The Environmental Uncertainty Principle

The New York Times reports, with more than a touch of breathless enthusiasm, that a Department of Interior official is “on a campaign” to ensure that the agency’s scientific reports “misrepresent” climate change. The putative exposé makes for thrilling reading—hints of intrigue, deception, and craven self-interest. The headline says it all: “Trump Insider Embeds Climate Denial in Scientific Research.” A bit of fact checking, however, reveals that there is more to this story than meets the eye—in fact, understood in context, this little kerfuffle says more about the Times, climate change rhetoric, and scientific groupthink than it does about this supposed “insider,” or embedded denial. In fact, the article’s heavy reliance on the term “misrepresentation” supports an observation, common in this strangely polarizing issue, that the climate “faithful” exhibit a curiously strong case of psychological projection.

For example, the Times tells us that this official, Indur M. Goklany, has “inserted misleading language about climate change—including debunked claims that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is beneficial—into the agency’s scientific reports.” Well, to be fair, it is unarguably true that increased carbon dioxide has some benefits for some species at some times and in some places. Ecology is complicated like that. For the plant kingdom, it is a well-known experimentally demonstrated phenomenon that increased CO2 generally stimulates plant growth and carbon fixation, improves photosynthetic efficiency, and (via stomatal conductance) tends to reduce water consumption. Greenhouse producers routinely enrich CO2 levels to 1000 ppm or more, double or even triple ambient atmospheric concentrations. Yes, it’s complicated, with potential secondary effects such as decreased nutritional density, but by-and-large, carbon dioxide is in fact a major boon to plant growth.

Moreover, Goklany does not appear to have made the broad claim that “carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is beneficial” as the Times would have us understand. Instead, if we take time to read the “embedded” language, what we see is something rather different. Goklany writes:

Ultimately, future conditions at any particular time or place cannot be known exactly, given the current scientific understanding of potential future conditions. Likewise, it is important to recognize that the risks and impacts are the result of collective changes at a given location. Warming and increased carbon dioxide may increase plant water use efficiency, lengthen the agricultural growing season, but may also have adverse effects on snowpack and water availability. These complex interactions underscore the importance of using a planning approach that identifies future risks to water resources systems based on a range of plausible future conditions, and working with stakeholders to evaluate options that minimized potential impacts in ways most suitable for all stakeholders involved.

This may be “misleading language” in the sense that it does not hew to the orthodoxy of climate absolutism (i.e. all climate effects are negative and all policy responses must be immediate and draconian), but nothing in the statement strikes me as unreasonable. Indeed, on the contrary, it seems that in the bid to label Mr. Goklany as “misleading,” the Times in fact resorts to the tactic itself.

I don’t know Mr. Goklany from Adam. He may in fact be a devious, venal slave to the Western water lobby, desperately spewing climate denialism in a bid to line his own pockets. But that seems doubtful. The Times clearly spent considerable time researching this story; one can only imagine such stark sleaze would have come to the fore. Instead, Goklany, who is trivialized in the piece as a “longtime Interior Department employee” and a “minor bureaucrat” in the peanut gallery of backlinks, might actually be worth listening to. After all, he represented the United States delegation on the IPCC, has written extensively on the topic of carbon concentrations, has an engineering PhD, has published three books critically assessing climate science, and has written widely, including at Nature and The Lancet. So while he is caricatured as the deceptive one, it seems on reflection to be the other way around. In fact, it might just be possible that he has a trained quizzical mind and is making a good-faith effort to frame policy in ways that do not unintentionally do more harm than good.

The Times goes on: “[Goklany] inaccurately claims there is a lack of consensus among scientists that the earth is warming.” Technically, again, Goklany didn’t say that, and to the extent that Goklany highlights existing debate on the topic, he’s actually correct. As Scientific American notes in an extremely important article, the academic feud over climate “consensus” is very real. While there is a generalized agreement over an observed absolute rise in global temperatures, there is no monolithic “consensus” on where this rise comes from, the role of anthropogenic emissions in it, or what models can be reliably marshaled to build policy on. “After all,” says the article, “the point of science is to challenge accepted wisdom and refine it, a process that runs somewhat counter to the idea of a consensus.”

Whenever scientists begin to think in consensus terms, or dismiss dissenters and doubt, it is time be wary. Think eugenics, or the abysmal treatment of the founder of tectonic theory. The Times promotes a narrative that a clear, unequivocal “consensus” exists amongst climate scientists when study after study shows that it’s more complicated than that. Goklany’s position, which acknowledges the messy reality of current climate science, is branded as “inaccurate.” Very expedient for the in-crowd of climate-believers, I’m sure, but the label sticks to the accusers more than the accused.

Goklany’s basic approach, which might be characterized as environmentalism’s “Uncertainty Principle” seems quintessentially reasonable to me. It is not, as the Times suggests, a “denialist’s” retort that a lack of perfect certainty about climate science justifies the status quo. Rather, it is a logical demand that when formulating policy, we account for risk on a number of competing dimensions, recognizing that action (or inaction) has both positive and negative consequences to a constellation of actors in a kaleidoscope of outcomes. It is not enough, in other words, to wield a stripped-down precautionary principle as justification for supporting certain vogue causes (like solar panels) or thwarting certain popularly-decried activities (like meat-eating). Goklany instead advocates for

a framework for employing the precautionary principle in such ambiguous situations based on a set of common-sense criteria that allow risks to be ranked and compared based on their nature, severity, magnitude, certainty, immediacy, irreversibility, etc.

The Uncertainty Principle, then, encourages a return to studied, careful, scientific methodology. Goklany’s reasoning also offers a reminder that that “certainty” is a word that should give everyone the jitters when used by the powerful.

The tone and tenor of Goklany’s writing is altogether more sober, rational, and humble than the frantic alarmism that so dominates the “believer” side of the debate. The Times article, which is ricocheting around the world while Truth tries to put its boots on, might have been better titled “Goklany the Unbeliever!” This is predictable enough—character assassination is an old and effective trick for silencing apostates. But if true, Goklany is an interesting kind of unbeliever: asking questions, prompting dialogue, and compiling evidence to insist that unelected agencies refrain from absolutist policy formulation based on what is, obviously, a very complicated topic. He may be wrong, I’ll warrant. I am personally a climate agnostic (or, more properly, like the old bumper-sticker: “Militant agnostic—I don’t know and you don’t either!”). My general sense is that we have very real anthropogenic change afoot, but that the extent and effects are largely unknown and unknowable. But after reading more about Goklany’s dedication to uncertainty as a guiding principle in making policy, I find it strikes a resonant frequency.

In this sense, I’m grateful to the Times for writing the piece—like a monk reading Luther to see what all the “heretical” fuss is, I find Goklany’s position quietly compelling and closer to my own. While the Times article is not really journalism, and is a barely concealed ideological screed, it actually aids the larger dialogue by showcasing the alternate (sorry, “denier,” “skeptic,” “dissenter”) view. More to the point, by engaging in such flagrant projection, the Times has highlighted the problem with groupthink in the climate discussion. As a psychological defense mechanism, projection can be an effective, if vicious, technique. But as a method for generating useful, actionable information in the face of real environmental issues, it falls short. The Times should know better.