Wednesday, May 15, 2019
Clarke’s Third Law
Clarke’s third law states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. If people know this law at all, they relate it to fiction, especially science fiction. But more and more I come to think of it also as being able to explain some events in the real world.
Climate science is so complicated, so based on statistics and models that few people understand, and so hard to demonstrate with experiments, that it fulfills Clarke’s criterion of being sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic. In particular it is indistinguishable from the miracles and “acts of god” of religions. A catastrophic climate event, like a hurricane, is indistinguishable from an event caused by the “wrath of god”. Even a climate scientist can’t reliably predict those events, current science only tells us to expect more of these events as a result of global warming.
This gives climate science an aspect of doomsaying magic, and of religion: “Repent, sinners! Abandon your acts of gratuitous consumption of meat and fossil fuel, and the world might still be saved!” Some of the people talking about climate change end up being indistinguishable from high priests of some strange religious cult. And thus we shouldn’t be surprised that some people simply choose not to believe those climate change priests. After all, breaking several of the ten commandments doesn’t get people struck by lightning. And people quite like their gratuitous consumption, their steaks, their big cars, their airline travel holidays. Why give all of that up for a badly defined chance of less future doom? Especially if you don’t live in some oceanfront property or otherwise low ground, keeping up your consumption appears to be the safer bet.
As a scientist I am pretty convinced that climate change is real, that it is increasing the likelihood of catastrophic events, and that it may lead to rising ocean levels which might displace or kill a lot of people. But I am also still flying, still driving, and still eating meat. The economist in me calls this the tragedy of the commons. As I can’t even convince myself to lead the life of a minimalist, I also don’t believe it will be possible to convince everybody of the necessity of doing so. The scenario in which humanity manages to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius is extremely unlikely, in my opinion. While the doomsaying high-priests of climate change have my sympathy, I don’t plan to practice that particular religion. I would however advise you to quickly sell that oceanfront property and move further inland, if you can.