Saturday, February 20, 2010

Despair and climate change - a Grand Jury of Science

Despair is easy.

Sometimes it is justified. Other times, humanity surprises.

Dramatic change happens. It usually takes at least 20 years, and there are usually reversals along the way. In my lifetime I can easily think of smoking cessation, the end of littering, women's rights, gay rights, civil rights, cleansing of wealthy nation water and air, the fall of the Soviet Empire, dramatic reductions in family size, the creation of the EU, the Y2K resolution, the international Ozone agreement, and the dramatic reduction of poverty and suffering in China and India.

I thought 9/11 would be the start of a long series of mega-terrorist actions around the world, including bioweapons and dirty bombs. It wasn't.

It's these kinds of slow moving but radical changes that make elderly people say things like "it will all work out in the end". It's not true of course; history tells us it often doesn't work out. Anyway, in the end we're all dead. Still, the sentiment is understandable. If you're 80 you've seen a lot of intractable problems solved.

So, no matter how easy it feels, despair about American politics, global climate change response, institutional corruption, healthcare costs, US healthcare coverage, world food supplies, the end of cheap oil, the collapse of mainstream journalism, the Great Recession and rich world debt is an unaffordable indulgence.

Consider the response to climate change. We know we need a carbon tax equivalent and more, but America has moved backwards on this one. There's widespread American doubt about where the Earth's climate is going and what we can do about it.

So how do we start to turn this around? We can't expect leadership from the cognitively impaired and corrupt US Senate. We need to turn the American people. Hollywood won't do it.

So how about a Grand Jury of Science? Greybeards remember Richard Feynman's role on the Rogers Commission investigating the Challenger disaster. That committee, led by a genius with a robust ego and a showman's flair, produced a robust and widely trusted report on a complex technical and social issue.

We need something like that today. We don't have big popular names like Feynman or Einstein at the moment, but we've got great scientists and communicators all the same. Obama could put together a Grand Jury of Science led by a team of scientific communicators and working (ie. under 65) non-climate scientists.

The panel would call witnesses from the world of Climate Science and cross-examine them. Under the committee's auspices climate scientists, economists, and technical consultants would prepare an American (has to be American to be plausible) rigorous report on what the science tells us, what the uncertainties are, and what we should do (ie. Carbon Tax).

Yes, Americans pay far more attention to Glenn Beck than to mere logic and science, but remember the 1964 Surgeon Generals Report on Smoking and Health. Even though it really didn't say anything new, it still became the foundation for a discussion that took (yes) 20 years to conclude. At the time it came out smoking was routine, even expected. The report played a vital role in a major social change.

Victory is far from guaranteed. Failure is an option. Despair, however, is not permitted.

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