such as overconfidence and the failure to update beliefs in response to new evidence. Professor Tetlock and the psychologist Jennifer Lerner have demonstrated that accountability has this effect because it encourages people to pre-emptively think of ways in which they might be wrong —before others do it for them.

But when people make non-falsifiable predictions, they feel less accountable. After all, if a prediction can never be disproved, then it poses no reputational risk. That lack of accountability, in turn, encourages overconfidence and even more extreme predictions.

Non-falsifiable predictions thus undermine the quality of our discourse. They also impede our ability to improve policy, for if we can never judge whether a prediction is good or bad, we can never discern which ways of thinking about a problem are best.

The solution is straightforward: Replace vague forecasts with testable predictions. Will the International Atomic Energy Agency report in December that Iran has adequately resolved concerns about the potential military dimensions of its nuclear program? Will Iran export or dilute its quantities of low-enriched uranium in excess of 300 kilograms by the deal’s “implementation day” early next year? Within the next six months, will any disputes over I.A.E.A. access to Iranian sites be referred to the Joint Commission for resolution?

This suggests a way to improve real-world discussion. Suppose, during the next ideologically charged policy debate, that we held a public forecasting tournament in which representatives from both sides had to make concrete predictions. (We are currently sponsoring such a tournament on the Iran deal.) Based on what we have seen in previous tournaments, this exercise would decrease the distance between the two camps. And because it would be possible to determine a “winner,” it would help us learn whether the conservative or liberal assessment of the issue was more accurate.

The article focuses on the recent arguments regarding the Iran nuclear deal, but applying the same argument to climate change can easily bring about calls of, “stick to predicting the weather and leave the climate alone.” Here is how Wikipedia defines the difference between weather and climate:

There is often confusion between weather and climate. Weather is the day to day condition of the atmosphere at a particular place while climate is an average of weather condition at a particular place over a long period of time. Weather is the condition of the atmosphere at a particular place over a short period of time. For example, on a particular day in Trinidad, the weather is warm in the afternoon. But later in the day, when there are clouds blocking Sun’s rays, the weather would become cooler. Climate refers to the weather pattern of a place over a long period, maybe 30 years or more, long enough to yield meaningful averages ([1][2]). For example, although the weather in Pakistan may be cool and dry today, Pakistan’s climate is hot most of the time.

Two of my first blogs on this platform discussed similar arguments (May 7 and August 13, 2012). Here is a key paragraph from the May 7, 2012 blog:

A student of mine at Brooklyn College in a general education course on Energy Use and Climate Change forwarded to me a letter that was published in the on-line publication Business Insider (April 11, 2012). The letter was signed by 49 former NASA employees that included seven Apollo astronauts and two former directors of NASA’s Johnson Space Center calling NASA to move away from climate model predictions and to limit its stance to what can be “empirically proven.” The letter specifically targets James Hansen – Director of NASA Goddard Institute (GISS) (Hansen and the GISS have been acting as the “the canary in the coal mine” warning for years about the consequences of relying on fossil fuels as our main source of energy.) The letter states that, “We believe the claims by NASA and GISS, that man-made carbon dioxide is having a catastrophic impact on global climate change are not substantiated.”  The reason for the doubt includes that.” NASA is relying too heavily on complex climate models that have proven scientifically inadequate in predicting climate only one or two decades in advance” and that “There’s a concern that if it turns out that CO2 is not a major cause of climate change, NASA will have put the reputation of NASA, NASA’s current and former employees, and even the very reputation of science itself at risk of public ridicule and distrust.” This is backwards; it’s the letter that should be held up to public ridicule.

As I have mentioned repeatedly, effective mitigation of climate change requires a global evolution in attitude and a collective effort to develop technologies that will facilitate a worldwide energy transition without sacrificing economic development. It also requires time. The Brundtland report (see the January 28, 2013 blog) defined sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” With Tetlock and Scoblick’s requirement of refutability, we can neither refute nor confirm the needs of future generations at this time.

Tetlock and Scoblick postulate that by limiting predictions to the concrete and quantifiable, the limit acts as a restraining factor in discussions about the future. Since the predictor is aware that his/her predictions might be proven wrong, he/she is more careful about what he/she claims will happen. However, for this system to work, the predictions have to be tested within the predictor’s tenure in his/her position; otherwise, they may not care about the consequences of being proven wrong. This excludes long term predictions, thus making it useless for predicting the impacts of global changes such as climate change.

The refutability requirement bears strong similarities to the Popperian definition of the scientific method (see the June 18, 2012 blog), which is also based on refutability. We develop a hypothesis and/or theory based on everything that we know and we test the theory based on predictions for observations that we haven’t yet made.  If the tests fail, we change the theory. This amounts to prediction of future results.

Tetlock and Scoblick require arguments to be framed in terms of the immediate actions that need to be taken to mitigate the adverse consequences of our current way of doing business. It reminds me of a famously absurd Jewish folk tale wherein they must test all of the matches in a matchbox to make sure that they all function properly. At the end of the test none of the matches will be able to light a candle.

Another recent Op-Ed in the New York Times advocates that we should stop recycling because the process is expensive and time consuming compared to burying waste or manufacturing new materials:

IF you live in the United States, you probably do some form of recycling. It’s likely that you separate paper from plastic and glass and metal. You rinse the bottles and cans, and you might put food scraps in a container destined for a composting facility. As you sort everything into the right bins, you probably assume that recycling is helping your community and protecting the environment. But is it? Are you in fact wasting your time?

While in the short term that argument might sound compelling, when we look at the future availability of planetary resources, the results of such rhetoric are alarming. If we take into account the growth rates in both global population and standard of living, within a mere century we will have next to no new material left. In terms of multigenerational global sustainability, everything that can be recycled should be recycled. Of course, such a global change of practice requires a long learning period, meaning that we absolutely must start enforcing this action now.

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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