Sunday, June 29, 2008

Free speech and the fate of humanity

We all know that even in the United States the guarantee of free speech has limits. The Supreme Court long ago said that no one has the right to endanger his or her fellow citizens by, for instance, falsely yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. Such acts of speech are said to pose "a clear and present danger." James Hansen, perhaps the most respected climate scientist on the planet, thinks that the fossil fuel lobby and its disinformation campaign about global warming may pose a similar threat.

Hansen, speaking before the U. S. Congress last week, said that the CEOs of fossil fuel companies should be tried for "high crimes against humanity and nature." He said they deserve this fate because they know full well that continued burning of fossil fuels threatens the stability of the climate and with it civilization. Yet, they purposely confuse the public to forestall the day when limits will be placed on carbon emissions from such fuels.

(A later decision by the U. S. Supreme Court narrowed the test for prohibited speech to that which incites or is likely to incite "imminent lawless action," and so there is absolutely no danger that fossil fuel industry executives will ever be prosecuted for what is now legally regarded as protected political speech.)

Why does Hansen speak in such seemingly hyperbolic language? He does so because his own research suggests that the highest advisable level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 350 ppm. The current level is already 383 ppm and growing by 2 ppm each year. We have passed a critical point in the global warming saga, and we must now retrace our steps. Hansen therefore believes we must actually find ways to reduce not the growth of emissions, but to reduce emissions altogether to a point that will allow greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere to fall.

This he says must happen quickly, and the reductions must be drastic or we will face catastrophic consequences, ones that will become unstoppable long before they actually occur because of the delayed effects of carbon emissions. These consequences include worsening floods and droughts, much higher shorelines, massive extinction of species, possible rapid climate shifts in parts of the world, and other problems that will threaten the food, water and general well-being of all humanity.

But public discourse on global warming is being muddied. Here in the United States it is a matter of faith that the cure for faulty free speech is more free speech of the factually correct kind. It is the only response truly anticipated by the U. S. Constitution. There is unfortunately the slight problem that the fossil fuel industry has huge sums of money with which to pursue its freedom of speech in the media. There is another problem in the case of global warming, namely urgency.

For comparison let me offer a brief recap of an historically important issue in American history. It is a great injustice and disappointment that women did not obtain the right to vote after the Civil War along with freed male slaves. It was a disappointment because so many women had worked so hard for abolition. It took another half century of advocacy before they were finally granted that right. While no one should minimize the struggle for woman's suffrage in the United States, it was a struggle--however painful and filled with injustice--that could wait for the principles of free speech to be vindicated without endangering all of humanity. But the amplified free speech of the fossil fuel industry's disinformation campaign does indeed threaten all of humanity. And, the outcome of the struggle between the forces of change and reaction cannot wait 50 years to be resolved on the side of right. By then all the worst damage will be inevitable.

There are so many other issues which fit into this category as well: the depletion of fisheries; the destruction of soil; the peaking of oil; the catastrophic loss of biodiversity due to logging, modern industrial agriculture and urban development; the poisoning of the water, air and food supply with toxic chemicals; and the depletion of precious fresh water. Most of these issues are interlinked with global warming and with each other to one degree or another.

As the clock ticks down to tipping points for each of these problems, will the cherished principles of an open society be challenged? Will those principles continue to be used to delay or water down action and thereby threaten the lives and livelihoods of billions? Or will those principles be modified in some way that allows free speech, but limits the amplified kind that huge sums of money can buy in the modern media?

If we had 50 years to debate all these problems, I am certain that the side espousing sustainability would win. Given the urgency with which I believe we must address these issues, is it an acceptable outcome to be able to say "I told you so" at some future date as modern society crumbles in the face of these challenges?

I don't claim that the issue of free speech and the enemies of sustainability is an easy one for those of us who embrace the notion of an open society, that is, a society where no one is presumed to have a monopoly on truth and where we work together sometimes even through the violent clash of opinions to advance the search for truth. What the ecological and resource challenges we face now call into question is whether an open society is capable of making the kind of change we need to make as quickly as we need to make it.

One could argue that ours is not an open society, but rather one dominated by corporate power and that it is corporate power that must be reined in as part of the process of moving toward a sustainable society. But once again we are faced with the time problem. How long will it take for the normal processes of a nominally open society to bring corporate power to heel? 10, 20, 50 years?

The path for most people interested in creating a sustainable society is to start creating one. But will the powers which are working against such a society make those efforts moot? And, if that is the case, with so much at stake, is there a third way of addressing free speech that preserves the basic principles of an open and democratic society, but still allows for those who have the evidence and the logic on their side to prevail in time to avoid the worst?

So far, I have yet to find such a way that does not destroy the very open society I seek to preserve.


Johan said...

You forgot to mention overpopulation as direct consequence of the fossil fuel rally and as direct cause for overfishery, the CO2-garbage problem causing the climate revolution on hand, water shortages, etc...
We should deal with it before it is being dealt with by resource restrictions.

Anonymous said...


I've thought about this subject for a long time and I don't believe there is time to do things in a 'democratic' manner. Democratic change requires education and the disemination of information. And, worse, because many people never change their minds on major issues once they've decided their POV, change may have to wait for generations to turn over.

I think the only way we are likely to get through the coming events without great harm is if we were somehow taken over by a benevolent dictator who was concerned about the environment - or if aliens came down and imposed order here. I know those both sound over-the-top, but that just about all that I see that will save us from a major reset.

And I very much wish it was otherwise.

Klatu said...

With the fate of humanity at stake, changing the course of history may be easier done than said, for those who can escape their prejudices and allow their reason the freedom to imagine!

Anonymous said...

(1) James Hansen is NOT "the most respected climate scientist on the planet." He is not even a climatologist, although he has published papers in the field of climatology. He is, by training, a physicist and astronomer. He is a member of the PNAS, but that does not make him a climate expert.

(2) If you think Hansen's a good prophet, you might like to have a look at this article by Lucia Liljegren:

(3) The debate over climate change is not over at the present time. See this article by Roy Spencer, who by the way IS a climatologist:

(4) It's "reined in," not "reigned in." Kings reign.

(5) Reined in by whom? The government, I presume. The question is: should the government make its decision after listening to both sides, or should it "pick a winner" because one side panics it by telling it there is "no time to lose," and then prevent its citizens from listening to the other side, because it can't afford to have meddlers getting in its way? Oh, and by the way, who elects this government? Citizens. Governments elected by citizens are supposed to censor what citizens read, because it's for their own good. Yeah, right.

Anonymous said...

Hansen's comments are very Orwellian, but not to be taken seriously. Climate Change people can not even win an open debate in a public forum. How are they going to convince 12 jurors unanimously that a criminal act has taken place? This is an extremely complex subject, and 99.9% of the population can not fully understand the model with all of the feedbacks. The rest are just deciding who to believe.

Kurt Cobb said...

It is refreshing that the so-called climate change skeptics no longer deny that warming is taking place or that humans are contributing to it. They are forced to debate the actual science which overwhelmingly supports the case for anthropomorphically enhanced global warming.

Anonymous No. 1 points us to an argument that climate is not nearly as sensitive to changes in atmospheric greenhouse gases as we are led to believe. The argument he or she is essentially making is that we should weigh the economic costs of reducing greenhouse gases which are admittedly large against the possible catastrophic consequences of a highly sensitive climate might bring such as extreme drought, violent floods, rapidly rising shorelines, rapid climate shifts, and so on.

Because the future is unknown to any of us, Anonymous No. 1 believes we should take out no insurance whatsoever against these catastrophic possibilities. If we were to take his reasoning as a guide for public policy, we wouldn't bother making preparations for category 5 hurricanes because their probability is so small. We wouldn't worry about designating floodplains for 100-year floods again because their probability is so small.

What Anonymous No. 1 seems unable to do is to consider both the probability and the possible severity of the various outcomes to climate change.

He or she admits that there is a debate and so appears to be open to the possibility of being shown wrong. Because of the very long time lags from the time we emit greenhouse gases to the time we feel their effects--this is due the moderating effects of the oceans--we don't know what the outcome of our actions will be until many decades later. At that point it will be too late to act if we've screwed up through our inaction.

From a public policy standpoint, given the risks we face, the debate over climate change is no longer a scientific one, it is a political one. What shall we do, how quickly, and how much?

Those who say we should do nothing often have an ideological agenda. They fear government intrusion into their private lives and into private economic activity. I am no fan of such intrusion and I admit that the central governments of the world may very well not do what is necessary to address climate change or they may do things which are counterproductive.

But the hands-off policy when it comes to exploitation of the world's resources has gotten us into the predicament we are currently in. Shall we just see how the marketplace handles climate change, fisheries depletion, soil destruction, deforestation, groundwater depletion? I for one have had enough of what we call the unregulated marketplace. It is heading us over a cliff. The only argument now is over how much running room we have.

Since Anonymous No. 1 appears to concede a certain amount of warming due to humans, if we simply go beyond 2100 and continue to do what we are doing, we are surely going to cause problems in the long run.

What Anonymous No. 1's objection really amounts to is an objection to the possibility that we might end up addressing climate change earlier than we absolutely have to.

For my part, I'd rather be too early than too late.

Anonymous said...

Hansen and AGW have a lot of problems.

No warming in the last 10 years on the surface of the planet is one.

No warming in the oceans (in fact, a slight decrease) since 2003 when the Argo system was started.

No warming in the troposphere where you need greater warming than on the surface for the AGW theory to be valid.

The hockey stick theory was shown to be false. More and more respected scientists have come out to express doubt over AGW.

Hansen's comments about putting oil execs on trial was fascists in nature and the same people who are talking about a benevolent dictator are the ones screaming about the war on terror.

We should not take any action until there is some proof that we are in a global warming period and humans are the main cause of it.

Anonymous said...

You mention the "fossil fuel lobby and its disinformation campaign" and imply all dissenters are in the pay of oil companies or influenced by them.

Are you serious? Do you really think the "lobby" reaches around the globe and pollutes even my thinking, here in New Zealand? Do you honestly imagine nobody in the world independently reaches genuine doubts about the theory of dangerous anthropogenic global warming?

You must be off your rocker.

Or you're not serious after all and you don't believe it.

I wish I were in the pay of oil companies, but I'm not. I am, however, genuinely concerned about the imminent expenditure of ruinous sums of money to fight a computer-modelled ghost while people lack clean water and proper sanitation and families in my own country fail to provide adequately for their children's needs.

All in the name of "fighting" a substance that is vital to life. What nonsense!

The people spending the most on the AGW issue are not the oil lobby but environmental organisations--look it up. Should we believe a scientist who's being paid by Greenpeace or WWF?

You ask rhetorically why does Hansen use such hyperbole? Because he's being immoderate and hateful. He cannot argue on scientific grounds and so he must revile and abuse, always the refuge of the weak.

By the way, you could at least use your own language correctly, even if you won't study climate science. It's not called anthropomorphic. Global warming's not in our image, it's caused by our actions (supposedly).

You know, there's no doubt that there must be a human signal in the climate, though it is certainly very small. If anybody had certainly identified it, after the expenditure of billions of dollars, you would have heard about it by now.

But nobody has; that's why there's what they call a debate going on. Except that there's no debate over the fact that there's been no increase in the temperature for ten years. Ten years!! And sea temps have decreased since 2003.

The times are crazy indeed when we prepare to expensively upend our way of life because of someone's ill-defined computer predicitons.

Richard Treadgold, Convenor, Climate Conversation Group.

Anonymous said...

Hansen is a paid hack on the payroll of George Soros. Why anyone would give this man credibility is beyond me.I am getting weary of men thinking they are God.

Kurt Cobb said...

As usual the skeptics cite incorrect data--2007 was tied for the second warmest year on record with 2005 which was the warmest year according to NASA--they imagine immense conspiracies to hide the truth placing James Hansen variously on the payroll of Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and George Soros when in fact he works for NASA and they cavalierly assume that we should accept their predictions while at the same time telling us how much uncertainty there is about the trajectory of global warming. They simply tell us that we should accept their predictions as fact, ignore the risks and proceed with business as usual. But they offer no warranty if their predictions are incorrect. They cannot give us our civilization back if it crumbles under the weight of climate change.

It is precisely because of the uncertainties associated with global warming that we must act because the consequences could be so severe. If it turns out that global warming is not severe, then the harm will be that we have made the transition to a non-carbon-based energy system which we need to do anyway to avoid the consequences of the peaking of oil, then natural gas and then coal in the course of this century.

Jerry said...

Many minds greater than mine have postulated on the tendency of men to argue over the cause of catastrophe, even as it overwhelms them... so I'm not going to bother to pick one to quote.

However this definitely does seem to be happening all over our world right now...

I do have to agree with the "climate change skeptics" on one issue tho; there is a great deal of very expensive "flailing" going on in response to the climate change issue. I personally agree that climate change is a potentially (and likely imminent) catastrophic situation we are going to have to face. However, this doesn't mean that we should throw trillions at just any option, any more than we should throw trillions at going to war over the scraps of our resource feeding frenzy.

Those who are using their own cries of impending doom to make themselves rich (filthy or otherwise), are as bad as those who continue to make themselves richer and even more powerful... the potential final cost being a planet capable of bearing sophisticated forms of life.

Be well all.

Anonymous said...

You are certainly not alone in claiming that a free society cannot solve some problem (many have been put forth over the years) that is so serious that the only solution is a dictatorship by the enlightened (including yourself, I presume?)

Unfortunately for this thesis, history shows that dictatorships always make problems (all problems) worse. What unfree society in the world today is your model? Hard to pick, as none of them care nearly as much about the environment as free societies -- they don't have to, since their leaders cannot be held to any responsibility short of deposing them (usually a bloody and uncertain business).

Perhaps you are thinking that, this time, things will be different, unlike all of past history. Why should anyone believe that?

Despite the irritation of those who are sure that God (or Gaia, or whatever) is on their side having to deal with plebs who insist on making up their own minds, the give and take of a free society has been shown to produce better results than any alternative. (To partly plagerize Churchill: Democracy is the worst of all possible governments -- except for all the others.)

I wonder if you are dreaming of dictatorship because you suspect you are losing the argument?

Kurt Cobb said...


Your concerns about dictatorship are certainly well founded and historically grounded. If you reread my piece you will see that I do NOT "dream of dictatorship" as you claim.

Right now what we have is plutocracy, rule by the rich. So we already have a relatively small part of society dictating policy. And, the interests of the rich do not necessarily coincide with those of the greater part of humanity.

Also, the American constitution, at least, could not have anticipated the unprecedented concentration of media power in the hands of a few wealthy corporations and the pervasive influence these corporations have on the public debate. It also could not have anticipated the slick public relations tactics of a well-funded fossil fuel industry and its disproportionate influence on government policy, both through the manipulation of public opinion and more directly through lobbying and lavish campaign contributions. This problem is, of course, not limited to the fossil fuel industry. But it has special significance because of the twin problems of fossil fuel depletion and climate change.

You say that the problem is that people are free to make up their own minds. But are they really when the debate is so thoroughly overwhelmed by fossil fuel public relations efforts? Are they really weighing all the relevant information or simply being influenced by mere snippets of carefully crafted information from the fossil fuel industry?

And, do you really believe that the Congress represents the will of the people rather than that of the corporations which lobby its members and support their campaigns? Is this the system you are seeking to preserve?

When you say that I am "losing the argument," you have it half right. The public is increasingly concerned about climate change, but the fossil fuel industry manages to prevent any policy action at the federal level (but not at the state and local level in all cases). But the debate over this issue and that of fossil fuel depletion isn't really a fair fight. The advantage held by the entrenched corporate interests is huge. So I wouldn't call it a free and open debate.

You seem to take some satisfaction in the fact that those concerned about climate change and fossil fuel depletion are losing the debate, perhaps because you think neither are problems.

If the side you seem to support does succeed in delaying any action on climate until it is too late then we will proceed with the uncontrolled experiment we are doing on the biosphere in climate change. I admit the uncertainties about the future trajectory of climate change. But do you think we should risk wrecking modern civilization on a hunch that climate change won't be that severe?

You may argue that it's not going to be severe, but by definition we cannot prove anything about the future. We must simply calculate and hypothesize based on the available evidence. And while that evidence suggests a range of possibilities, the range includes some extremely catastrophic possibilities.

If you knew that the probability that your house would go up in flames in the next decade was say, 50 percent, would you buy insurance and take some preventive measures, or would you simply say, well, let's see what happens? The let's- wait-and-see course is essentially what the fossil fuel industry is advocating. Of course, given the the long delays in feedback in the climate system, if it turns out that the fossil fuel industry is wrong and we simply wait to see what happens, then it will be too late to do anything. We will be in a self-reinforcing climate change scenario in which no human actions will matter. That's the risk we face and that's the catastrophic scenario. That's a scenario in which the Earth could warm by 8 degree C or more and no modern civilization could adapt to such a change. We would be facing a huge dieoff. Humans would survive, but our civilization would not.

We cannot calculate that odds of catastrophic climate change so precisely. But we know the possible scenarios. With what's at stake, shall we continue to let the fossil fuel industry dictate our response?

And, when it comes to oil depletion, at least, the effects could be much more immediately catastrophic if oil peaks in the next few years and we remain unprepared as we are now. The way the marketplace will deal with this scenario is to destroy demand. That means a lot of people are going to go down and the world economy is going to be contracting over and extended period. Of course, we can wait and see how things turn out. I fear that that is exactly what we will do.