What to Do About Climate Change?

The most contentious thing about climate change is not the science explaining its causes but rather the politics of what to do about it. Popular but polarizing personalities such as former Vice President Al Gore claim climate change is nothing short of a “planetary emergency” requiring a revolutionary response, comparable in magnitude to the abolition of slavery, the defeat of apartheid, and recognizing women and gay rights. Naomi Kline calls climate change an existential crisis in capitalism requiring transforming a failed economic system and building something radically different.[1]

Bob Ingles, a former congressman from one of the most conservative districts in one of the most conservative states, explains why this framing causes conservative republicans to deny climate change: the cure is worse than the disease.  Many of the proposed solutions advocated by the likes of Gore and Kline would empower elitist experts, grow government, and regulate markets—prospects that disgust conservatives.  Capping and trading greenhouse gasses, for example, requires technical experts to set caps and government bureaucracy to monitor emissions and redistribute monetary trades. Ingles likens this situation to you going to the doctor because of debilitating back pain and being told that the best medical treatment requires removing and re-attaching your head.  Suddenly your back pain would become tolerable.  Because the cure is perceived worse than the disease, you deny or learn to live with the disease. Advocates of freer markets and limited government therefore understandably question whether climate change is a real and serious problem.  Hence, we find our political debate about climate easily paralyzed and distracted by the same merchants of doubt hired to delay societal response to cigarettes that cause cancer and chemicals that cause ozone holes and acid rain.[2]

One approach to more productive debate is to recognize the debate for what it is: a political discussion, not a scientific discussion, about what to do about climate change.    As part of this reframing, we need to consider climate change just one of many possible changes shaping our future. A changing climate is not the only serious challenge we face and may not be more serious than poverty, nuclear explosions, war, inequality, global pandemics, crop failures, terrorism, or civil chaos.  John Cochrane, the Grumpy Economist, argues climate change is not our most pressing challenge: “Healthy societies do not fall apart over slow, widely predicted, relatively small economic adjustments of the sort painted by climate analysis. Societies do fall apart from war, disease or chaos. Climate policy must compete with other long-term threats for always-scarce resources.”[3]

Deciding how to respond to climate change is, ultimately, a political debate about values.  For better or worse, economic tools provide one of the best ways to discuss, assess, and predict human values—with all its limitations, money provides the most universal proxy for human value and economist try valiantly to monetize all kinds of value, including those external to market transactions such as human health and safety as well as biodiversity and aesthetics.  So, to proceed with this reframing exercise, you will need to not just set aside questions about whether climate change is occurring but also set aside worries about money as a proxy for value and the arrogance of economists. That is, I’m asking you to assume, for a few more paragraphs, that climate is changing and economic valuation tools provide the reasonable estimates of the impact of that change. Obviously, this logic requires accepting lots of if, thens, and buts.  But it is a logic that allows us to reframe the argument so we can see and consider the bigger question climate change poses for humanity. After you swallow those assumptions and objections, proceed to the next paragraph to dig a bit deeper into the economic impacts of climate change, starting with possible economic development scenarios.

IPCC, the global institution charged with leading research and policy on climate change, began promoting social science research on climate topics relatively recently (hence, the social science findings are less developed and have higher uncertainty than the earth science and meteorological aspects of climate change science).  IPCC needed development scenarios so that we could consider how large climate impacts are relative to our wealth and ability to adapt to those impacts: will climate change be a small nuisance—causing me to give up one cup of Starbucks a year—or will it be a life-altering calamity—causing me to lose my home, health insurance, and retirement? To put it in simple monetary terms, this analysis estimates the global average income each person would receive each year if all the income in the world were evenly distributed.  For reference, global average per person income was approximately $1000 in 1900 and $10,000 in 2000.[4]

In the Business-as-Usual scenario (SSP2; Blue in Figure 1, below), historical patterns continue. Economic growth proceeds unevenly but most nations’ economies remain politically stable. Global markets function imperfectly and progress on global environmental issues such as climate remains uneven. Under this scenario, per person income in 2100 would be around $60,000.  Alternatively, under a high growth scenario (SSP5; purple), per person income would be around $100,000.  That scenario assumes policy changes that promote global trade, more technology and innovation, greater investments in health, education, infrastructure and government capacity, and continuing fossil fuel intensive lifestyles. A “green” scenario (SSP1; green) produces the next highest average wealth: ~$80,000 by 2100.  It assumes investment in programs that reduce pollution such as GHGs, address other environmental challenges such as water and biodiversity, and accelerates investments in building social capital with better educational, health care, and good governance.  The lowest per person income (~$20,000) results from the Rivalry scenario (SSP3; red) where global free trade is restricted and countries invest more in national & regional security and invest less in education and technological development because of rising nationalism, competitiveness, & conflict. Also under this scenario, less international collaboration occurs on global commons issues such as ozone, climate, ocean fisheries, and human migration.[5]

Green: Development respects environmental boundaries & accelerates educational & health investments. BAU: Historical patterns continue. Econ growth proceeds unevenly. Most economies are politically stable. Global markets function imperfectly. Uneven progress on global environmental issues Rivalry: Nationalism, competitiveness, & conflict push countries to focus on national & regional security. Less investments in education & technological development. Grow: More of: global trade & free markets; technology & innovation; investments in health, education, infrastructure & govt.; fossil fuel energy intensive lifestyles. Dellink, R., et al. (2015). “Long-term economic growth projections in the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways.” Global environmental change. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378015000837


These scenarios help contextualize the impacts of climate change: we have more capacity to weather and adapt to climate change if we each earn $100,000 a year than if we earn only $20,000.  But our wealth is not the only issue. We also need to understand the impacts of climate change because if climate impacts are large relative to income, we will be less able to afford food, shelter, education, and other necessities and hence suffer significant harm to quality of life.  So, what are the projected economic impacts of climate change?

Nordhaus is perhaps the most recognized quantifier of economic impacts of climate change.  In a recent review, he concludes that in the worst-case scenario climate impacts would be about 10% of total income: “the estimated impact is -2.04 (+ 2.21) % of income at 3 °C warming and -8.06 (+ 2.43) % of income at 6 °C warming. We also considered the likelihood of thresholds or sharp convexities in the damage function and found no evidence from the damage estimates of a sharp discontinuity or high convexity.”[6]   These estimates of impact estimate many, but not all, currently unpriced impacts such as changes in ecosystem services and human health.

Allow me to use the words of the Grumpy Economist to summarize the economic logic in this argument: “To arrive at a wise policy response, we first need to consider how much economic damage climate change will do. Current models struggle to come up with economic costs commensurate with apocalyptic political rhetoric. Typical costs are well below 10% of gross domestic product in the year 2100 and beyond. That’s a lot of money—but it’s a lot of years, too. Even 10% less GDP in 100 years corresponds to 0.1 percentage point less annual GDP growth. Climate change therefore does not justify policies that cost more than 0.1 percentage point of growth.”

The Grumpy Economist goes on to argue that if our goal is to mitigate the impact of climate change and impacts are quantified in monetary terms, then policies that are “pro-growth tax, regulatory and entitlement reforms would be far more effective.” That is, if our goal is to create a future where people are the best off (where best off is measured using money as a surrogate for value), then we should seek to maximize wealth in the future and the best way to do that might be to grow the economy rather than dramatically reduce GHG emissions.

This framing and logic illustrates why climate change is so contentious.  Some people believe we can grow our way out of the climate problem. They believe strong economic growth coupled with technological innovation will produce sufficient capacity to adapt to climate change when and if impacts threaten our wellbeing.  For example, buildings and other infrastructure last only 50 years and can be rebuilt better and away from flood zones. Farms and farmers can relocate, as many did in the early 20th Century. GMO can make agriculture thrive in the new conditions. And so on.  According to this logic, we need to be cautious of adopting climate change polices that unnecessarily slow economic growth and technological innovation, leaving millions if not billions in poverty and future generations significantly worse off than they would have been had we pursued economic growth.  What will our grandchildren think of us if we denied them a better future?  What would we think of our ancestors if they had not cleared forests, eroded soil, and polluted the air to build the transportation, agriculture, and energy systems upon which our economy grew and democracy thrived?

The purpose of this essay is to advance the discussion of climate change by unsticking it from the mire of denialism versus science and re-focusing the debate on core values about where we want to live in the future and how we want to create that future. Climate change is such a contentious political topic because it is intertwined and conflated with core values about free markets and the role of government.  Reframing the discussion to explicitly address these core values creates new political space for much needed discussion, debate, and action.

Let me conclude by returning to Congressman Bob Ingles medical analogy of removing one’s head to treat one’s backache.  If we make an effort to carefully engage our doctor in discussion, we might learn that another treatment option is available, one that requires us to improve our diet and exercise routine, actions that have other positive outcomes such as better health, more energy, longer life, and clearer thinking.  We might be more inclined to act on that advice because the treatment seems less threatening to things we care about and produces outcomes we that benefit things we value.  Regarding climate change policies, Ingles offers a boarder adjusted carbon tax as a policy that would dramatically reduce carbon emissions, strengthen markets, protect national interests, and meet other politically conservative goals.  No doubt countless other win-win strategies to address climate change exist, if we can create the political space to find and discuss them.




[1] https://www.thenation.com/article/capitalism-vs-climate/

[2] Oreskes, N. and E. M. Conway (2011). Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming, Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

[3] Grumpy Economist: https://johnhcochrane.blogspot.com/2017/08/on-climate-change-2.html#more.   See also The Copenhagen Consensus http://www.copenhagenconsensus.com/copenhagen-consensus-iii/outcome

[4] The analysis uses GDP rather than income, which are different in subtle but important ways, but I use “income” to make the argument more intuitive: Dellink, R., et al. (2015). “Long-term economic growth projections in the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways.” Global environmental change.

[5] Dellink, R., et al. (2015). “Long-term economic growth projections in the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways.” Global environmental change.

[6] Nordhaus, W. D., & Moffat, A. (2017). A Survey of Global Impacts of Climate Change: Replication, Survey Methods, and a Statistical Analysis (No. w23646). National Bureau of Economic Research.


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Charlottesville and Confirmation Bias

Because I’ve previously written about confirmation bias, I was asked by my university’s communication office if I thought it explained anything related to the tragedy in Charlottesville where violence erupted at a march for white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Alt-Right.

Question: Can you better explain what confirmation bias is and provide an example of how it works/happens?

Confirmation bias is hardwired into our brains.  It’s how we think. We look for information that confirms our opinions and discounts the opposition. Most of our thinking and deciding is intuitive, reflective, and emotional. It occurs quickly and unconsciously.  Your rational, self-aware mind—the voice(s) in your head and what is reading these words—spends most of its time justifying your decisions so that you look good to others, attract mates, gain power, and can belong to a support group.  Evolution made us this way.  Ancestors good at confirmation bias survived to pass on their genes, others were shunned and lonely.

Question: Can you explain how it may be helpful or hurtful?

We are hardwired this way so we can make quick decisions: Should I run or fight? Eat this food? Defend my mates?  Analytical, information-heavy, cost-benefit thinking takes too much energy and time.  If we carefully evaluated every situation analytically, we’d be stuck in the thinker’s poise, sitting on a rock, chin in hand, rather than acting on opportunities and risks.  Life would pass us by and we would think ourselves to death.

 Confirmation bias is harmful when change is needed, when our traditional ways of knowing and acting do more harm than good. It supports group think, preaching to the choir, and xenophobia.  It narrows the window of opportunities.  It makes one brittle and resistant to change.

President Trump is a master at it. His first instinct was to not condemn racists, neo-Nazis rioting in Charlottesville over the proposed removal of General Robert E Lee’s statue.  Trump’s been looking for reasons ever sense. Recently he’s argued he wants to conserve history and culture embodied by statues and equated statues of confederate generals to statues of founding fathers, ignoring that many confederate statues were erected not after the Civil War but much later and with racist-tinged justifications, during the rise of segregationist Jim Crow laws and a time of neo-Nazi rallies in New York City’s Madison Square Garden (Cooper).  But these facts don’t matter because alternative facts can be found with a click.  If someone presents a counter argument, it is in our nature to dismiss it.  Trump makes it dangerously easier to dismiss any fact by branding the free press as fake news. 

Question:  Are there ways to make oneself more aware that confirmation bias is happening?

The scientific method works against confirmation bias.  It requires advocates of an idea to be completely transparent about their logic, precedent, data, and method so that others can decide if they would connect the dots the same way and reach the same conclusion.  Because of science we no longer bleed ourselves to cure illness or sacrifice virgins to improve crop yields.   That is, we live better and longer because, in some cases, we’ve been able to break from our tendency to confirm our superstitions. Other methods exist to manage confirmation bias.  I teach professionals how to practice collaborative leadership. These tools help groups of people reason through their prejudices and preconceptions to make difficult decisions about their future.


Question: Are you an expert on confirmation bias or can provide any research links to support your points?

My expertise in this topic comes from practice. I use confirmation bias in most every argument I have with my wife and my friends about life, love, and politics. I cite examples and arguments that make my case.  I practice confirmation bias every time I want to justify an extra glass of wine, skip exercise, or sleep late. I even practiced it while writing this essay (never once googled “evidence against confirmation bias”).  I’m a master.  We all are.

 I most always experience confirmation bias when talking to climate deniers.  I advise not getting into arguments about facts because confirmation bias makes those arguments unwinnable. Instead you need to uncover information the denier finds credible and entice them to interact with it.

I admit confirmation bias is not my area of research, but my scholarship and teaching use it, so I read the literature. Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion provides an excellent and accessible synthesis of the limitations of human decision making.





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Collaborate, Fight, or Move?

I devoted a career to teaching collaborative processes for decision-making and leadership because I believed sincere people can work out the problems they face, all they need are good processes and good information.  But populist flames of divisiveness have burned thru the trust, patience, and respect collaboration requires.  The ideological divide is now too great.  The common ground is gone. The era of collaboration is over. The new era is win-lose.  We must win; they must lose.  My only recourse is to fight with raw political power, which justifies most any tactic that helps the “right” side—my side—win. The ends justify the means.  Fight. Fight. FIGHT.

I find this line of logic deeply depressing.  I lie awake at night wondering if I should I follow it and abandon a career, ethic, and identity based on collaboration and evidence.  So, I was both troubled and comforted to read a similar conclusion by Thomas Friedman, one of the most respected, moderate, rationale, and evidence-based public intellectuals:

“Nothing else matters—this is now a raw contest of power… The morally bankrupt crowd running today’s GOP are getting their way not because they have better arguments—polls show majorities disagreeing with them on Comey and climate—but because they have power and are not afraid to use it, no matter what the polls say.”

My internal tension between feeling both troubled and comforted rose when I read Kevin Baker’s essay in the New Republic advocating divisiveness rather than collaboration: “BlueExit: A modest proposal for separating blue states from red.” It provided fist pumping, pulse quickening flashes of righteous indignation.

“You go your way, we go ours. …. We’ll turn Blue America into a world-class incubator for progressive programs and policies, a laboratory for a guaranteed income and a high-speed public rail system and free public universities. We’ll focus on getting our own house in order, while yours falls into disrepair and ruin.”

And doing so would make some of us much better off. After all, the blue states, and principally their urban cores, are responsible for most of the nation’s wealth, innovation, climate mitigation, and progressive thinking.  The red states can cut their safety nets, pollute their environments, and restrict their personal freedoms without the subsides they’ve enjoyed from the blue states. Yeah! It feels good to be vindictive…but then again not (at least not for a compassionate liberal who rather motivate his actions with care and hope than hate and malice).

Now comes Richard Florida’s powerful polemic in Politico about the rise of urban independence and the devolution of authority from nation to locales. Here is a real glimpse into a possible future that bridges political divides. It actually seems within reach. I still feel strongly conflicted, both troubled and comforted, but do I glimpse a path forward?  Should I rededicate my tools of collaboration, evidence, and leadership to help build secular, shining, cities on the hill?

I recommend pondering these three arguments and attempt to connect the dots.  I don’t yet see the bigger picture that is our future, but I’ guessing these dots are part of it.

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Why India Matters

India is becoming the most consequential country in history (again). Over a million people a month are joining its workforce. Almost as many are moving into its cities. The bulge in educated and motivated people provides a “demographic dividend” with tremendous hope and promise. The “dependency ratio” of workers to total population is huge, which means more workers, more saving, more investing, more consumption, and more growth—a self-reinforcing growth feedback loop (China’s dependency ratio is declining and hence they risk getting old before they get rich). Prime Minister Modi is liberalizing India’s economy, so capital, finance, property rights, and corruption are less of a constraint to growth. Global immigration trends are reversing brain-drain, making it more appealing for talented Indians to stay home and for successful expatriates to return (~15% of famed Silicon Valley startups are India born). Providing the material needs for 1.2+ billion people has already stressed India’s environment and infrastructure to the breaking point. Yet, massive economic development and increased resource consumption remain moral imperatives because several hundred million people still live in poverty without access to water and energy and many more depend upon rain fed agriculture for subsistence.

India must navigate profound cultural tensions that feel ready to snap and derail its enormous development potential. It has more malnourished people than any country (~200 million) but perhaps the 3rd most morbidly obese people (~30 million). It has 18 official languages, which presents obstacles to intra-country collaboration and travel. Yet, one of those languages is English, which gives educated Indians access to the default language of multinational business and the inter-national opportunities that follow. India also has a history of religious pluralism that creates tolerance for Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, atheists, nationalists, populists, scientists, and all types of others. Yet, religious TV broadcasts and other mass communication now widely disseminate a narrowing Hinduism that is more nationalistic, political, and exclusionary.   India also is the world’s largest democracy with a resilient bureaucracy and operational rule of law. However, it is ranked internationally as more corrupt than 79 other nations (USA ranks 18, Denmark is least corrupt) and its famed chaos confounds western thinking and linear time, leading notables such as John Kenneth Galbraith to call India a “functional anarchy.” In many ways, India is more global than China, in others it is not: over 100 multinationals have located research and development labs here (twice as many as in China). Yet, foreign direct investment in India is not even half of what it is in China. And perhaps the most taught tension of all stems from the tolerance, what Sen calls patience, for extreme suffering and astonishing inequity: a discriminatory caste system, continuing child labor, female infanticide, open defecation, failing rural education, limited family planning, inaccessible health care, entrenched sexism, and squalid slums. In stark contrast to this patience, it is hard to ignore the rising buzz by nationalist commentators that claim the 21st Century belongs to India, lauding the accelerating accomplishments of the elite and the policies that support their success.

In addition to navigating brittle cultural tensions, India faces environmental challenges that might overwhelm everything. Pollution of water, air, and land threaten human health and social functions: millions die prematurely from diesel engine exhaust, indoor cooking over biofuels, and diarrhea. Aquifers are dropping meters each year. Heat waves kill hundreds. Monsoons are irregular. Cities are flooding. States are suing each other over water rights. Drought-driven crop failure and low productivity are causing an epidemic in farmer suicides. Urban growth is at breakneck speed yet 75% of the buildings expected to exist in India in 2030 have yet to be built. Traffic is horrific, yet less than 4% of Indians own cars, compared to 60% in the US, and domestic production now exceeds 1 million vehicles a year. Delhi occasionally owns the world record for worst air quality. As this list of challenges grows, the window of opportunity for sustainable development narrows.

For most of the last two millennia, the region we now call India was the world’s largest economy and had proportionally large cultural and political impacts (it occasionally was overtaken in magnitude by what is now China). In the 17th century, when the British engaged, India’s economy had declined a bit but was still 25% of the world’s. By the time the British left in 1950, India’s economy had shrunk to 3% of the global total. Now the region is rebounding. It is currently the 7th largest economy and should overtake Japan and perhaps even the US within a few decades. So the question that should concern all of humanity is: how will India develop well? The large, educated, wealthy, motivated, talented population fills India with tremendous hope and thrusts it into global leadership on all fronts. However, cultural tensions and environmental degradation could check and even reverse its advantages.

Many nations developed their material and cultural wellbeing by degrading their environments. Collectively those of us living in developed nations pushed the biosphere to its limits and in some cases beyond the safe operating space for human civilization. A similar development path for India would not only make India less resilient and more chaotic, it could impose a large cost on everyone. If smaller nations degrade their environment and pollute the commons, they hurt only themselves. But if India fails to develop sustainably, it will export its suffering to the rest of the world.


Key References

Drèze, J., and A. Sen. 2013. An uncertain glory: India and its contradictions. Princeton.

Luce, E. 2010. In spite of the gods: The rise of modern India. Anchor.


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What Will You Do After Marching for Science?

I explained why I’m not marching for science even though I’m “all-in” and support science with my heart, mind, and labor. Marching won’t change minds. Worse, because of Identity Protective Reasoning, marching will strengthen our critics’ resolve and weaken science’s influence. Every time we mention science or truth or climate or genes or funding or facts all we end up doing is triggering the critic’s internal dialog that blames loss of jobs, opportunity, and identity on liberal, global, elites (i.e., on scientists). That is, marching for science is worse than preaching to the choir.

Marching on Earth Day will further reinforce the perception that science is captured by an elitist environmentalist agenda that promotes capitalism crushing government regulation. Just imagine how Fox News will portray a scientist marching with a sign: CLIMATE SCINECE MATTERS or EPA NEEDS SOUND SCIENCE. The commentators will surely point out that the scientists are promoting an anti-business agenda and marching in support of stifling regulations and wasteful spending on more (unnecessary) research. Further, if we expose our weaknesses (and there are many critiques of science that the March targets, including lack of diversity among scientists, politics of funding, and heavily defended silos), we just give our critics ammunition for their concerns about science as an institution.

I’m even more concerned that the March has no end game, so scientists will go back to their labs, books, and classrooms thinking they’ve done all they can or need to do. WRONG! We need to organize and expand our political power. Education and agitation are important first steps, but they are wasted unless we organize for actions that win elections. Science must nurture and support a much bigger coalition. We need to advance a narrative that supports liberalism and enlightenment. We need to argue that poverty reduction and rising global middle class flows from global trade, that wellbeing and productivity comes from medicine and access to health care, that security depends upon ample food and clean water, that hope and opportunity comes from technology-driven economic development, and that all these things are supported by sound science.

Supporting a political agenda means scientists need to separate their careers from their citizenship. We need to occasionally but explicitly leave our day jobs behind and engage in politics. We need to speak from the heart about the values that define us, the reasons that motivate us, and the future we want to create. That means advocacy. Own it.

Scientists are thought leaders. Our jobs give us the luxury of being paid to sit back and think about the world. Share those thoughts. Organize them and others in the support of political coalitions that win votes and steer the world towards the promise of the enlightenment instead of Trump’s anti-fact, anti-expertise, anti-science dark-ages that risk causing widespread pain and suffering.

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Why I Won’t March for Science

Science matters.  But winning hearts and minds matters more and marching for science won’t make that happen.

Scientists using their science are ill equipped to win hearts and minds. Sadly, as I argued previously, the tendency of scientists to rely on facts and rationality often work against the ends they desire. Winning over hearts and minds mostly comes down to telling a compelling story, which scientists resist, because it means leading with their values and vision for the future.  For all kinds of reasons, some outdated and some legit, scientists often feel they lack the social license to be advocates and lead with their values.

I’ve been working for the last few years at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability helping scientists (and sustainability professionals writ large) influence hearts and minds.  The tools to do so are straightforward, but not easy.  Leadership programs have been teaching this stuff for years.  There exist tons of techniques for coalition building, boundary spanning, collaboration, interest based negotiation, collective impact, and social innovation that can be taught and mastered by scientists. But, implementation those tools is time consuming and doesn’t produce grants, papers, promotion, or tenure.

I marched in DC at the Women’s March, but I’m not marching for science.  I don’t see the end game.  Yes, we need more science, more respect for science, and better science, but more so, we need to win the political battles, and that means fighting for hearts and minds.

I do agree that we need to do something. Things need to change. Scientists need to act. If we don’t win the battles for hears and minds, we’ll lose the political war against scientific openness and deep expertise. And if that happens, society seems at real risk of sliding back into a pre-enlightenment era that characterized the “dark” Ages, when gut feelings and faith trumped facts and logic.  Those were not hopeful times (life expectancy was 20 and children had little hope of a life different than their peasant farmers living in crowded, windowless, smoke-filled hovels shared by livestock). The enlightenment (and science and individual rights and humanism and capitalism and all that came with it) gave people the courage to admit its OK to say, “I don’t know,” and realize how dangerous it is to trust myths and legends and populist leaders who promise easy answers. The challenges of today are bigger and more complicated and more interconnected and more accelerated than ever before, so we need more science, more inquisitiveness and more tolerance for enlightened experimentation, not less.  Unfortunately, Trump is fanning the flames of anti-intellectualism, anti-truth, anti-inquisitiveness, anti-critical thinking, and anti-science. Those flames risk plunging us into the dark.

I agree that scientists need to do something. Scientists and other professionals need to educate, agitate, organize, and advocate. Marching might do more harm than good if it makes scientist feel they have done enough and are excused to go back to their labs and books.

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A Path Through Trump’s Minefield

So, you want to win an argument with Trump supporters? Don’t try.

Facts and logic are not just ineffectual (because of confirmation bias), they are counterproductive (because of identity protecting reasoning–IPR). Take climate denial as an example. Attempting to persuade a climate denier with facts is a waste of time because deniers can easily find facts and theories on the web confirming their denials. Worse, by defending climate science, we trigger an IPR feedback loop that reinforces a constellation of related core beliefs and values such as: experts are out-of-touch elitists, God has dominion, government is the problem, free markets are good, globalism threatens freedom, and your climate hogwash is threatening not only who I am but my children’s future. That is, as soon as we raise the issue of climate change, we trigger a denier to defend core beliefs and values tied up with their identity; hence, we help them rehearse their arguments and we fuel their concern that their identity is under threat. Our rational, wonkish, scientific explanations are completely counterproductive.

George Lakoff has a distinguished track record of public service and scholarship excellence. He has written extensively on the topic of framing, values, and language that support progressive causes. The following tips are excerpted from a blog he wrote after Trump’s nomination. Here are few key take-homes how we respond to the dilemma raised above:

  • Know their key frames: guns, gays, god and increasingly climate, expertise, abortion, immigration, media, black lives matter, bathrooms, universities, …
  • Don’t activate one of those frames. It doesn’t matter if your are supporting or critiquing the topic (be it climate, immigration, expertise, media, or Trump more generally). Once you activate it, you end up reinforcing it (see: IPR reasoning, above).   Admittedly, following this advice greatly limits the opportunity for reasoned public discourse, which is the grave danger of Trump because he is pushing more and more issues into this frame-activating, identity-protecting-reasoning space.
  • Don’t mention or critique false claims or fake news. Doing so just activates a frame. See: don’t activate the frame.
  • Go positive. Give a positive truthful framing based on values. Equity. Opportunity. Safety. Justice. Freedom. Dignity. Integrity. Children. Family. Love. Respect. Health. Faith. Even environment. Progressives have powerful values (I identify with them!), but we don’t admit them or mention them.
  • Values come first, facts and policies follow in the service of values. Facts matter, but they always support values. (See: go positive.)
  • For example, reframe your discussion of climate change. Start with owning that you are concerned about the security of your community, the safety and health of your family and neighbors, and the declining opportunities for your children to lead productive, dignified lives. Then tell a story about what you want us to do. Hint: all of these values are impacted by climate. (See: go positive.)
  • Use repetition. The more it is heard or seen, the more it is believed, regardless of what it is.
  • Stop defending “the government.” Talk about the public, the people, Americans, the American people, public servants, take back freedom, etc. Public resources provide for freedom in private enterprise and private life. The contribution of public resources to our freedoms cannot be overstated. Government Regulations protect freedom. Start saying it.
  • Avoid nasty exchanges and attacks. Take the high ground. Be hard on principles and problems; be soft on people. Practice civility, good humor, and empathy. Don’t protest against free speech by others, even if you disagree with them. Don’t threaten to punch them in the face, that is fascism.
  • Give up identity politics. No more women’s issues, black issues, Latino issues, LBGTQ issues, Muslim issues, Autism issues,… Their issues are all real, and need public discussion. But they all fall under freedom, justice, safety, equity and other values and principles. Identity politics divides. We are weaker and more easily conquered when divided. Twigs are stronger when in a bundle.

Alternatively, we could stop being conciliatory and stop dancing around Trumpists. Instead of worrying about offending and triggering their frames, we could mobilize and build a political movement around our frames and values. We have the numbers. Do we have the strategy and guts for real politics? (see Norris, Centerism is Dead)


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The End of Expertise: And Why That Is A Giant Problem for the Anthropocene

Two game-changing coattails that Trump road to the presidency are fake news and distrusted expertise. They also usher into mainstream governance an end to rationality, modernity, enlightened self-interest, and related strategies and hopes that we can think our way out of the challenges we face. These are deeply troubling trends for those of us concerned with the highly technical, enormously complex, wickedly interdependent sustainability challenges of meeting the needs of 2-5 billion new middle class consumers while sustaining a climate and habitat that nurtures human civilization.

Fake news gets traction because we are hard-wired to have a confirmation bias. Because of it, people search for and remember facts that confirm their initial beliefs and ignore or forget unsupportive evidence. The explosion of information made accessible by the web makes it easy for people to find the support they crave. The slow, difficult, testable, and transparent scientific method is an institution humans invented to help us overcome the confirmation bias.

If confirmation bias wasn’t enough of a threat to experts, expertise, and rationality, then its close cousin, identity protecting reasoning (IPR), is down right frightening.   IPR has the power to burn up democracy: and Trump is pouring fuel on the fire. With IPR, subsets of facts, ideas, and memes become associated with one’s identity. As a result, contrary facts, ideas, and memes are not just rejected (as the confirmation bias would have us do) but perceived as threats to be fought against, triggering a feedback loop that reinforces ones original beliefs and further polarizes opinions (Kahan et al 2012). Climate change and gun control provide examples. Deniers immediately see any invocation of climate science as a threat to their identity, politics, culture, and heritage. Facts, science, and logic are irrelevant to the resulting discussion. The denier’s internal dialog and framing switches to defending one’s self and one’s people. Statistics, computer models, core samples, and historic trends fall on deaf ears that instead hear blasphemy, disrespect, and arrogance. Gun control arguments would be similar. Facts about accidental deaths or evidence of decreased school safety don’t matter when one only hears Bill of Rights, freedom, and rugged individualism. To invoke climate or guns in a conversation immediately reframes the discussion and triggers the defense of identity and politics. Most people rather doubt science and experts than question their identity or politics.

The growing distrust of expertise has another troubling cause. As complexity and uncertainty of the world increase, most people struggle understanding their connection to it. How, for example, are one’s declining wages and health and identity and children’s prospects connected to distant and opaque global systems? Moreover, what can one do about it? Simple answers are seductive, especially if they reinforce stereotypes and blame someone else. Reality is more complicated and difficult to comprehend. It requires years of experience, networking, study, travel, and learning by doing.

Information of all types has never been easier to find. But the high quality, peer-reviewed, carefully produced arguments and facts tend to be less accessible, often disguised by jargon and hidden behind professional or disciplinary gates. And even if the information generated by experts is found, it is but one click away from half-baked, last minute, advocacy-driven drivel. People inexperienced with a topic have no way to know the difference between science and drivel. It is understandably that they instead accept the most frequently found, oft repeated arguments that just so happen to confirm their initial beliefs and assumptions.

The impacts of confirmation bias, identity protecting reasoning, and information access are combining to undermine rationality, expertise, and ultimately threaten democracy. “Unless some sort of trust [of expertise] can be restored, public discourse will be polluted [by confirmation bias, IPR, and nefarious actors]…and in such an environment, anything and everything becomes possible, including the end of democracy…” (Nichols, p73) It certainly will make sustaining development more challenging.


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Population is Not the Problem

The “population bomb” narrative is problematic for sustainable development professionals and advocates. We should not put ourselves in the unpopular, misanthropic, and unwinnable business of shaming parents. Instead, we have a much more optimistic, hopeful, and inspiring mission: we are in the business of development, which, it turns out, is the most effective way to slow population growth (see below). Humanity’s biggest challenge is not exploding population growth as the bomb narrative implies; it is, instead, dealing with the prosperity that comes with ending poverty, which is a good problem to have. Humanity must navigate the real and present dangers of climate, energy, water, linear economy, food, and related challenges as we welcome billions into the global middle class.

Why shouldn’t we prioritize the population bomb? Mostly because it’s been defused. The technical details of this argument can be found in scholarly papers about the “demographic transition.” Bottom line: globally, we passed peak child. Over the last few decades, fertility has declined in virtually all areas of the world. As a result, the rate of population growth, which peaked in 1970 at 2.06 percent per year, was 1.18 percent in 2015. The declining birthrates are caused by improving health care that reduces infant mortality, raising material standards of living so income and retirement don’t depend on children as laborers, and, most importantly, educating and empowering women to have more control over their lives and opportunities beyond being mothers and beasts of burden. That is, as “development” occurs, parents make fewer babies. China’s coercive one-child policy illustrates misdirected population bomb thinking: it did not slow population growth more than did the “development” occurring in neighboring Taiwan and Thailand but it did create lots of other problems.

A more ominous critique of the West’s 1960’s population bomb paranoia carries disturbing echoes of eugenics, racism, and cold war nationalism: the “wrong” people were making babies, diluting the gene pool, and increasing the “others” who threaten national security. Hence, the foreign policy of many western nations targeted slowing down the population growth in other countries, which just so happened to dovetail with the environmentalist alarmism of a population bomb. Another reason to discard the bomb rhetoric is that its dire predictions of collapse proved wrong. Rather than running out of food, exploding poverty, and skyrocketing misery, as the population bomb prognosticators predicted, we have instead reduced poverty, improved health, and spread education as we have added billions of people to the planet. As Julian Simon famously said, the ultimate resources is not soil or oil but human creativity to extend and replace earth’s finite bounty or as Nobel Laurent Angus Deaton says: with every new mouth comes a pair of hands to feed it.

Of course, the story is more complicated and nuanced than the above. Massive “population momentum” will add 3 billion by 2100 as those already born mature into baby making age. But baring something horrible, 10-12 billion will pretty much be the peak, and the peak might occur earlier and lower if we work hard at promoting the development that ends poverty and lowers birthrates. Moreover, even if every mouth comes with hands to feed it and thus expand earth’s carrying capacity far beyond what population bomb advocates thought possible, the cumulative impact of all those hands is disrupting the civilization-nurturing environmental conditions of the Holocene. So, yes, there still is important and necessary population stabilization work to do.

In summary: Population growth is not THE issue, rather THE issue is dealing with prosperity. Sustainable development advocates alienate others and lose influence when their message shames parents and does not promise a better future for children, which is the unfortunate take-home from population bomb environmental preservation rhetoric. We need a more hopeful message. We need a bigger tent. We need more advocates for sustainable development.



  • The most accessible account of this topic is by Hans Rosling: https://www.gapminder.org/videos/dont-panic-the-facts-about-population/
  • A more thorough but still accessible treatment would be by Nobel laureate Deaton, from whom I borrow much of my thinking: Deaton, A. 2013. The great escape: health, wealth, and the origins of inequality. Princeton University Press.
  • Lam, D. 2011. How the world survived the population bomb: lessons from 50 years of extraordinary demographic history. Demography 48:1232-1262.
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Can This Old Lefty Find Common Ground with Trump?

I stand left of center on most every issue. I’m not the yoga practicing, opera attending, bird watching lefty Garrison Keillor describes, but I do commute by bicycle, use my passport, and stock my shelves with books. If we lefties can find some common ground with Trump, then, perhaps, we can construct a place to stand and work for things that need doing (rather than dig in our heals, protest, and just say no; although I see merit in that approach, as well).

  • I agree with Mr. Trump: Inequality is a problem; too many people are being left behind. We need to help all people realize the American Dream of being able to improve their lives and community. We need an economic system and a governance system that can fix structural problems that limit people’s access to success.
  • I agree with Mr. Trump: We need to fix health care. The system is still broken. Too many people don’t have access, too much is being spent, and too many people are arguing about how to pay for it.
  • I agree with Mrs. Trump, who stated that her priority as First Lady would be to reduce bullying.
  • I agree with Mr. Trump: We need to invest in and improve our infrastructure. We need resilient, efficient, functioning infrastructure that supports markets and communities.
  • I agree with Mr. Trump: We need to dramatically reduce the influence on politics of special interests and dark money.

I might disagree on the means of how we accomplish these ends, but perhaps if he and I agree on a few goals, then I can help apply the tools of logic and science and collaboration and negotiation to decide how to achieve them? Yes? No?

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